Show Tunes and Serious Gigs

Brenda Pike
August 10, 2011
Michael Rodriguez appears in <em>Rent</em> at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
The cast of <em>The Wild Party</em> at Berklee dances "The Juggernaut."
The cast of <em>Menken: A Disney Revue</em> performs "Friend Like Me" at the Cambridge YMCA.
Lauren Sageer performs as Ursula in <em>Menken: A Disney Revue</em>.
Photo provided by the artist
Photo provided by Lauren Sageer
Photo provided by Lauren Sageer
Photo provided by Lauren Sageer

Vocalist Michael Rodriguez is so new to Berklee that he hasn't even declared a major yet. But the second-semester vocalist is already performing in professional music theater productions, most recently in an off-Broadway revival of Rent in New York that brings back the show's original director, Michael Greif. The show opens August 11 on New World Stages.

Rodriguez is cast as Angel, a part he's played before, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). He was involved with the group since the age of 11. "They work with you from a young age on your craft, so you can be prepared to go into the real world," he says. In fact, it was the performance at NJPAC that ultimately got him this break. In attendance was Fredi Walker-Browne, who played Joanne in the original Broadway production of Rent. She stayed after the show to talk to the young actors and asked for resumés.

Last semester, Rodriguez ran into Walker-Browne again, here at Berklee. He sent her an email to thank her for taking the time to see his class, and she responded by telling him that she wanted him in the next Rent.

Of course, it wasn't as easy as that. Rodriguez traveled to New York for another reading, as well as four callbacks. The vocalist credits Berklee with giving him the confidence to audition. He now feels comfortable directing a band.

Rodriguez is taking a leave of absence from the college for the duration of the show. "I think this is a huge blessing. I'm just going to keep riding on it," he says. "But when the time comes, I will definitely come back to Berklee. You should never let an education slip away from you."

Music therapy major Taylor Washington also got involved with musical theater through a youth theater company, the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts in Maryland. Now she's landed the lead in Aida with its professional theater company. The third-semester student has had summer jobs at the center before, helping out backstage, teaching, and performing in the shows. She's also been active in the musical theater scene at Berklee, with parts in Ragtime and The Wild Party. Aida's summer run ended in July, but based on Rodriguez's experience, who knows what it could lead to?

Closer to home, professional music major David Jiles has just finished production of Mirror Touch at the North Shore Music Theatre, and he's been cast in Big River with the Lyric Stage Company and Sunfish with Stoneham Theatre for the fall. But the sixth-semester student didn't even start singing until 2006, after he graduated with a degree in education and social work from Dartmouth College. He decided to do something completely different and began performing in shows back home in Chicago. From there, he moved to Europe to perform in music festivals and even spent some time as the music director on Royal Caribbean Cruises before landing at Berklee, where Jiles performed the part of Coalhouse in Ragtime.

"There's just something about the Berklee atmosphere and something about the people, being able to plug into the network," says Jiles. "These aren't forced connections. They're very organic."

Lauren Sageer, president of Berklee's Musical Theater Club, is no stranger to this community—she helped create it. The student-run club offers ways for students to experience musical theater at a college that doesn't offer it as a major. They "put on fun revues, and a full musical each year with almost 400 members," says Sageer.

The group was founded in 2006, but has really taken off in the last year or two. Recent productions have included Spelling Bee (2009), Wild Party (2010), and Ragtime (2010). This fall, the group will perform Rent (November 9). The faculty has also gotten on board, with musical theater workshops and musical theater writing classes that result in original student musicals each year.

"We have a surprising amount of alumni who are involved in musical theater in [orchestra] pits, music-directing shows," Sageer says—most notably Tony Award–winner Alex Lacamoire.

The eventual goal for these students is the same: Broadway. But until then, they're happy doing all the musical theater they can. Says Sageer, "My passion is singing. Even if I were singing in a bar, I'd be happy."