Talent is a start
She's good enough to get cast in professional roles. But Boston Conservatory musical-theater major Stephanie Umoh still has a lot to learn.
It's her first voice lesson of the year, and Stephanie Umoh, a senior at the Boston Conservatory, is clearly not having a good time.
Just six days into the school year, she's feeling sick and run down, her allergies have attacked, and her throat is scratchy. She's fallen behind in her classwork: She missed three days of school the week before in order to rehearse for the professional musical that had opened on the weekend - "Zanna, Don't!" at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
Umoh's voice teacher Merrill Shea is toting up her transgressions. She isn't getting enough sleep. She hasn't put in enough practice time. She has to think more kinesthetically. She isn't relaxing her tongue enough. And she still hasn't bought a keyboard, which is an absolute necessity, he says.
"Tongue, tongue, TONGUE," he shouts while she's doing her vocal warm-ups in a small, cramped practice room; he's vigorously shaking her curly head from side to side using a technique that, strangely, is meant to relax her neck muscles. "Remember all that tongue work we did last semester?"
"I'm tired," Umoh protests. "I have so many early classes this semester."
Watching the scene, it would be hard to guess that this 21-year-old musical-theater major is one of the brightest lights in the Conservatory's theater division, a department where almost all the lights shine brightly, within a school that ranks in the uppermost tier of American theater-arts programs. Only three years after moving to Boston from Texas with her sights set on a stage career in the Big Apple, Umoh has already made a reputation for herself in this city's professional theater circles.
Even as she was studying full time at the Conservatory, Umoh has managed to dazzle in lead performances in "Ragtime" at the New Repertory Theater, and in SpeakEasy's "The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin."
"I guarantee you every single theater in this city knows who Stephanie is," says Jacqui Parker, a Boston actress, director, and playwright who is on the board of StageSource, a clearinghouse for the theater community. "And we think she is fabulous."
In June, Umoh was one of four Conservatory students chosen to sing with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall, and "she brought down the house," says Dennis Alves, director of artistic planning for the Pops. "She sang a song from 'Dreamgirls' ('And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going') and got a standing ovation. It was a show-stopping moment. We have plenty of moments like that here, but to have it from a young college student is, to say the least, unusual."
Shea is not unimpressed with her talent, but he practices tough love. Umoh might have a rich, smoky, sonorous voice; a joyful glow; an uncommon beauty; passion, charisma, and accessible charm. But Shea is realistic about what she'll be facing when she graduates next spring.
"She definitely has a lot of promise," he concedes in a phone interview after the class. "But she is not alone by any matter or means. It's an extremely tough world. There are tens of thousands of other incredibly talented people who have graduated from I don't know how many scores of conservatories and schools of music around the country, who put out wonderfully talented people. They go to New York or LA or wherever, and if they're lucky I would say a very small percentage of them are really going to make a major career out of it."
He adds: "There's an old saying that for every one on stage on the bright side of the lights, there are probably 250,000 on the dark side."
Lest the point be missed, he calls back a few minutes later and says it again. "Many are called," he says, "but few are chosen."
Every year, dozens of students enter the theater division at the Conservatory, which has a total enrollment of 654 music, theater, and dance students. There are 72 new undergraduate musical-theater majors this fall, the largest group ever, and "we are as intensive as any musical-theater program could be," says Michael Nash, dean of the Conservatory.
The killer curriculum includes classes in acting technique, dance and movement, voice and speech training, music theory, musical-theater performance, and theater history. Students also participate in Conservatory productions. It turns out no shortage of so-called "triple threats" who can act, dance, as well as sing.
"We build their tenacity so they can survive the pressures of the world," says Neil Donohoe, director of the Conservatory's theater division.
The program culminates in the grueling Senior Showcase, a springtime show performed by seniors in front of casting directors, talent agents, producers, and others in Boston and New York. Many students perceive it as a make-or-break moment, an event so pivotal to the launching of their careers that at school the word "showcase" is a verb (as in: "She showcases well.")
The Conservatory boasts many success stories, including scores of alumni who have appeared on Broadway, in London, and on television, including two finalists on "American Idol" (Constantine Maroulis in 2005 and Katharine McPhee in 2006.) Last year Conservatory senior Veronica Kuehn missed her graduation because she landed a role in "Mamma Mia!" on Broadway.
