What I Expect of My College Musical Theatre Students

Noel Katz

I started teaching musical theatre performance at a large northeast university twelve years ago, and so, with the end of a semester approaching and a new one beginning, my thoughts turn to the expectations I have of my students.

My expectations probably won’t be met, which is the main depressing thought. People are going to ditch class for no good reason. Last year, one thought she had a pretty good reason – she was constructing sets for a main-stage show. Never cleared that with me, never did the major assignment, and the grade I gave significantly lowered her average. The first expectation I have is that they show up.

And something that should be obvious to every student at every level: If you miss a class, you’re still responsible for learning everything that was covered in that session. Don’t come up to me as I’m heading for the door and ask “What did I miss last week?” I’m paid to say things once. Seriously.

Come ready to learn. The picture of education I’m used to involves writing things down in notebooks. So it’s still a little startling to me to see tapping away at tablets and phones. But it’s extremely valuable to have a recording device for when you’re standing in front of class and I’m providing feedback, observations.

Bring in a song that you can sing, and know all the notes and lyrics. Now I’m not expecting perfection, but people do monologues and scenes and manage to commit the words to memory. Lyrics rhyme, which makes them easier to memorize. When you don’t know your song, I get the feeling you haven’t worked very hard to prepare yourself for my class.

A huge problem that’s cropped up since I started is that people are learning their songs from YouTube videos. Frequently, performers there are not singing what’s on the page. Makes you wonder what qualifications you have to have in order to post something on the internet.

I expect you’ve read a book. Read a play. Read a musical. Seen a musical – live (again, those videos are distortions). And have some awareness of the names of the genre’s major figures. Rodgers, Bernstein, Lerner, a Gershwin or two. The actor who knows nothing of Ibsen and Moliere is as clueless as a scientist who’s unaware of Galileo.

And know stuff, generally. You hear the term “general ed.” tossed around a lot, but too many theatre majors have tunnel vision, and haven’t bothered to learn enough about the world around them. This virtually assures that they will go on to be bad actors. Many years ago, a student performed Stars and the Moon and, as we worked on it, I asked her where Turtle Bay was. She’d been picturing a bay, with turtles – but that’s not the bad part: it’s an obscure reference to many. I then asked about the honeymoon in Beijing and she didn’t know where Beijing was. So I asked the entire class. Nobody could place it in the right continent. “Africa?” “Europe?”

Back to Turtle Bay for a moment. I realize that most people reading this haven’t heard of the place, including many who sing Stars and the Moon. In my class, you’d learn that, in order to portray that ever-unsatisfied lady in the song, you have to know everything she knows. Something I remind myself of, each term, is that students haven’t yet learned the lessons I’m going to impart: that’s why they’re taking the class. But when a dozen blank faces couldn’t place Beijing, I must admit I thought “How did they get admitted to this ‘competitive’ university?”

Yes, I know I sound like a crotchety old man – “These kids today! They don’t know nothing.” But it's dispiriting to think that my hardly-unreasonable expectations will inevitably be disappointed. That's why I'm taking a vacation before the semester starts. I'd say where but you might try to follow me there. And go to the wrong continent.

Photo: University College London Musical Theatre