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UCLA

Bruins on Broadway

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By Mary Daily, Illustrations by Brett Affrunti, Photos by Bleacher + Everard

Published Jan 1, 2011 8:30 AM


They're the stars of their generation: Bruin actors, writers, directors, stage managers, and lighting, set and costume designers. "The show" is what they love. Westwood is where they learned it. Applause, please.

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Jersey Boys tells the story for the Four Seasons, who hailed from Newark, N.J.

"If you'd told me in high school I'd be on Broadway in less than 10 years, I wouldn't have believed it," says Taylor Sternberg '06. "I was just a dumb little kid, a dork, and this is the dream come true."

His amazement is understandable — Sternberg is currently treading the boards on the New York stage in the blockbuster musical, Jersey Boys.

The actor/dancer/singer, who grew up in Sherman Oaks, Manhattan Beach and Topanga Canyon, loved doing theater in high school but figured, as a grownup, he'd leave it behind for something more stable, like computer programming.

Now, as a "swing" cast member, he plays different characters, including, sometimes, bandleader Frankie Valli. "For two-and-a-half hours, the audience thinks I'm a rock star, and they go wild for it," he says.

A few blocks away, Heather Lindell '04 plays beside Kelsey Grammer in La Cage aux Folles, which won the 2010 Tony Award for best revival. Growing up in Woodland Hills, Lindell liked to sing and dance at family functions and performed in children's theater productions. But she counted on college to get her to the professional ranks. Now, after her "fair share of waitressing" and some soap opera stints, she has "a dream job. When the lights hit me, I feel more alive than I do in normal life."

Sternberg and Lindell's transformation from teenagers with a fantasy to performers on the Great White Way began at the Ray Bolger Program in Musical Theater in UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT). They're far from alone. In fact, you might say they're part of a cast of thousands. And judging from the long list of TFT alumni and attendees — a blue-chip group that includes Carol Burnett, Jack Black and Tim Robbins — the script works.

Stars Are Born

Michael Hackett, chair of UCLA's theater department and a TFT faculty member since 1979, says, "It's exciting to see the students learn to embrace the idea that they have the power to create their own art, to bring their own insights to a work, to take what we've taught them, find the talents within themselves and grow."

Kristin Hanggi '98, for example, was nominated for a 2009 Tony Award for directing Rock of Ages. The daughter of Orange County schoolteachers, she grew up "loving to pretend," wrangling her cousins into plays for family occasions.

At UCLA, she "got turned on by the freedom and the team building, creating something where the whole becomes greater than the individuals." And although her professors still remember her as a superb actor, too, she was a natural as a director. "It is what I was put on the planet for," she says.

It's not uncommon for students to start in one emphasis, say, acting, and find they're better suited to another, says TFT Professor Michael McLain, in his 32nd year of teaching directing. "We're pretty open about people moving around a bit when they discover who they are."

But some master it all. TFT Professor Gary Gardner M.A. '68, a Fred Astaire lookalike who joined the faculty in 1973, remembers Tim Robbins '82, who liked acting, directing and writing. "I told him to get out of acting," Gardner says. "He was such a good writer and director, and because his baby face belied his 6-foot-6 frame, I didn't think he had an acting career ahead of him. But he wanted to do it all, and he did. I think that's great."

"Everyone comes to us with a unique life experience," says McLain, who, with colleagues, interviews about 1,000 undergraduate applicants every year as part of the admissions process. "If they can get in touch with that, it's a story for them to tell with their work."

And, sometimes, their teachers are the story. TFT master classes have been taught by Anthony Hopkins, Annette Bening, David Mamet, Edward Albee and Jason Alexander, among others. When Michael Stuhlbarg, who now plays crime boss Arnold Rothstein in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, was in Westwood, master mime Marcel Marceau came to TFT to audition students for a summer program at the World Center for Mime in Ann Arbor, Mich. All four who auditioned were selected, including Stuhlbarg, who earned a Tony nomination in 2005 for his role in The Pillowman.

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