Wayne Bryan smiles when he thinks about it.
Currently, there are just over 40 Music Theatre Wichita alumni who either hold acting or producing roles in 26 shows on Broadway – from as recent as Cristiani Pitts, who was in MTW’s “Big Fish” in 2015, to talented actors from MTW’s 1993 season.
When New York casting directors see Music Theatre Wichita on a resume, it’s a highlight, say Broadway professionals.
What is it about Wichita that makes it such a prestigious training ground for aspiring Broadway talent?
“One word: Wayne. Two words: ‘Wayne’s World,’ ” said Peggy Hickey, choreographer of “Anastasia” on Broadway, referring to MTW’s producing artistic director. “We call it ‘Wayne’s World’ because it’s such an amazing world – it seems to be a Broadway pipeline.”
Music Theatre Wichita has developed a reputation as a springboard for aspiring performers – generally seen in New York as a top-tier company for young people to develop their skills, according to multiple MTW alums currently employed on Broadway.
“I’m not sure Wichita understands how rare it is to have a theater like MTWichita, because they definitely don’t exist,” said Stephen Kopel, a Broadway casting director and MTW alum. “Theater of that caliber exists in maybe eight or nine cities in the country.
“It’s really rare what they’ve got there.”
A Wichitan on Broadway
Shina Ann Morris is a true homegrown talent.
Morris grew up doing theater at Music Theatre for Young People, Wichita Children’s Theatre and at East High School.
The 2004 East High graduate went to the University of Michigan but came back to Wichita every summer to perform in MTW’s resident collegiate ensemble.
She moved to New York after graduation and took a “survival job” as a hostess until theater work came.
“I’d sit at the front desk and draw out the floor plan of Century II, because basically my whole childhood was in Century II,” she said. “I knew that floor plan like that back of my hand – the ins and outs, the connecting hallways between theaters and fond memories of working with people from every department.”
Last week, Morris opened in her latest Broadway musical as an ensemble member in “Anastasia.”
And she’s far from the only person in the “Anastasia” cast with Wichita ties. Five other ensemble members are MTW alums, and the “Anastasia” choreographer, Hickey, is also a frequent choreographer for MTW.
“In every Broadway show, there’s least one MTW alum that was in the resident company at some point,” Morris said. “Everyone will remember the apartments they had. We remember Douglas and Spangles, because it’s such a whirlwind of a time. I’ve never heard one bad experience. Not one.
“It’s like its own mafia.”
It’s like its own mafia.
Shina Ann Morris, talking about Music Theatre Wichita alumni on Broadway
Every year, Music Theatre Wichita auditions collegiate music theater students across the country for its summer resident cast.
Because of MTW’s reputation – and Bryan – the cast is typically “all the creme de la creme” of the country’s top theater schools, according to Hickey.
“They really do a sweep of all the best musical theater schools, so their kids every summer are the best and brightest coming out of these programs,” Hickey said. “Wayne inadvertently has created a musical theater think tank that goes straight to New York. After the kids graduate, many of them go straight to New York, and that’s how we end up with so many amazing Wichita alums all over Broadway.”
A little help getting in the door
Hickey has choreographed for Bryan for 21 years now, she said; she plans to return this summer to work on “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
She often comes to Wichita to “harvest” young talent.
“I go shopping every summer,” Hickey said.
Bryan said he jokes that “she can’t take a young person who hasn’t finished college – can’t hire them for any jobs other than summer jobs until they finish college.”
“I’ve taken his advice seriously, and I try to hold off until they’re graduating,” Hickey said.
Bryan said when Hickey needs dancers for her productions in New York and elsewhere, she can count on MTW alums to come prepared to work.
Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara speak fondly of their time in Music Theatre Wichita casts, which went a long way toward improving MTW’s national profile, according to Wayne Bryan.
“She likes the fact they can learn a Broadway show in nine days, because when you’re in rehearsals in New York, producers want changes and revisions all the time,” Bryan said. “Peggy’s young people here are ready to work at that speed.”
One of the reasons why so many MTW alums make it to Broadway – as well as other professional theater venues – is simply because Bryan brings in working New York professionals like Hickey to spend time in Wichita.
So when those MTW alums walk into an audition room, there’s often a few familiar faces on the other end of the table.
“That has helped a lot of our young people get in the door in New York,” Bryan said. “They have to earn the job once they get in the door, but it gets them in the door.”
Morris said the professionalism MTW instilled in her was invaluable when she started auditioning in New York.
“Having auditioned for Wayne and the MTW group made me at least confident each time I went in … so to be able to come into the room with a lot of confidence was definitely helpful,” Morris said. “I wouldn’t say I had a leg up, but I felt prepared.”
It’s about more than just knowing the right people, though.
It’s about the kind of actors Bryan casts.
Stephen Kopel’s job is to sift through thousands of auditions for Broadway shows and figure out who should fill what roles in a production. So Kopel, who was a member of MTW’s summer collegiate ensemble when he attended Wichita State University, looks for the best of the best.
He said MTW alums often are included in the short list.
