At the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (SMTD), students practice their instruments, choreograph new dances, write and direct productions, and more. They also prepare for a career in some of the most challenging performance industries. Among star-studded SMTD alumni are LEAD Scholars, who shine both on and off the stage.
SMTD Dean David Gier, ’83, has been a LEAD advocate since he first learned about the program, calling it an “essential, transformative program” of which SMTD is a “beneficiary.”
The musical theater program at SMTD is one of the most competitive programs at U-M, accepting fewer than 2 percent of applicants who are competing for only 22 spots each year. According to Gier, the program has produced some of the highest numbers of Broadway performers “including programs that are three and four times the size of ours.”
For the 2022-23 season, U-M had the second-highest number of alumni performing on Broadway, behind New York University.
Though SMTD’s team of recruiters identifies and admits talented future students to the program, they aren’t able to extend scholarships to every student, and several LEAD Scholars may not have chosen U-M without the financial support of the LEAD scholarship.
“Unfortunately, it becomes a financial decision at some point. We do a really good job of recruiting students, showing them how we can help them, how this is an environment for them to flourish. And I think we do a tremendous job of that,” Gier says. “But the truth is that when they have to commit and there are resources involved, sometimes they can’t make that decision. And for the LEAD program to intervene and to provide resources at that critical moment, I mean, it’s lifechanging.”
There have been more than 40 LEAD Scholars at SMTD and five Scholars in the 2023 Cohort are enrolled at the school, majoring in performance, design and production, dance, and musical theater.
“These are talented students who are going to do well. They could go to another institution and thrive, I’m sure of it. But I really believe that their futures are different because of [LEAD],” Gier says.
He says that at SMTD, a diversity of backgrounds means a diversity of experiences, viewpoints, expressions, and complex identities that lead to a better educational experience and “our best future.”
“You could talk about it on an individual basis, but I think there’s a systemic effect. Bring those students, they contribute to the environment for which the other students have a more rich, deeper, more profound experience. Their educations are better, their future is better. There’s an extreme ripple effect on that. … Then, of course, we produce a more diverse cohort of professionals who move into the professional space and actively change the art form.”
To Gier, the connection between students at SMTD, the subject matter of performance arts, and the effects they have on society is clear: it all comes back to diversity and programs like LEAD that support diverse student populations.
“I’m probably being a little grandiose,” he says. “But there’s impact that cannot simply be measured by a student’s opportunity.”
Life After LEAD
Here’s what some recent LEAD alumni are up to now:
Lee Alexander, ’21, is touring with the First Broadway North American Tour of “Jagged Little Pill,” performing as “The Doctor.” He also recently appeared in The Muny’s production of “Sweeney Todd” and was a guest artist/soloist at the Toledo Symphony’s “A Gershwin’s Celebration.” Outside of theater, Alexander has appeared in many U-M media campaigns and modeled for Lululemon’s 2021 U-M fall launch.
Timothy Thompson, ’23, is starring in Music Theatre Wichita’s production of “Cats” as Tumblebrutus and appeared in their productions of “Ragtime” and “Beauty & the Beast.” His short films “Up On the Roof” and “Out for Delivery” appeared in the Sparking Creation: Young Filmmaker Showcase this summer
Samantha Rios, ’23, is performing as Sally Brown in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and Mimi in “Rent” with the Scranton Shakespeare Festival. She has sung backup for Sara Bareilles, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Christopher Jackson.
Nick Daly, ’23, is currently performing in “MJ the Musical” on Broadway. In 2020, he won Playbill’s Search for a Star contest and was a 2022 Hopwood Award finalist for his play “Can I Help You?”
Katherine Fiorillo is the editor of Michigan Alum.