"The bar keeps being raised. Each year's freshman class demonstrates a higher level of achievement, of basic chops and basic skills than any one before it," says Conservatory president Richard Ortner. "None of these students have come to us without years and years of voice lessons and after-school acting lessons, and, for the instrumentalists, private lessons since the age of 5."
Except Stephanie Umoh. She came to the Conservatory from a football-oriented public high school in Lewisville, Texas, a suburb of Dallas whose website touts its national collegiate bass fishing championship. The youngest of three children of a white mother and a Nigerian-born father who divorced when she was 3, Umoh showed no particular interest, as a child, in theater or music.
"I made them take piano lessons, but it didn't stick with any of them," says her mother, Linda Umoh, a librarian at Southern Methodist University.
The sum total of her formal training consisted of singing lessons, in high school, with her church choir leader. "Before that, it was just my ear and singing my heart out," she says. Until she got to the Conservatory, she couldn't read music, had studied no music theory, and had never seen a Broadway show. The closest she'd ever come was a regional performance of "Oliver."
"We had tours that came to Dallas," Linda Umoh says, "but we could never afford to go."
Though she liked to sing, as a high school freshman Stephanie was so shy that when a teacher told her to deliver a song in class, she sang with her hand over her face. In sophomore year, though, she was coaxed out of her shell: Her high school was performing "Little Shop of Horrors" and she couldn't resist trying out. "I'd watched the movie musical growing up with Steve Martin," she says. "It was the closest thing to a musical I'd experienced. I really, really wanted to do it."
She landed a very small role, but people noticed her. "I had people say, 'Omigosh, she gave me goosebumps,' " says Linda Umoh, who encouraged Stephanie to take weekly singing lessons.
Voice lessons gave her more confidence. When her high school and a neighboring school were selected to perform "Guys and Dolls" in Scotland the summer after her sophomore year, Umoh won the lead role of Miss Adelaide. In junior year, she performed in "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Honk." In senior year she starred as Sarah in "Ragtime," the same role she eventually played in Boston with the New Rep. The school took the show to the International Thespian Society convention in Texas, where she got an outstanding performance award.
"After 'Honk,' my teacher came to me and said, 'This is something you really need to do,' " Umoh says. But she wasn't so sure. Her father, whom she visited in a nearby suburb every second weekend, definitely did not approve, she says. He wanted her to be a doctor, and though she tried to oblige by taking AP biology in senior year, she dropped it because she was busy with "Ragtime."
Umoh was also concerned about the financial implications of studying musical theater. Her mother couldn't afford to help with tuition, and while her father indicated he would if she studied science, no offer was forthcoming for a performing career. She looked into attending a Texas community college, and maybe transferring to a different college later.
But she couldn't do it. "Nothing could make me this happy, as when I'm on stage," she says. She found that performing lets the shy girl in her be wild or adventurous, and the biracial girl be - anybody. In high school she had felt she wasn't black enough for the black kids, nor white enough to be thought of as white.
"My identity was 50-50 until I found theater and I could kind of escape into that," she says. In theater "you don't have to be anything or anybody. You have to be someone else."
A girl she'd met at the thespian convention told her she was going to the Boston Conservatory, and encouraged Umoh to look into it. Auditions were held in Texas, but she'd already missed them. Another round was coming up in Chicago. "I had to go," she says.
An aunt bought her a plane ticket and put her up in a hotel, and Umoh auditioned for the Conservatory, as well as for the University of Miami and Chicago's Roosevelt University. Only the Boston school accepted her, offering her a $5,000 scholarship, barely enough to make a dent in what she'd owe each year for tuition and room and board, but enough to make the invitation sorely tempting. (The current cost of tuition and room and board for a musical-theater undergraduate is $43,530.)
She'd be burdened with staggering loans in an uncertain career, but at that point it was either musical theater at the Conservatory or an uninspiring compromise at a community college.
"It sounded crazy," she says. "But my mother came to me one day and said, 'Stephanie, you have to do this.' "
Now here she is three years later, deliriously happy, seriously stressed, and breathtakingly broke. She calculates that with the money she owes - about $130,000, before interest - she could buy a two-family house back in Texas. Money is so tight right now that she almost didn't return for her senior year. She appealed for a larger scholarship and got $15,000 more, she says.
