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Bruins on Broadway

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.

Touring Company

Watch Broadway Bruins in action in these clips:

Taylor Sternberg channels one of Jersey Boys' five Frankie Vallis.

Susan Egan shows her range with a demo reel that includes Drew Carey and NYPD Blue.

Heather Lindell embraces her inner crazy on Days of Our Lives.

John Rando dishes on directing Urinetown.

Kristen Hanggi performs in the Tony's highly charged salute to Rock of Ages.

The theater faculty is supportive even when the best opportunity may lie outside UCLA. As a student, Stuhlbarg, a native of Long Beach, learned from a classmate about a drama program at the Juilliard School in New York. He decided to audition and asked McLain to critique the performance he planned to do.

After McLain watched, he said, "If that's what you're going to do, you might as well not go. That will never get you in." The professor coached the student, and he did indeed leave UCLA for Juilliard.

"UCLA was amazing," remembers the star of 2009's A Serious Man, who has been cast in an upcoming Martin Scorsese film. "The people there were excited for me, but I would never have been ready for Juilliard without UCLA. I got to do everything I wanted."

In 1999, Stuhlbarg appeared on Broadway in Cabaret with another actor who attended UCLA, Susan Egan. From Seal Beach, Egan chose UCLA at the urging of a Bruin one year older. At 16, in a children's theater production of Babes in Arms in Los Angeles, a cast member who was a UCLA freshman at the time told her about the theater program. His name was Jack Black.

Now a five-time Broadway veteran, Egan got a chance in the middle of her junior year to audition with director Gene Saks for a national tour of Bye Bye Birdie. She won the part and faced a hard choice: Should she accept it and leave UCLA?

Gardner said yes. "I told her to drop out; the opportunity was too good." Indeed, her next gig was as Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, and another top-tier theater career was launched.

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Bruin Michael Stuhlbarg currently plays crime boss Arnold Rothstein in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

Once she got to Broadway, Egan called on every skill she had learned at UCLA — including prop-building. When the stagehands spotted her using a drill in her dressing room, they marveled, "Belle's got power tools!"

Scribes are part of the Bruin playbill as well. Prolific playwright Sheila Callaghan M.F.A. '97 learned to trust her voice at UCLA. "That's so important in what I do now," says the graduate. "Otherwise, you listen to everyone else and end up with a Frankenscript." She realized she could synthesize others' critiques without compromising her vision. "UCLA showed me how to get a thick skin."

Currently on the writing team for Showtime's United States of Tara, Callaghan also is scripting the movie version of I Dream of Jeannie. But her edgy, mind-bending original plays are produced around the country. "I like to open up issues and not supply answers," says the New York native. "I want the audience to feel the ground shift under them." According to the Los Angeles Times, "Callaghan has a keen sense of language as an act of aggression."

Tony Award-winning director (for Urinetown in 2002) John Rando M.F.A. '88 says that UCLA convinced him of his potential. "It was a place to bring together all my energy, talent and wherewithal to create the skill set I needed and get serious about my work. UCLA gave me the belief that I could make a difference. It's where I learned to love what I do." He already had a bachelor's degree in German when he came to UCLA and told McLain: "I think I have a need to direct plays."

Directors depend heavily on stage managers to execute their artistic vision and ensure the consistent safety and excellence of a show day-to-day. Meg Friedman '06 thrives in that role. A three-time veteran of Broadway, she loves "being in the hot seat all the time," solving problems that can arise at any time — an actor gets sick or injured and an understudy has to be summoned, or a prop breaks mid-scene and can't be quickly replaced. Any or all of this while keeping her eye on how the director envisions the show.

Growing up in the Silicon Valley, Friedman started attending children's theater productions when she was only 3. Before long, she was acting. At 11, she started building sets and hanging lights. When another child, her friend, was suddenly killed, she added his stage management responsibilities to what she was already doing. Pretty soon, she was hooked.

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After her fair share of waitressing and soap opera stints, Heather Lindell '04 performs alongside Kelsey Grammer in La Cage aux Folles and says she feels more alive onstage than anywhere else.

Her UCLA experience taught her that a theater career is not about "staying put or getting comfortable," she says, speaking from eastern Connecticut, where she is working on the world premiere of a musical version of James and the Giant Peach. She also learned in Westwood the necessity of reaching out for opportunities, not limiting herself to student productions, but also seeking out theater gigs in local Los Angeles venues.

