UT Musical Theater program, annual musicals to end this spring

Rehearsals for the UT Austin production of the musical the Drowsy Chaperone. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).
Rehearsals for the UT Austin production of the musical the Drowsy Chaperone. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — UT Austin’s upcoming production of the musical The Drowsy Chaperone will be the last musical on campus featuring students from the Musical Theater Training Program. The program will end this spring as the last group of students in the program graduates.

Brant Pope, chair of UT’s Department of Theater and Dance, explained that once this program ends, musicals will no longer happen every year at UT. They will likely happen every other year instead.

Pope explained that the department was asked several years ago to cut its budget on average around 2 percent over 5 years, so around 10 percent in in total.

“These cuts made it hard to keep these programs excellent and if it’s not excellent, the University of Texas doesn’t want to offer it, it’s not fair to the students if it can’t be excellent,” Pope said.

Students will still be able to take musical theater classes, there will just be less of a formal infrastructure for those wanting to pursue a career in that field. UT students — even outside of the Musical Theater major– expressed disappointment to KXAN that they may have fewer resources to learn about musical theater on campus after these changes.

The program has drawn in many talented students. J Quinton Johnson was in the program when he was recruited to be in a Richard Linklater film. He has since gone on to perform in the hit musical Hamilton.

Students who received a Musical Theater major faced a competitive selection process to get there. Pope said that around a thousand students would audition for the program each year and the university would select eight to 10 students.

“There is a lot of money and time and stress that goes into that your senior year of high school,” said Connor Barr who is in the program. He explained that he came to UT specifically for this program.

“It’s just kind of disappointing to know it’s undervalued at the university as a whole,” Barr said.

During the cuts the department also eliminated its Masters of Fine Arts in Acting program, which drew in around 15 students per year.  However, UT will continue to build its Bachelor’s program in Acting.

“The arts college is particularly vulnerable in these types of situations, because it’s not as large as other colleges and because the arts by some people are not as strongly supported as others, Brant Pope said. “And in a STEM orientation sometimes the arts are not included in what is considered meaningful education, and of course we feel the artists are the best entrepreneurs, and that the entrepreneurial the creative person is someone who can never be outsourced.”

The Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost decides how much each department has to cut, and the departments themselves decide how to make that possible. Pope believed it would be better to cut some of the smaller, more expensive programs rather than making cuts to every single program.

“There are jobs for musical theater artists, so we feel bad because it is a really legitimate, a really joyful thing,” Pope said. He is hopeful that in future years they may be able to bring the program back.

Pope added that they are still offering this last graduating class everything they were promised when they were admitted — regular musicals, professional quality resources, and opportunities to network with theatrical agents.

The program started in 2009 but has not been accepting incoming students since 2015.

“I think there definitely needs to be a reexamination of the importance of fine arts in general school levels, but especially at the collegiate level,” said Musical Theater student Connor Barr.  He believes musical theater is important for both UT and for the community as a whole.

The students say they’re pouring all they have into these performances, in hopes of giving their program a fitting final sendoff.

“We really do want this to be the shining show to go out on,” said Barr.

“I hope that there’s a fire that’s reignited, I hope that people can open up their eyes and see the benefit of musical theater in general,” said Musical Theater student Sydney Frank, “I mean not even just what it can do for the department, what it can do for Austin.”

The Drowsy Chaperone is playing at UT Dec. 6-10.

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