Top 10 Musical Theater BFA Programs...Who Are They Really?

Not trying to start a controversy here but I know when we talk about Top 10 Programs, we all have a slightly different list. I’m interested to see where our similarities and differences lie. I’ll start with mine, in order.

  1. University of Michigan
  2. Carnegie Mellon
  3. Cincinnati Conservatory
  4. NYU
  5. Boston Conservatory
  6. Point Park
  7. Oklahoma City
  8. Penn State
  9. Syracuse
  10. Pace

My daughter applied to 5 of these this year along with several well respected “second tier” schools.

What’s your Top 10 list??

As you realize, there is no definitive list. And everyone’s criteria will differ. That said, if creating a list of top MT programs, I can’t imagine Ithaca or Elon not being on that list that you mention.

I guess I’ll do mine!

1 - Carnegie Mellon University
2 - University of Michigan
3 - Texas State University
4 - Cincinnati Conservatory of Music
5 - Penn State University
6 - Elon University
7 - Syracuse University
8 - Boston Conservatory
9 - Baldwin Wallace University
10 - Point Park University

I don’t know if you saw the following article on the definitive list of the best musical theatre programs in the US:

https://auditioningforcollege.com/2018/09/08/the-definitive-list-of-the-best-musical-theatre-programs-in-the-united-states/

Some of the main points of the author are to focus on:

what environment will the applicant thrive in; and
program content and faculty fit for the applicant

Answers to these questions will differ from individual to individual, and so each person will have their own top schools list.

I wish there was an independent comparison of each program’s content and faculty as well as accurate percentages of the alumni who work part-time and full-time as performers within the MT concentration, but I haven’t found any of this analysis / comparison and statistics available anywhere.

A third-party would have to do the comparison of each program’s content and faculty (and maintain it because it’s evolving / not static) – to my knowledge, this has not been done.

And the universities don’t provide the percentage of its MT alumni who work PT and those who work FT as performers; I guess they don’t because those numbers would be really bleak across the board… like worse than many batting averages.

@Twelfthman I have one BFA Acting grad, one BFA Acting senior, and one BFA MT freshman, all in different schools. Having a definitive statistical comparison would be impossible, mostly because many/most schools don’t employ an outreach coordinator to stay in touch with the grads and get everyone’s info, and in many/most schools, it’s up to the grads to tell the program when they’re working. If they’re not reporting back, the school doesn’t know and can’t keep data.

One of my kids’ schools has an incredible level of school spirit (not sports-oriented, but whole-college-wide) and their students and alumni are constantly tagging everything they do on social media with the name of the university. I have a big sense from that school of who is working and where they’re working, in addition to what’s going on with current students. The other two schools have bland social media and I rarely see info about grads, but informally know about alumni who are working because my kids know them.

The other, really important piece, is that you’re going to see kids who are incredible performers who get into the top schools, and who have a great experience in those schools, then choose a different path when they’re done.

Remember that many of our kids were cast in every high school show, often as a lead, then in their performing arts colleges, although the competition was stiffer, they often were cast in something (whether mainstage or student-produced) most semesters. Some legitimately can’t handle the stress of auditioning without booking over and over again in the professional world, which even for kids who find success in this field, is exactly what will happen. Or maybe, they’re not independently wealthy and have to hold down a job, which limits their auditioning options so despite talent and training, they’re not going to book gigs. Or maybe they’ve discovered another passion. They’re only 17 or 18 when they decide to go to school for this. There’s no way that they all know for sure that this is their path, and choosing something other than pure MT as their field doesn’t mean that the student or the college has failed at what they’re doing. Look at Pasek and Paul. Both went to UMich in their BFA MT program. Both wanted to be MT performers. Neither did that, and both discovered, through their friendship and experiences at UMich, a different path for which they have found much success, but it’s not the type of success that either envisioned when they prepared their 16-32 bars of contemporary/classical pieces for their auditions during their senior years of high school. Yes, this is an extreme example, but there is so much in life to be learned from a degree in MT.

Working professionally as a performer and sustaining yourself with the wages of performing is a great goal to have, but a very narrow focus on a world that has so many opportunities.

My advice is to do the research and find which schools offer what your kid needs especially after they’ve been accepted. After acceptance visit as many of the programs as you can to see what feels like it fits, and encourage your kid to be involved in every opportunity they can to learn what feeds their souls.

@Twelfthman I have seen that article before. I think it’s on point, I was just curious about who CC people considered Top 10 in their books. :slight_smile:

I don’t think Pasek and Paul are a good example, let alone an extreme example. They are working in MT after all! Their MT training at Michigan plays a part in that.