And she gained the realization that pre-production on any new show always means starting from scratch, regardless of your previous experience. "You always have to figure out everything all over again," she says.

Not every Bruin working in theater is a theater graduate, however. John O'Dea '89, an economics major, is director of finance at the famed La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif., which has sent some very successful shows to Broadway. O'Dea previously was part of the entertainment practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Los Angeles. He loves the mission of the playhouse, where he says the people behind the curtain are just as passionate about their work as those onstage.

"I'm so proud of what we do," says the CPA, "and of our ongoing relationship with our patrons and donors. I must be the biggest non-marketing person promoting plays." He gets together regularly with other Bruins for theater nights or trips to Broadway to see shows.

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La Cage aux Folles is among the many Broadway shows that have featured Bruins.

Supporting Cast

All theater alumni remember the freshman orientation meeting where they were told to look to the left and to the right. "These are the people you're going to be with in the industry," they heard. "They'll be your directors, designers and co-stars and the people hiring you."

"The 65 people you meet in Freshman Experience become your core group — the people you travel with in your career, your business relationships, for the rest of life," says Sternberg.

And they believe in one another. When Egan brought her "Belle" performance to Los Angeles, the show's producers had difficulty finding someone to replace her in New York. Egan sent them across the street to see her UCLA roommate, Sarah Uriarte '92, in Les Miserables. Uriarte succeeded her as Belle.

The community spans decades, too. While a student, Egan received a $500 Carol Burnett Scholarship, which enabled her to get headshots for her portfolio. A decade later, she found herself onstage with the comedienne at the Mark Taper Forum in a play called Putting It Together. Before Egan had a chance to approach Burnett to thank her, Burnett found her and said, "I'm so excited to meet you."

"She's gold," Egan says.

Plenty of people would say that about plenty of the performers in this theater company. True to Bruin form, many alumni give back to the world what was given to them. Taylor Sternberg teaches improv to teens through Actors Technique, NY. Kristin Hanggi has a small business, the Creative Gym, where she conducts seminars to help writers launch and execute their ideas. And last summer, Susan Egan taught musical theater at the U.S. Performing Arts Camp at UCLA for high school kids.

"It's fun to pass the torch," she says. "Going into UCLA, I never thought it would be more than a four-year experience, but it becomes a part of who you are."

More Bruins on Broadway

Nate Bolotin M.F.A. '07, producer, American Psycho
Carol Burnett, writer, Hollywood Arms; actor, Moon Over Buffalo, Fade Out-Fade In, Once Upon a Mattress
Susan Egan, actor, Beauty and the Beast, Cabaret, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Triumph of Love, State Fair
Meg Friedman '06, stage manager, The Story of My Life, Fela!, Memphis
Dan Gordon '69, writer, Irena's Vow
Sala Iwamatsu, actor, Avenue Q, Rent, Miss Saigon
Judy Kaye, actor, Souvenir, Sweeney Todd, Mamma Mia!, Ragtime, The Phantom of the Opera, Oh, Brother!, The Mooney Shapiro Songbook, On the Twentieth Century, Grease
Kristin Hanggi '98, director, Rock of Ages
Tom Lenk '98, actor, Rock of Ages
Heather Lindell '04, actor, Hairspray, La Cage aux Folles
John Rando M.F.A. '88, director, A Thousand Clowns, Urinetown, The Dinner Party, The Wedding Singer, Dance of the Vampires, Broken Glass
John Rubinstein, actor, Pippin, Children of a Lesser God, Fools, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Hurlyburly, M. Butterfly, Getting Away with Murder, Love Letters, Ragtime
Robert Sella '85, actor, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Side Man, Cabaret, My Fair Lady
Thomas Schumacher '80, producer, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Aida, The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, King David; currently president, Disney Theatrical Group
Taylor Sternberg '06, actor, Jersey Boys
Michael Stuhlbarg, actor, The Pillowman, The Invention of Love, Cabaret, Taking Sides, The Government Inspector, Timon of Athens, Three Men on a Horse, Saint Joan
Abe Sylvia M.F.A. '06, dancer, Cats, The Producers
Clarke Thorell, actor, Hairspray, Titanic, The Who's Tommy, Mamma Mia!
Sarah Uriarte Berry '92, actor, Les Miserables, Beauty and the Beast, Taboo, The Light in the Piazza