Looking Forward: Department of Musical Theatre

Happy Friday, arts, ink readers!

Courtesy of SMTD Website

This week I had the pleasure of speaking with Vince Cardinal, Professor and Chair of the Department of Musical Theatre here at the University of Michigan. He offered insights as to what the department does in a typical year, how they’ve been adjusting to the restrictions of this semester, and how students can still view and participate in theatre on campus!

If you didn’t already know, the Musical Theatre program here at Michigan is one of the best in the country. Professor Cardinal told me they accept less than 2% of applicants — roughly 20% less than Michigan’s already-competitive acceptance rate. This is, in part, because of the department’s incredible reputation; they are one of the most represented schools on Broadway and are increasingly being featured in TV and film productions as well. A typical MT major’s schedule is around two-thirds filled with musical theatre courses, with the rest left for general requirements, minors, or even dual-degrees. Through their involvement in University Production shows, as well as participating in a variety of student productions, MT students gain experience performing a wide variety of genres and become equipped for whatever opportunities come their way after graduation.  Check out this video featuring some Maize and Blue alumni:



Of course, like most programs, the Department of Musical Theatre has had to make some adjustments in their teaching and performing this semester. Almost all of their current curriculum has been moved virtual, except for dance classes, which have been reduced in density while utilizing masks and social distancing. Although having to teach and learn the performing arts online is obviously not ideal, Professor Cardinal told me that there have been some silver linings in all of it. For example, they’ve been able to bring in top-tier talent to help their students – including Andy Blankenbueler (the choreographer for Hamilton) and representatives from the Fosse Legacy. The increased access to such impressive professionals via video calls is something the department hopes to continue utilizing in the future. 

If you’re like me and the musical theatre productions on campus are something you look forward to, you may be disappointed that you can’t see them in action at the Mendelssohn, Power Center, or Arthur Miller Theatre. The good news, however, is that there are exciting opportunities to come! The department has been working to film a series of performances by their students called MT Ghostlight 2020, asking them to respond as artists to what’s happening to them at this point in history. These will be streamed on the first three Fridays in December – the 4th, 11th, and 18th – so mark your calendars! If you’re missing theatre in the meantime, you can check out the Senior Entrance of MT21

If you’re interested in participating in theatre on campus, Professor Cardinal recommends auditioning for one of the many student groups on campus such as MUSKET, Rude Mechanicals, Basement Arts, and so many more. He also noted that the Musical Theatre Department sometimes needs crew help for their shows. This semester, specifically, they are in need of videographers, sound editors, and other digital media creators to help them produce content in this new environment. Be sure to follow their Instagram @umichmusicaltheatre to stay up-to-date with what the current MT students and alumni are up to!

That’s all for this week. Special thanks to Vince Cardinal for taking the time to speak with me. Check back next week for a feature on the Shapiro Design Lab!


Stay safe!


The Book of Mormon Is Really Problematic

I spent last weekend in New York City with a few of my friends, reveling in the much-needed break from the routine of classes and work and extracurriculars. In the last night of our trip, my friend and I found ourselves rushing through the baffling, disorienting, punchy landscape of Times Square, laughing and delirious, to secure a seat for The Book of Mormon eight minutes before the show started, got standing tickets, and waited eagerly to be beset with raucous laughter. 

I was laughing throughout the show. And so did the majority white audience, as well. The show is a raging satire about the incoherence of Mormon beliefs and practices, with songs ranging from critiques about their missionary quest and suppressed desires (“Turn it off/ Like a light switch/ Just go flick/ It’s our nifty little Mormon trick”) to Spooky Mormon Hell Dream and All-American Prophet. This musical is a hilarious and unflinching caricature of Mormons in America, digging deep into some of the inconsistent and disturbing consequences of the religion’s practices. The story follows two young missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. To their dismay, they get placed in Uganda (hilariously contrasting Price’s ardent dream for Orlando, Florida). When they get there, they find a highly caricatured and stereotyped African city with people who say “fuck you” to god, where the only town doctor also has– as we’re always reminded to cue laughter– “maggots in his scrotum”, and where General Butt-Fucking-Naked wants to mutilate the genitals of the women in the town. Elder Price is appalled, tries to civilize the town, but leaves and loses faith in God, while Elder Cunningham (the dumb one) teaches them Mormonism all wrong, mingling it with Star Wars and fantasy worlds. The Ugandans believe they are true Mormons and to share their excitement, they put on a huge play to demonstrate their understanding of Mormon history, but because they were taught it incorrectly, we have a painful ten-minute song with All-American Joseph Smith jerking off to frogs, unsettling sexual innuendos, and something that resembles a minstrel show– but not to be feared! By the end of the musical, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham start their own form of Mormonism, and all the black people are Mormons in the end, again reinforcing the incoherence of the faith. 