I think an example of those who go into something entirely different after graduating a MT program, are the many who are not working in any theater related jobs. There are lots and lots of such graduates.

By the way, in terms of Pasek and Paul not knowing they would go into creating musicals when they entered college, I can speak a bit about this from my own kid’s experience. She also works professionally now at creating musicals, and would not have known that when she entered. She differs from P and P in that she still performs in musicals, both ones created by others, and the ones she creates. And she is also a singer/songwriter that is not MT genre. She has a three pronged career as she is interested in all three of these areas. In many ways, diversifying and having a varied skill set, can mean working full time in the field, which is what she does. Most people who ONLY perform in musicals, are not working consistently 52 weeks/year.

I agree, a “top ten” is based on what your strengths are. If you favor dancing over acting, Point Park is up there, but if you’re a better composer than dancer, maybe it’s not.

My MT student is also a Music Theory & Composition afficionado, and he prefers large cities, so his top 10 might look something like:

  1. Carnegie Mellon
  2. Baldwin Wallace
  3. UMich
  4. CCM
  5. NYU
  6. BoCo
  7. Texas State
  8. Webster 9, 10. Roosevelt or USC maybe? I don't know

He didn’t apply to all of these, but they’re highly rated schools for what he’s specifically interested in, MT-wise, and they’re in the larger urban areas that he likes.

In terms of long-term employability, I’m constantly surprised at how many theatre grads I meet in what would otherwise seem like completely unrelated fields. One friend who graduated in Tech Theatre from Coastal Carolina does game design for Xbox. Another friend has a performing arts BA from UCSB and works as a business analyst at Oracle. She jokes that her theatre degree helps her pass difficult interview questions because “I learned to act like I know what they’re talking about!” Both friends still audition, teach classes, or do other theatre work on the side.

My D was going through MT auditions 10 years ago (how can that be!). She ended up getting a BA from Marymount Manhattan with the MT minor. After graduation she continued to live in New York and audition, but decided that she did not want to continue in MT after a couple of years. She ended up back in California where she got her teaching credential and is now a kindergarten teacher. D was always passionate about children and says that her theatre degree helps her to be a better teacher.

OK I’ll play. And I agree with the comments that the best program is the one that best fits your kid, etc. etc., great training is available so many different programs etc etc. This is more just fun, if I won the admissionlottery, what programs might be on my list.
1-2-3 for “prestige”
Michigan
CCM
CMU

Then
Texas State
Elon
Penn State
Ithaca
BoCo
NYU
Syracuse

And could just as easily include Pace, OCU, Baldwin-Wallace

And so many other great schools.

@soozievt you’re right in the overall MT sense of the word and your daughter has had fantastic success as well, but reading through these posts over the years, many parents of high school seniors (and the students themselves) have a one-track mind. How often do we see people post the ‘which school is represented on broadway’ articles? Those articles might hit kids in larger creative broadway/off-broadway roles, but they’re mostly focusing on who is walking on a broadway stage 8 times a week, not those who have found their way in the larger world of MT but not consistent broadway work. Parents need to keep an open mind that their kids can shoot for the stars and check all the right boxes and they might not get that broadway role, but they might find a perfect spot in the world where their passion meets their paycheck. Putting out albums, having their own cabaret shows, working as headshot photographers, broadway cookie makers, In regional theatre, creating artistic pieces, working in artistic admin, and many, many other roles are what many of our kids will more likely be doing rather than headlining on broadway, and the best way to get to one’s passion is to find out what fits one’s needs, rather than simply choosing a school because it’s on a top ten list (especially since we’ve seen, particularly in more recent years, some incredibly talented and trained kids aren’t being accepted where they used to be).

@lovetoact I certainly agree with you on that! Yes, many high school students and their parents speak of the goal being Broadway, which is wayyyyy too narrowly defined and so VERY few people will be on Broadway. A challenging goal already would be to earn a living in the performing arts/theater. Many graduates are not even doing that. However, I do think that those who ARE working in the theater/music worlds after earning their BFA in MT are successful in terms of the training toward that goal. Before you were talking about choosing “a different path,” and in that regard, I consider that something NOT related to theater. And yes, many graduates end up doing that.

To the parents and kids still in high school, think beyond Broadway! Surely, it would be very cool to be on Broadway!! What theater kid would not love that dream?? But that really shouldn’t be the focus. If you can come out of a program and earn your living in performing arts/theater/music, that would be a huge success. That is a goal to strive for. Even that is very hard to attain and support oneself. JUST performing in musicals is typically not a 52 week job for the year.

