By Lee Manchester
Forty years ago, Professor Lowell Matson began teaching the first courses for a theater arts major at Wagner College. Before that time, the College had only an extracurricular drama club. Today, the Department of Theater and Speech has 10 full-time professors and about 290 students who produce four Main Stage shows and four studio theater productions every year — and, year after year, the program is ranked among the top 10 college theaters in America. In this issue of Wagner Magazine, we examine Matson’s legacy with 10 quick sketches of Wagner theater grads who have built successful careers on and around Broadway.
Betsy Joslyn ’75, a native Staten Islander, auditioned in 1971 for Lowell Matson. “After I sang my song,” she recalled, “Lowell got up, stretched his arms out in the way only he could, and said, ‘My dear, welcome to the theater.’”
A master class in her senior year led Joslyn to her first professional gig that summer in Pittsburgh. She made her off-Broadway debut in 1976 in The Fantasticks. Three years later, she was in the original cast of Broadway’s Sweeney Todd. A 1982 leading role in A Doll’s Life, a notorious flop, could have proven disastrous — but Joslyn persevered, continuing to find steady work in major productions like Les Misérables and Into the Woods.
After Joslyn left the musical theater in 2000 — a medical condition had damaged her vocal chords — she and her husband, Broadway composer and conductor Mark Mitchell, began pursuing adoption. They welcomed 18-month-old Molli, a Chinese orphan, into their family in 2004.
“Going through menopause and the terrible twos at the same time was quite an experience,” the 55-year-old full-time mom said recently, laughing.
Two years after leaving Grymes Hill, the career of Brooklyn-born Randy Graff ’76 H’01 took off. Within a few months of landing her first professional role off Broadway, she made her Broadway debut as an understudy in Grease. The following year, she was part of the original cast of Saravá, which earned mixed reviews.
In 1986, Graff began rehearsals for her signature Broadway role: the tragic heroine Fantine in Les Misérables. The show was a huge success, but it also took its toll. “It’s not easy to die onstage every night,” she said.
Graff’s next Broadway role, in City of Angels, won her a Tony Award. “Did I get a pile of scripts after winning the Tony? No-o-o-o,” she recalled, “but my price went up.” And she has worked steadily in shows including Moon Over Buffalo, High Society, and the 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof.
Michael Portantiere’79’s penchant for the pen evidenced itself almost immediately after enrolling at Wagner. He wrote about theater for the Wagnerian as well as the Staten Island Register, an independent weekly newspaper.
Portantiere is now in the third decade of his career as a theatrical journalist. His first book, The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings, with a foreword by Jerry Herman, was published in 2004. A new book, Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain, was co-written with Gerard Alessandrini, creator of the long-running Broadway parody revue.
Last fall, Portantiere was back at Wagner to teach a course in theater criticism. “I like theatrical journalism a lot,” he said, “but the job is changing so much because of the Web. It’s much harder to make a living at it today than it was a decade or two back. I’m glad that I’ve finally started teaching again.”
“I got out of the Wag and wasn’t sure I was actually going to go into the business,” Vincent D’Elia ’85 said. “Friends from Wagner dragged me with them to auditions, really as a bystander, and that’s where my career started.”
D’Elia has worked steadily ever since, mostly in regional theater productions and national touring companies, but also in Broadway shows, most notably Kiss of the Spiderwoman, winner of the 1993 Tony Award for Best Musical.
He spent some time in L.A., working in television, but never really took to the City of Angels. D’Elia returned to his rent-stabilized apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and has based himself out of New York ever since.
“I have been blessed,” he said. “I know many talented actors and singers who don’t have the stomach for the business, and eventually they give up. I keep auditioning, and I keep working. There’s always another show.”
A high school summer job at the Gateway Playhouse in eastern Long Island, where he worked with several Wagner students and alums, led Matt Lenz ’86 to Grymes Hill.
After graduation, Lenz spent about four years working his way through a series of acting jobs, including a steady gig in the campy off-Broadway hit Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.
“After about the fourth month, it stopped being fun,” Lenz recalled. That was when he decided to become a director, signing on with Disney Productions in 1993 as an assistant director for Beauty and the Beast, followed by three years on Aida.
Lenz joined Hairspray as A.D. at the end of 2001. The show opened on Broadway the following August. The next spring, it nearly swept the Tony Awards for musicals.
The next big project for Matt Lenz: assistant directing Catch Me If You Can, based on the 2002 movie, which premieres in Seattle this summer before opening on Broadway.
“Life is good,” Lenz concluded. “Every day, I’m thrilled by what I get to do.”
