Like many of his students, Brent Wagner fell in love with theatre music at a young age.
“I really loved the combination of text and music in the telling of a story, because music speaks to our emotions and the words carry the meaning,” he says. ”The combination, I found, was very powerful.”
Growing up near Spokane, Wash., Wagner did not have many opportunities to see musical productions, but learned songs from famous shows on the radio and playing them on the piano. After getting graduate degrees in theatre and in music at Indiana University, he accepted a position at Syracuse University and started its musical theatre program. His experience with the budding field of study led to a job offer at U-M as the chair of the Musical Theatre Department at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where he has been for 27 years.
“It’s one thing to love musical theatre, and yet another to love education. I consider (teaching) as what I do as much as musical theatre,” says Wagner, who also is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and associate professor of music (musical theatre). He usually teaches three classes per term: an introductory class for freshmen, a performance class for juniors and a musical theatre history class for all students.
Wagner says he enjoys working with students who possess different skills.
“There’s that old line ‘triple threat,’” he says of performers who can sing, dance and act. “But that’s not necessary for everyone. Someone who is a sensational singer and actor might not be as strong in dance, and that’s OK.”
Wagner says it’s always exciting to see U-M graduates on stage or in films or television.
“I’m not only proud, but I’m flooded with memories of all of the times we shared through the years. I often can remember their initial auditions as high school seniors, and I’m thrilled by their enormous growth as I watch them,” he says.
Aside from teaching, Wagner has many other responsibilities. He helps put together the Senior Showcase, where all the graduating seniors travel to New York to perform for agents and casting directors. He also reviews the 600 applications the program receives annually, watching both video submissions and live auditions in Ann Arbor, New York and Chicago. In addition, Wagner works with donors, organizes class schedules and puts together updates about the graduates of the department.
“You can turn on the television and see our graduates on commercials and TV shows, or on Broadway,” Wagner says.
Alumni that stand out for Wagner include actor Gavin Creel, who earned Tony Award nominations for his stage work and appeared in the “Eloise” TV movies with Julie Andrews, and Jeffrey Seller, who produced “Avenue Q” and “In the Heights.”
Wagner says the highlight of his career was the 25th anniversary concert held in 2009 at Hill Auditorium. More than 125 alumni returned, and 80 current students and 50 graduates performed.
Often Wagner teaches workshops to high school students in the summers, “since it’s very special to be part of the young actor’s developmental process.
“Many of these students have attended Michigan and have gone on to professional careers, so I’ve seen their growth over many, many years. I used to teach at Interlochen in the summers, but we moved that program here to Michigan, and it has worked marvelously well.”
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Brent Wagner, chair of the Musical Theatre Department at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, on his famed alumni: “You can turn on the television and see our graduates on commercials and TV shows, or on Broadway.”