I understand the dream of Broadway. I have a daughter in this field. Sure, being on Broadway would be very dreamlike! But it is not her singular goal. You might not believe this, but she had an opportunity to be on Broadway and turned it down. She didn’t think this particular situation furthered her career and opted to do other projects. Broadway is not her focus. I’m sure she’d love to be there one day, but it is not her main goal. She cares about what the work is, more than a chance to be on Broadway. She sets goals at the start of every year (I’ve seen them) and none say “be on Broadway.” Nonetheless, she has reached her goals every year (she’s been writing goals for the year out for as long as I can remember). So, I agree with @lovetoact for those coming up to broaden your view and be open to all the things you can do related to theater and music. If you can make a full time living doing so, that’s quite successful.

To equate theater aspirations to other fields (albeit loosely): to say the only way to define success after a degree (BFA, BM, BA) in MT is to perform on Broadway would be akin to saying the only way to define success after medical school is to be the Surgeon General or the only way to define success after law school is to sit on the Supreme Court. We don’t hold graduates in other fields to the expectations we hold for MT students.

@lovetoact , @soozievt so true re the reality of a career. D just did NYC unifieds and we had the opportunity to see a cute show at a small theater (considered off broadway but was literally right across the street from our hotel in the middle of Times Square) . Lead is a family friend - my wife used to babysit her 45 years ago. She’s been all over Broadway, had a one woman show, off broadway, cruise lines,regional theater, etc. She works pretty regularly, wasn’t always the case…

She visited with us after the show to meet D. Her message was:

  1. Go (to school) where it feels right because it's all the same. You'll run into the same people over and over again professionally (auditions, shows, etc.). Doesn't really matter where you go.
  2. Unless you are fortunate enought o be in a long running show (anywhere), you go where the work is. She's 47 and has had a successful MT career (by any measure) and still does regional theater in places like Sacramento, cruise ship runs, etc.

If you love it, you love it. She also reiterated the point that there are many outlets for creativity including teaching if one wants a more stable life.

Sorry what i meant to say re “it’s all the same” is as long as you get good training, it doesn’t really matter. This whole concept of top 10 doesn’t imply the best training, opportunties, blah blah blah. Doesn’t really work that way. Is training at CMU that much better than Point Park or FSU or Marymount or X? No way to know but I don’t htink so.

Each school references their stars working on Broadway, national tours, etc. I’m of the opinion that those kids would have similar results regardless, and perhaps even if they didn’t attend a BFA (although I like the training focus of these programs - just makes it easier to put in the work.)

Let’s not forget it’s really about the talent.

I think an important ioece to consider is where your kid can become who they’re supposed to be. What other opportunities exist for creative outlets? Maybe an MT kid joins a cool singing group and cuts an album. Maybe they become a lounge singer and love it. Maybe they write a student play. Maybe they get in to the business side of things. Maybe…

I just deleted my response because I didn’t want to add to people’s anxieties, lol.

I would add to this conversation that there are certain intangibles that matter to my D’s personal rankings (in addition to urban/access to urban, ability to minor in/do lots of tech work, etc.). One very important one is how supportive (versus competitive) the performing arts student community is. This is not always easy to discern but it has surprised me to see that it often is pretty obvious and it has led to a rearrangement of preferred schools on our list. This all being said, if my D only gets into one program, that is where she will go.

@AnxiousNovice I am wondering if anyone would be willing to name some programs that they perceive to be more competitive. It’s not negative since some thrive in that environment. My son definitely favors supportive over competitive for his college experience.

Any audition school competitive. I think that most people will tell you that CCM, UM, and CMU are lottery picks. They just have so many equally-talented kids auditioning that it is the luck of being exactly what they are looking for.

The schools that may seem to be “less competitive” are still accepting the kids who are not getting into the other schools but probably have the talent to get into them. These schools are choosing 15-30 kids out of the hundreds or even thousands who are auditioning. Every kid that auditions for the big 3 have fallback schools… many are not getting into what they believe are their “safe” schools because a truly “safe” school is one that is a non-audition school.

You are definitely at an advantage in that you have a son, rather than a daughter. Just as many slots for boys, but fewer candidates. My son had several options that may not have been available to him if he were female.

@TexasMTDad I am sorry - I actually meant the vibe/culture as being competitive versus supportive because some schools definitely have different feelings within the programs.