“I bring in actors all the time that I know from working at MTW or Wayne Bryan suggesting to me – the other people in my office are always asking what exactly is in the water in Kansas or in Wichita, because there is this sort of crazy number of people that always come out of MTWichita that are extremely successful,” Kopel said.
“There’s a real passion and a real openness to, I think, a lot of the performers that come out of the MTWichita program, and I think that contrasts with a lot of other young actors I see, where there’s a lot of self-doubt and a lot of sort of competition and a lot of second-guessing themselves,” he said. “The folks that work at MTWichita, probably because they’re working at such a professional environment, come out a step ahead in terms of knowing how to present yourself, not second-guessing yourself and not treating everything as a sort of competition. There is an openness and joy to what those performers do, and I think that comes from MTWichita.”
So your kid wants to be a star
A few years ago, Kim Gee Vines, executive director of Wichita’s Music Theatre for Young People, cried at the intermission of “Anything Goes” at New York’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
The ensemble had just finished a rousing song-and-dance number, and she noticed Morris and fellow East High/MTYP alum Kevin Munhall were dance partners in the routine.
“I know the person next to me was kind of scooting away, thinking this woman is losing it for no reason, because it wasn’t sad,” Vines said. “I was just really choked up, because it was so awesome to see them having taken all that talent and pursued it, getting the chance to live out their dreams.”
Vines can quickly rattle off a long list of former MTYP performers that pursued careers in the arts.
At MTYP, students high school-age and younger put on productions during the school year, working with local theater professionals in a professional setting – with union stage hands, lighting and sound. It’s sort of an early taste of what professional theater looks like, Vines said.
Chris Mann – an MTYP alum who went on to compete on “The Voice” and appear on TV and film in “Glee,” “Avatar,” Tangled” and more – began his performing career with MTYP.
“As soon as rehearsals began I officially caught ‘the bug’ and have been performing ever since,” Mann wrote in a reflection published in a recent MTYP program. “It all began with MTYP. ... Not only did I get my feet wet performing for the first time but I also made lifelong friends I still talk to today.”
In Wichita, MTYP is just one – albeit important – organization out of many that train youths for careers in the arts.
There are places like The Studio.
A private voice lesson school, The Studio is the project of Amy Menas, who has spent more than a decade training talented Wichita youths.
Her students are frequent contributors to MTW’s summer casts – and one of her students, Timothy T.V. Cao, was cast in the Broadway production of “Matilda” a few years ago.
“Getting the opportunity to work with MTW is amazing, because you’re surrounded by Broadway professionals and young college students who are always most supportive and inviting with their advice and making the kids feel like a real part of the production,” Menas said. “Even though they might be just a small part, they make them feel like they’re a part of it, and they encourage them.”
Wichita natives that have gone on to successful careers – like Morris, Munhall and Mann – are role models for young Wichitans with dreams that maybe mirror theirs.
Seeing that others with talent that came from the same spot were able to go where they want to go is a powerful thing.
Kim Gee Vines, executive director of Music Theatre for Young People
“I think knowing there are people who came from Wichita, Kansas, and ended up on Broadway stages is very encouraging,” Vines said. “There are kids that have the talent, without a doubt. I think sometimes kids can be discouraged, though, because they think they’re not in the right spot. So seeing that others with talent that came from the same spot were able to go where they want to go is a powerful thing.”
How Wichitans played their part
Perhaps the thing that makes Music Theatre Wichita so unique is the man at its helm, Wayne Bryan.
He’s the kind of guy who’s so passionate about music theater that he invites his summer casts to his house every weekend to look at the history of the shows they’re producing, according to Hickey.
“There’s just not another like him anywhere,” she said. “His passion for what he does is unparalleled. Inadvertently, he’s Broadway’s greatest weapon. He’s the unsung hero in many ways of keeping Broadway bright.”
Bryan, for his part, credits the rest of the MTW staff, actors, tech crew and Wichita as a whole for Music Theatre Wichita’s success.
Music Theatre Wichita was founded in 1972, part of a flurry of cultural developments in Wichita in the early 1970s that included the creation of Botanica, Riverfest, the Wichita Jazz Festival and KPTS.
“Wichitans could not rely on some of the things that Florida or California do, and they had to make their own happiness here,” said Bryan, who moved here in 1988. “There was some kind of civic mindfulness that this community, in order to be viable, needed its cultural institutions – and the local community has supported them through the years, has found value in them, which has made all of those organizations work harder to maintain their quality and keep their audiences involved.”
The flourishing of these cultural organizations ultimately paved the way for Wichita’s development as a theater hub for aspiring talent, he said.
“I would hope that’s part of it – because this is a community that has to make its own cultural life; there are lots of really good programs to train young people here,” he said. “Because we are a visible beacon for young people who want to be in this particular field, this is a community that draws aspiring youngsters to Wichita State and to MTW and Wichita Children’s Theatre and Amy Menas’ Studio Singers.
“These are all really thriving organizations that help polish up this talent pool ... so the leap from a stage in Wichita, Kansas, into the highly competitive field – the top-of-the-line performers in New York – doesn’t seem an impossible dream.”