Janine LaManna ’88 started playing steadily in regional theater, on tours, and in off-Broadway productions almost immediately after graduation. “But I didn’t do my first Broadway show until Ragtime [in the role of Evelyn Nesbit] in 1998 — and I’m glad for that,” she said. “I didn’t want to debut in something less than a major part.”
Her signature role as Gertrude McFuzz in Broadway’s Seussical came in 2000, winning her a Drama Desk nomination for Best Featured Actress.
LaManna married Army Capt. Mike McDermott while rehearsing for Sweet Charity in early 2005. By mid-July, LaManna was carrying their daughter. “I was five and a half months pregnant by the time I left the show,” she said. Mia McDermott was born the following April.
“She’s really a great little kid,” LaManna told Playbill’s Andrew Gans a year later. “Whenever she hears clapping or music, she just kind of jumps up and down!”
LaManna’s latest role was in last year’s off-Broadway comedy hit, Enter Laughing.
Buddy Thomas ’91’s focus at Wagner was playwriting, and his student work made quite an impression.
“He has tremendous insight and a wicked sense of humor. I compare him to a young Tennessee Williams,” said theater professor Gary Sullivan. “He’s got the chops to play to a very broad audience.”
It took many plays, graduate studies, and festival awards for Sullivan’s prediction to come true. In the summer of 2000, Thomas’s The Crumple Zone opened at an off-Broadway theatre. “It was supposed to play for four weeks, but we kept getting good reviews, and it kept getting extended,” Thomas said. “Since then, it’s been performed again and again, all over the country — all over the world.”
In the meantime, Thomas began working at International Creative Management, where he represents playwrights like Nell Benjamin (lyricist for Legally Blonde: The Musical) and the estates of theater greats William Inge and Arthur Miller.
“It’s really interesting work,” he said, “but very demanding — a 12-hour-a-day job, easily. When you’re done, the last thing you want to do is work on writing another play.”
Yet that is just what Buddy Thomas has done. His campy new play, Devil Boys from Beyond, will be performed in August in the New York International Fringe Festival. Devil Boys will bring Thomas back together with actor Paul Pecorino ’92 and, perhaps, Matt Lenz ’86 as director.
Kathy Brier ’97’s first break after graduation came when she was tapped for the off-beat off-Broadway show, Bat Boy, the Musical, in 2001. A year later, she was hired to play young Marcie Walsh on the ABC daytime soap opera One Life to Live. In 2003, things got really crazy for a while when she was hired to play Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray on Broadway, and she decided to keep her day job, too. She played both Marcie Walsh and Tracy Turnblad for eight and a half months. Shortly after returning full-time to OLTL in May 2003, Brier was nominated for a daytime Emmy in the supporting actress category.
Since late 2007, soap-opera fan mags have been reporting on Brier’s desire to get out of daytime TV and return to the stage. This March, the producers of One Life to Live announced that her contract, which expired at the end of May, would not be renewed.
What’s next for Kathy Brier? Stay tuned for the next episode of As the Alumna Turns.
Bret Shuford ’01 auditioned for his first professional role in a Paper Mill Playhouse production of Carousel during spring break of his senior year. Carousel got Shuford an Equity card, his ticket into the professional theater world, and he has used that ticket well.
Shuford landed his first role in the ensemble of a Broadway show, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in January 2005. In June 2006, he signed on with Beauty and the Beast. Less than a year later, he began rehearsals as part of the original company of The Little Mermaid, which is where he is currently performing. Most nights, Shuford is part of the ensemble on stage — but, occasionally, he gets to play the male lead, Prince Eric, when actor Sean Palmer is away.
“Understudying, you never know when you will go on,” Shuford wrote last summer, “unless, of course, the actor that plays the part is on vacation. I’ve gone on twice this year. Both times, it was a blast.”
West Side Story has played a recurring role in the stage career of Haley Carlucci ’08. During the summer of 2003, she played in a community college production of the show. She performed in West Side Story again in 2005 as a Wagner sophomore, playing Maria.
Last spring, as graduation approached, Carlucci appeared in the theater department’s annual senior showcase performance, where she got signed by an agency. “They sent me in for the new revival of West Side Story,” Carlucci said. “I did three auditions — and then I waited.
“I was walking in Times Square with a friend when I got the call,” she said. “I was standing right outside the Palace Theatre, where West Side Story was going to play. I said to my friend, ‘We have to go in there!’ The staff people were so great. They took us in, and I looked all around, and it just hit me: ‘Oh, my God! I’m going to be on Broadway!’”
Carlucci was cast as the understudy for Maria.
The show opened in March, and by mid-May she had gone on stage as Maria eight times. “I really had an adrenaline rush,” she said of her first live Broadway performance. “No matter how much you’ve rehearsed, there’s nothing to prepare you for that.”