That comes with its own pressures. While the faculty is supportive of her professional gigs, she says, they let it be known her first priority is to the school, and to Conservatory shows.
It's been a steep learning curve for Umoh. Unlike other students, many of whom had attended arts high schools or summer programs, Umoh knew little about musical theater and felt she was always missing references to things her peers took for granted. "I'd hear, 'You know this show? It's in that show. You have to see this show." I didn't know what they were talking about."
Since she'd relied on her ear most of her life, and lacked extensive vocal and theory training, she struggled in some of her freshman classes, including singing. "To put it kindly," says Merrill Shea, "she was clueless."
Against all odds, though, she's become a Conservatory star, with what her teachers describe as strong acting skills and a versatile voice that can handle belted numbers as well as lighter, airier ones.
"I think she is the real deal," says Paul Daigneault, who teaches in the Conservatory's theater division and directed Umoh in "Zanna," which runs through Oct. 14. "She has a real well of emotion she can tap. She has the work ethic, she has the talent, and she's great to have in the room."
"She has a way of sounding raw and singing from the gut, from raw emotion, but lyrically and beautifully at the same time," says her friend Corbitt Williams, a fellow senior in musical theater at the Conservatory.
On stage and in class, songs seem to spill out of her effortlessly. "I think it is easy for people to want to get mad at Stephanie and want to hate on her because of the immediate success she has," says Williams. "But I really firmly believe that [what sets her apart] is that you fall in love with Stephanie when you meet her. Regardless of whether she could sing a note, she is a great person and then she gets up on stage and this insane voice comes out of her."
Umoh seems to take her successes in stride. "She is always, like, 'Corbitt, be the first one to tell me if I get a big head,' " says Williams. "You need to tell me the second you see me being any kind of weird or up on my high horse."
To make money, Umoh has taken a part-time job singing at the South End lounge 28 Degrees, though after one recent gig, she confessed, "As soon as I started singing, honestly, I wanted to run out of there." When her cold dragged on and she had a hoarse voice last week during a "Zanna" performance, she was disappointed that she may have let down her audience. "These people pay, like, 40 bucks for tickets," she says. "I always feel so bad if I can't perform up to my ability."
Umoh shares a small apartment with fellow Conservatory student Anich D'Jae Wright. Besides the singing gig and her role in "Zanna" (Wright is in the show too, along with four other students from the school), she has a work-study job doing performances at schools, hospitals, shelters, and festivals. She's also signed on with a Worcester-based modeling agency, investing $700 in promotional photographs, but so far has had no time, nor transportation, to travel out there and get started.
Her debt has, literally, kept her up at night, but she tries not to think about it, and is determined that she'll launch a stage career in New York that will pay the bills. "My goal is to not settle," she says. "I'm a very determined person. I'll find a way to pay them off."
Last summer she swallowed hard and for the first time asked her father to help with the rent; he has not seen her perform "in five or six" years, she says, but he did come through. She tries to live frugally. When she lost her $40 ballet slippers, "I just danced in socks." When her leotard got a hole in it, she stitched it up. Still, it's hard, watching students travel home for Thanksgiving while she stays in Boston, being rebuked by her voice teacher for not having a keyboard, which would help her learn new music.
"I desperately want to own a keyboard," she says. "It's just a matter of being able to afford it."
There are other concerns, too, that she thinks may impact her career. She's not a strong dancer, and doesn't expect to get a dancing role on Broadway - even though that's where many jobs are. Even more complicated is the matter of casting; though she's biracial, she knows she may be excluded from some white roles.
But for now, she's safe in the so-called "BoCo bubble" that is Boston Conservatory, parsing and memorizing Shakespearean monologues, preparing a repertoire of monologues to use for auditions, remembering to relax her tongue when she sings.
And contemplating the pressing question of what to sing for agents at the Senior Showcase.
Right now she's leaning toward "Gotta Move," popularized by Barbra Streisand, or "Waiting for Life" from Broadway's "Once on This Island." Both are numbers about moving on, and beginning a new life without the ghosts of the past to draw her back.
They seem fitting, she says, given what she'll be facing soon. "I tend to take those songs," she says, "and use them as my theme songs for life."
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com