But this musical also reinforces something else, and that is anti-black racism. It was hard for me to tell in the moment if the jokes were appropriate to laugh at– they were smart, raunchy, and it seemed to be in the position that we were laughing at everyone. Nothing was safe in the musical. The white people, the black people, the Mormons, the atheists. It was highly irreverent, and drove home its purpose: to show how silly not only Mormon practices were, but how generally blind religious practices that were pursued for ego and fame, and that strove to “civilize” others always backfired in the end. 

But The Book of Mormon only complexifies the white narrative, not the black one. By the end of the musical, we get a progressive critique about Mormonism– but they had to use African people in order to achieve that. They had to caricature Africa, reduce it down to the most obvious stereotypes: uneducated, gullible, oversexualized, impoverished. Against this setting, our understanding of Mormonism complexified and were challenged, even through the satire: we see that Elder Price is narcissistic, that Elder Cunningham is ignorant, that there are problems with repression and self-righteousness. But this wasn’t the case for the Africans in the musical. Their narrative remained caricatured and degraded, all the way until the end. There is no growth to our understanding of their existence in the play– they are there simply as a plot device to support the complexity of the white characters’. 

Image result for joseph smith american moses

A popular clapback is that it’s not only the black people that are caricatured, but also the whites! However, this doesn’t hold water– the musical literally reinforces the white savior complex because by the end, the Ugandans convert to the disformed form of Mormonism anyway. The white characters achieve some level of success in their attempt to “civilize” the Africans; and even though the musical makes fun of this success, it still seems to me like The Book of Mormon desperately wants to maintain the power balance from the white savior complex. 

I don’t regret watching the show, but after thinking about it for a week, I realized how uncomfortable I had been in the theatre as one of the only people of color there. This is a musical that white people can heartily laugh to– it’s the only time they get a pass for laughing at jokes about Africa because they are thinly veiled in the form of satire. But if you look any closer, the musical only reinforces the stereotypes it purports to repudiate.

(Image from Google Images.)

Andrew Lloyd Webber

With the rise of popularity of the Broadway Musical Hamilton for the past several years, the entire Broadway community has gained more popularity.  While Hamilton was one of Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musicals, there are several other composers and playwrights that have created hit after Broadway hit for decades.  The most popular of these composers is Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Webber was born in London in 1948, and has been composing since 1965.  His two most famous musicals are the Phantom Of The Opera, and Cats. He has also composed Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, School of Rock, Sunset Boulevard, and Starlight Express.  Most of his most popular work, like Phantom of the Opera, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were filmed and made into DVD’s. They were filmed as a Broadway musical using the stage and sets from when they performed on Broadway, they just did not have an audience during the filming.  Another musical of Webber’s musicals that got made into a movie was School of Rock. The School of Rock movie was different from the other two movies that were made because School of Rock was not filmed on a stage. It was filmed on a movie set, the movie was a film adaptation of the musical, whereas the other movies were just recorded versions of the Broadway shows.

All of his movies have some famous actors in them.  Johnny Osmond played Joseph in the movie of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Jack Black was the main character in the movie adaptation of School of Rock.  Webber has a new movie adaptation that is in the works. The movie rendition of his famous musical Cats is casting right now. Cats is set to star several famous actors and singers such as Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, and Taylor Swift.  Webber has been a big face in creating and composing musicals since the 1970s and he is not going anywhere soon.

525,600 Times I Listened to Musicals This Week

A gif of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire dancing in Easter Parade.

Recently, I went to my friend’s house to help him set up for a party. He and his roommates were getting a little drowsy, so they put on their hype song. As they started belting out Wicked’s “Defying Gravity,” I realized just how much I missed listening to musicals. I wouldn’t exactly call them my “hype songs,” but they certainly have something to them that really gets me energized. I missed that. From the moment Elphaba picked up the tempo and hit those beautiful high notes we all know and love, I knew I was hooked. I found myself joining in, pretending I was a much better singer than I am, serenading my friend.

That night, I opened my computer and went straight to my musicals playlist. I turned up the volume to full blast, hit shuffle, and let the music begin. I sang and danced to myself until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Then, I went to sleep with the sounds of Finding Neverland floating around my mind. When I woke up the next morning, I did it again.

And again.

And again.

Instead of jumping around to One Direction or Justin Bieber’s new albums, I listened to musicals all week. And I’m not even the slightest bit upset.

You see, there’s something very magical about putting on the soundtrack to your favorite musical. You can listen to a whole story in just one sitting. You can feel the ups and downs of the characters without even watching their motions. Musicals have the ability to just make you happy, and as my roommate puts it, “there’s something about singing along that’s different than singing along to normal music.” Who doesn’t want a change up every once in a while, anyway?

So whether you were first turned on to musicals watching Julie Andrews run down a hill with her arms outstretched, or Gene Kelly’s umbrella twirling and splashing got you on your feet, a musical has the ability to make a bad day better. There’s one out there for everyone, so go find the one that makes you smile and make it yours!