Until 2010 there was only one degree in musical theatre on offer in Australia, and this was at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) at Edith Cowan University) in Perth. Then came the Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University, which introduced an equivalent three-year degree in musical theatre in 2010. In the years since, however, five more tertiary institutions around Australia have joined suit, the latest being the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium of Music.
Clearly this is a burgeoning area. Monash University also offers musical theatre as an undergraduate study area in its BA degree, and various other institutions have certificate and diploma courses in musical theatre. We attempt to survey them all here, in order to see how the landscape of music education at the tertiary and post-secondary levels is changing in response to increasing demand for training in this field. This is obviously fuelled by Australia’s love of musicals: LPA yearly reports show that musical theatre is one of the strongest growing categories in the live performance industry, with attendances in 2016-2017 having risen 22.6 per cent from 3.3m to 4.0m.
How one defines ‘musical theatre’ (or ‘music theatre’) is the necessary starting point of course. Although it can encompass a range of different meanings, the term as used here refers to integrated, industry-focused expertise across the three disciplines of singing, acting and dancing – the so-called ‘triple threat’. The context in which these skills come together varies, whether for example for stage, film or television. And typically, courses teaching this subject attempt to interface closely with industry professionals, by offering opportunities to work directly alongside theatre directors and producers, composers, choreographers, stage managers, costume designers and the like, in order to prepare graduates for professional theatre practice.
WAAPA’s Bachelor of Arts (Music Theatre) does this using its in-house staff in a comprehensive training program in the areas of music, vocal, dance and acting, with participation in workshop, chamber and full-scale musical productions along the way. It balances this with academic study in dramatic literature and the history of musical theatre. In the third year, students get to study arts management and acting for camera. WAAPA also offers a two-year diploma of musical theatre.
Griffith University’s Bachelor of Music Theatre, the first such course to appear on the east coast, was designed to meet the growing need for young Australian talent in mainstage musicals in the capital cities there. Its course is similar but less focussed around dance and acting. Four of its six trimesters are devoted to studies in musical theatre, and the course is rounded out by subjects dealing with the history of Western performance, Australian theatre, and music of stage and screen.
Three ‘Group of Eight’ universities now also offer either degrees or minor studies in music theatre. The Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne has a three-year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Music Theatre) that teaches the full ‘triple threat’ combination of dance, acting and voice skills. This course includes music theatre contextual studies plus a large range of electives including Indigenous performance, acting for camera, and various specialist music theatre subjects. A two-year Master of Fine Arts Research in Music Theatre and four-year Doctor of Philosophy – Fine Arts and Music in Music Theatre are also available at Melbourne University.
Monash University offers music theatre as an area of study within its Bachelor of Arts program. This consists of units in the academic side (history and form) and practical side (skills and performance), the latter including song writing, libretto writing and workshops with industry professionals.
The Elder Conservatorium of Music’s new Bachelor of Music Theatre at the University of Adelaide is another three-year degree program that combines practical and academic based studies. Taught by incoming conductor and music educator George Torbay, this course places an equal emphasis on performance and inter-disciplinary awareness through the inclusion of arts and contemporary music based subjects.
Three other universities offer yet further degrees in music theatre. The Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Sydney has a two-year Music Theatre Degree that teaches music theatre production, arranging and orchestration in addition to performance, dance and acting. Additionally, one can study music theatre there as an elective in AMPA’s Master of Music degree program.
Also in Sydney, the Australian Institute of Music’s three-year Bachelor of Music (Music Theatre) course offers a comprehensive teaching program in singing, acting, dancing and creating, together with electives in composition, stage direction, arts management and live sound.
Brisbane’s Federation University Australia has a new Bachelor of Contemporary Performance Practice that replaces its former Bachelor of Music Theatre and Bachelor of Acting for Stage and Screen. This new course’s subject mix includes voice, dance and acting studies, and likewise the aim is to equip students with real-life skills through contact with industry professionals such as theatre directors, music theatre performers and choreographers.
In addition, diploma and/or certificate courses in musical theatre are offered by several institutions. These include:
Academy of Dance and Musical Theatre, Brisbane
APO Arts Academy, Melbourne
Australian Dance Performance Institute, Brisbane
Brent Street Performing Arts, Sydney
Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre, Brisbane
International Screen Academy, Sydney
One thing is for sure: judged by the number of institutions that teach it, music theatre is a big growth area in music education, and it can be expected to continue growing as the musical theatre industry itself continues to expand.