One summer in New York, Tony Award-winning composer Frank Wildhorn sat in his apartment with Shae Robins, a BYU Music Dance Theatre (MDT) student. They spent two days practicing songs for the upcoming U.S. premiere of The Count of Monte Cristo, a musical that will be performed for the first time in English. The musical has only been performed in Switzerland and Korea where it was met with critical acclaim. BYU was chosen as the U.S. premiere location for this classic tale of redemption, love and revenge.
Each year, the BYU MDT program admits and trains the best singers, dancers and actors. On January 22-31, 2015, this musical, composed by Wildhorn, premiered in the de Jong Concert Hall in the Harris Fine Arts Center. This was a unique opportunity—the musical had never been performed in the U.S. and it had never been performed in English. But the MDT students were up for the challenge. This endeavor required the very best the program had to offer—talented singers, graceful dancers and captivating actors.
“We’re creating something totally new,” said Preston Yates, an MDT student starring as Edmund Dantes, the titular character. Two years ago, Yates starred as the title character in BYU’s production of The Phantom of the Opera. This was also a milestone and a special opportunity for students in the MDT program; it was the first time a college put on a full-length version of Broadway’s longest running production.
“In Phantom, you have references that can help you shape your character. But for this production, we have to make them on our own. It’s basically creating a character out of thin air,” Yates said.
Shae Robins, a senior MDT student, starred as Mercedes, the female lead and love interest of Edmund Dantes. Robins started dancing at the age of four, and participated in acting classes and vocal lessons on and off. When she found out she scored the role as the leading lady, she was shocked and excited.
“I still can’t believe it,” Robins said. “There’s a lot of pressure that comes with the responsibility, though. A lot of important people will be coming to the show, so we have to step up our game and be on point in every way possible.”
Yates mentioned that the music, being more “pop” in nature, provides opportunity for growth in his vocal abilities.
“It’s new stuff for me,” Yates said. “It’ll stretch me and make me a better, more well-rounded performer.”
Yates also mentioned how these large productions are not the only way he has been challenged. The MDT curriculum provides exciting, but demanding coursework designed to help students distinguish themselves among others in the industry. One class he is currently enrolled in requires that he and his group members put together an entire show—everything from set design and blocking to choreography and lighting.
A Unique Opportunity
This landmark opportunity came unexpectedly when Wildhorn visited BYU last year to perform and teach master classes. After spending a couple of hours coaching MDT students on their vocals, Wildhorn was so impressed with their level of talent that he approached some faculty members and asked if BYU would like to do the U.S. premiere of his musical.
They emphatically agreed. In the meantime, Robins and Yates are practicing five days per week trying to capture the emotion and relationship between the two leads. Both agreed that the faculty and classes in their program have made it possible for them to succeed.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for the MDT program, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Robins said. “It’s through the program that I’ve really developed my skills. Before I came here, I could sing, dance and act, but it’s through my classes and professors that I’ve really strengthened in each of those talents.”
The chance to perform in this play will definitely propel both Yates and Robins forward in their careers, like dozens of MDT graduates before them. Some MDT alumni are performing in the national tour of Wicked. Some are in Broadway shows, including Mary Poppins, Grease, West Side Story, and Les Miserables. Others have crossed over into television, scoring roles in Bones, Law and Order, and CSI. And dozens of others are doing work on cruise ships, teaching, attending graduate schools and performing in smaller venues.
Yates shared one of the challenges of acting, and how being a student in the program has helped him to improve.
“My professors have created a safe environment,” Yates said. “In acting, you’re putting a vulnerable part of yourself out there. But all the professors have helped me to feel safe in my classes, thus creating a wonderful learning environment.”
Many are familiar with the story because of the novel of the same name written by Alexandre Dumas, and the successful 2002 movie adaptation. BYU’s MDT students are ready to bring this show to the stage for all who attend.
“The show will relate to all audiences, young or old,” Robins said. “The music especially presents different ideas that make the play incredibly enjoyable.”
This kind of opportunity is once in a lifetime. When else will college students have the opportunity to participate in the U.S. premiere of a musical written by one of Broadway’s most acclaimed composers?
“It’s amazing to work with somebody of that caliber when you’re still in college,” Yates said. “To learn from Frank Wildhorn, who’s done so much—I didn’t expect to get this opportunity while at school.”