Ian Eisendrath
Marisa PetersStephen SpositoSam DavisJeremy LeinerJosh Rhodes

SUCCESS BEHIND THE SCENES
SMTD Alums Making Waves in Musical Theatre

 

When we think of success in musical theatre, we tend to think of the stars on stage—the “triple threat” singer/dancer/actor who shines in the spotlight. But as anyone in theatre will tell you, the show doesn’t go on without those critically important individuals working behind the scenes. Many graduates of SMTD’s Department of Musical Theatre forge brilliant careers in a variety of non-performance roles. At the same time, graduates with degrees in composition, conducting, and theatre & drama are enjoying their biggest successes in musical theatre. Here’s a small sample of some big talents who are making waves in the wings.

 

IAN EISENDRATH – MUSIC DIRECTOR (BMA '03, conducting)

Ian Eisendrath landed his dream job just a year after graduating from SMTD when he was appointed resident music director and music supervisor for the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, one of the country’s top venues for both new and classic musical theatre productions. He gives much of the credit to SMTD for allowing him to create a unique curriculum tailored to his specific career goals. “I cannot imagine another place where one could receive world class inter-disciplinary training in conducting, musical theatre, piano, vocal performance, and musicianship,” Eisendrath said. His role at 5th Avenue has allowed him to musically direct and conduct many of his most treasured scores with full orchestras; work with the creators of Disney’s Aladdin on its world premiere production; and conduct a concert version of Titanic with 30 actors and an 80-voice choir, to name just a few highlights. He was also music supervisor and conductor of A Christmas Story (music and lyrics by musical theatre alums Justin Paul and Benj Pasek) on Broadway, which was first produced at 5th Avenue. His job, he said, “has provided me with countless opportunities and professional relationships that I imagine would be hard to find anywhere else.”

 

 

MARISA PETERS (nee MEYER) – RECRUITER (BFA ’04, musical theatre)

In describing her job as director of global recruitment and inclusion for Sony Pictures Entertainment, Marisa Peters says it is “fulfilling in a way I could never have expected when I was at Michigan.” Although she followed the path of most musical theatre graduates—moving to New York, making a living on stage—she found her calling inside the studio system when she moved to Los Angeles. Tired of the gypsy lifestyle, she landed in human resources at Sony Pictures. She was soon promoted to the motion picture and television division, recruiting for roles in that field from creative executives to anyone involved in the acquisition, development, production, marketing, and distribution of content around the world. Last summer Peters was promoted again to oversee a team of recruiters. She describes the position as “aligning individuals’ unique stories with the strategic vision of the organization to drive revenue,” which, she has found, makes every day unique, much like a career in performance.

 

 

STEPHEN SPOSITO – DIRECTOR (BFA ’07, theatre & drama/directing)

Stephen Sposito had no idea that his professional life would be so weighted in musical theatre. At SMTD, he took several musical theatre performance classes as a director, and always loved the genre. But it was his first job, as assistant director for the musical Shrek on Broadway, that led to work as associate and assistant director positions on How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Promises Promises, and Scandalous. As the right hand to the director, Sposito fills many critical roles, from rehearsing scenes, understudies, and replacement actors to directing entire tours. But, he says, “my most valuable job is to try and be objective and honest with a director and give them encouragement and what I think is helpful feedback.” Recently he was associate director on the Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Scarlett Johansson, his first Broadway drama. Sposito’s advice for graduates: cultivate relationships. He started his career by reaching out to dozens of alums, including Ben Klein (’02, theatre), which led directly to Shrek. “The theatre industry is based entirely on relationships,” said Sposito. “Start now.”

 

 

SAM DAVIS – COMPOSER  (BMA ’98, composition)

Although Sam Davis earned his degree in composition, he was always involved with the Musical Theatre Department. He conducted two MUSKET productions and played piano for concerts, cabarets, recitals, and musicals. He also wrote a musical at U-M, which led to the American Theatre Wing’s Jonathan Larson Award for Composition in 1999. Davis began his career as a keyboard substitute for numerous Broadway shows, and was eventually hired for the celebrated 1998 revival of Cabaret, first as pianist and then as assistant conductor. Many jobs followed as arranger, conductor, pianist, or music supervisor. He worked on Follies, Annie Get Your Gun, The Apple Tree, Dreamgirls. All the while he was composing. This past year, he was arranger for The Mystery of Edward Drood, Scandalous, and the soon-to-open Big Fish (with a score by SMTD alum Andrew Lippa), and is the composer of Bunnicula, with a book by Charles Busch. He’s also writing the score for Red Eye of Love by Arnold Weinstein, has written three one-act musicals that will be performed at Symphony Space in New York in June, and is working on a new musical. “I’ve always done about four shows at once,” said Davis. “I thrive on a little craziness.”

 

 

JEREMY LEINER – AGENT (BFA ’03, musical theatre)

As a student, Jeremy Leiner always had “two feet in the door.” A fully committed artist, he moved to New York upon graduating, secured an agent, and worked as an actor for eight years in such shows as Evita and Bombay Dreams. At some point, though, his interest in performing waned while his interest in career development waxed. Teaching at a performing arts school stoked this interest, and he soon decided to become an agent. Through a connection he’d made years earlier, he landed a job as an intern at Nicolosi and Co., a talent agency that reps 120 actors in theatre, television, and film. Leiner immersed himself, “treating the internship like grad school,” studying union agreements, textbooks on negotiations, the intricacies of financial compensation. He was soon promoted to assistant, then junior agent, and is now one of two senior chairs. “I’m able to take what I learned and experienced as an actor and musician, and not only aggressively agent my clients, but also empathize with what they’re going through,” he said. “It makes for a very informed conversation.” Though he loved performing, he doesn’t miss it.  As he said when turning down an audition early in his new career, “I’m fully transitioned.”

 

 

JOSH RHODES – CHOREOGRAPHER  (BFA ’93, musical theatre)

When Josh Rhodes was appearing in Chicago on Broadway, he took many leaves of absence to take choreography jobs. His very understanding director, Walter Bobbie, eventually made a suggestion: “Josh, it’s time to jump.” And so he did, though he continued to fill in at Chicago as needed, which was "really the best way to transition.” He had performed in seven Broadway musicals, including Fosse, and many regional productions and tours, and wasn’t remotely bored…he just loved choreographing. He learned it, Rhodes says, from working with some of the best people. He gives much of the credit to Tim Millett, SMTD’s first musical theatre choreographer. “Tim was like the dance guru for everyone in my generation,” he said. He also worked as assistant to great artists like Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone). After a number of assistant gigs, he choreographed many regional theatre productions and began “slowly inching toward New York.” Then, in January 2012, he landed his first Broadway show as choreographer for the very high profile Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Clearly, the glass slipper fit: he’s already at work choreographing his next Broadway show, First Date, which opens in August 2013.