Carnegie Mellon celebrates Tonys for six alumni

Billy Porter, Patina Miller, Judith Light ... CMU's program was represented in categories from lighting to costume design to performers


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On Tony Awards night, Peter Cooke was with his mother in a Pittsburgh hospital room, being quieted for whooping it up every time a graduate of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama won. That's six times he had to be shushed.

His mom is fine after a minor accident, and his mood all week was jubilant. Although the head of the CMU Drama program couldn't really celebrate as six of his school's alumni won honors as the best of Broadway in 2013, the party has been coming to him. Since last Sunday, he has been fielding phone calls from newspapers, TV stations, "the Associated Press and Variety, stuff like that," and sounded a lot like a proud dad as he discussed Carnegie Mellon's big night.

By the time the names of Pittsburgh native Billy Porter and Patina Miller were called out as best actor and actress in a musical, there already had been a lot to celebrate. Mr. Cooke was eager to note how the breadth of the Tonys won by alumni or represented on the Radio City Music Hall stage as presenters and performers displayed the school's scope of disciplines, from lighting and costume design to songwriting to belting a la "Smash" star Megan Hilty to one of the night's first presenters, Zachary Quinto, Hollywood's Mr. Spock, who is Broadway-bound in "The Glass Menagerie."

"It's been great and such a wonderful achievement by so many," Mr. Cooke said. "I don't think this could have happened to another school."

CMU was represented across the board and from generation to generation.

"I always feel like a part of a community when it comes to Carnegie Mellon. We're everywhere; we're all over the place," said Mr. Porter by phone on Thursday. The star of the Tony-winning musical "Kinky Boots" is a 1991 graduate who has been an adjunct professor at CMU. "Patina Miller is actually one of my students, Judith Light is a friend of mine, so we were very aware of the Carnegie Mellon representation there."

The other honorees last Sunday were Ms. Miller (class of '06) for her star turn in "Pippin," which won for best musical revival; Ms. Light ('70), best supporting actress in a play for "The Assembled Parties"; costume designer Ann Roth ('53), the Oscar winner for "The English Patient" who won for the play "The Nance"; and Jules Fisher ('60), who recently was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from CMU and who with Peggy Eisenhauer ('83) took home the lighting design Tony for "Lucky Guy."

Carnegie Mellon's is the country's oldest degree-granting school of drama, which The Hollywood Reporter just days before the 2013 Tonys ranked No. 4 among the top 25 drama schools in the world.

In its assessment, the entertainment insider's bible noted just a few of the actors (Patrick Wilson, Mr. Quinto, Ms. Hilty, Holly Hunter) and behind-the-scenes talent (Paula Wagner, John Wells, Steven Bochco) who have had coast-to-coast impact on Hollywood. The article said: "Founded in 1914 -- 10 years before [No. 2] Yale's drama school -- CMU has produced winners of six Oscars, 24 Tonys and 95 Emmys, including two for Ted Danson, who said, 'I really do owe everything to Carnegie Mellon. It set the tone for my life. I love the process, and I learned to love the process here.' " The Juilliard School at No. 1 and New York University's Tisch School rounded out the top four, followed by two London programs.

"The real issue is how graduates do, and that is the reckoning by how I judge," said Mr. Cooke, the award-winning Aussie set designer who became the head of CMU Drama in 2009 after serving as deputy director of Australia's national theater school in Sydney. "What is the outcome after this period of education? What do students go on to do? ... These are not the first Academy Awards or Tonys for us. It just shows the remarkable skill of the faculty and the depth of the quality of the program."

Students benefit from the school's senior-year showcases in Los Angeles and New York, where up to 400 entertainment talent scouts have been known to attend. Each showcase is tailor-made to optimize students' talents and with a focus on what attendees are looking for. For example, musical theater students heading to the West Coast showcase will prepare a scene or monologue rather than sing as they would for the theater crowd in New York.

Corey Cott, the lead in Disney's "Newsies," was a featured performer at the Tonys ceremony and was cast in the musical just before graduation last year. One minute, his world was midterms and auditions; the next, he was a 2012 graduate and on Broadway. "My school has an amazing network," he told the New York Daily News. "I knew I was going to New York and didn't want to wait to get there to start meeting people and creating relationships."

Josh Gad, a Tony nominee for "The Book of Mormon," spent a year at the national theater in Australia when Mr. Cooke was still there because as a research school, Carnegie Mellon encourages study abroad and branching out at home. He was not a singer or dancer when he came out of CMU in 2001 and began accumulating TV roles, but he certainly did his share of both during the run of the Tony-winning "Book of Mormon." "If you can do theater ... if you can understand the most difficult texts from Shakespeare to Chekhov, then the other stuff comes easily. And that's the foundation that they give us [at CMU]," he said during the show's run.

"The conservatory training is essential, and you have to be first-rate at what you are doing, and we value-add to it as very few people can do, because we are a research university," Mr. Cooke said. "We broaden people's experiences outside the university. So some of our actors are doing business, some are doing computers, some of our designers are doing robotics, some of our writers are doing German; somebody's doing Chinese at the moment. So you are actually helping to make a person who's got greater employment possibilities and who knows the world a little better."

Here in Pittsburgh, Mr. Cooke is not an ivory-tower administrator; you can run into him at a local show or concert or exhibition on any given night, and he expects the same of his students. Aspiring actors might be seen gazing at a masterwork at the Carnegie Museum of Art or observing the featured species at the National Aviary or the species at play at a ball game or on the South Side.

"It's also very important that things like the August Wilson Center prosper, because I want to have a wonderful diverse and broader world for our students to draw from," Mr. Cooke said. "Losing Kuntu [the African-American theater company] was terrible. On the other hand, we go to see Quantum and City Theatre and the Public, and they are all doing the type of things a young person needs to see, whether they are doing 'Born Yesterday' [at the Public] or whether it's Schimmelpfennig ['Golden Dragon'] at Quantum Theatre."

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Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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