Five questions for Bud Coleman

Theater professor takes show on the road – and around the world – for students, community members

Bud Coleman
Bud Coleman

Bud Coleman went to a small, Texas high school and thought he would become an architect. But once he began university classes, he said, “I learned very quickly that my high school preparation in calculus and physics was very behind my peers.”

He signed up for an introduction to theater class as a general education requirement and tried out for a play. It was a good match for his skills. And because his mother was a high school teacher and he grew up in a place where “education was a calling,” he said it was not a big stretch for him to move into academics.

The University of Colorado Boulder appealed to him as a place where he could flourish because it had a Department of Theater and Dance.

“That was very attractive to me because I have a foot in both worlds and so I wanted to find an academic home that included both dance and theatre,” said Coleman, who has been at the university since 1993 and is a professor and former chair of the department. 

He has numerous director and choreographer credits for both professional and CU productions. He also has taught around the world. This winter, he will take students on an extended class excursion to New York to study American musical theater.

1. The upcoming Winter Session class you are teaching explores musical theater both online and in New York and is open to community members. Have you taught this class before? Does it change the way you teach when participants other than students are part of the class?

I have taught the class many times before and actually co-wrote the textbook that we use (“Back Stage Pass:  A Survey of American Musical Theatre”), so the course is very near and dear to my heart. I’ve taught it in fall and spring sessions and for Maymester a couple of times.

I also had an opportunity to teach a version of the course in Japan, where I was on a Fulbright. That was eye-opening because the class was offered not only to theater majors but to a much broader student population. It was a great experience to teach from the angle of how to look at American musical theater as a reflection of American identity. I kept that angle in the class when I returned to Colorado.

The Winter Session has yet another twist on it since there will be an online section and a face-to-face experience in New York City where we will see musicals live on Broadway. I’m very excited by this iteration of the class.

2. How did American musical theater develop and evolve and what were the drivers of change?

There are several strains that sort of set the ground for people to create musical theater at the end of the 19th century. One was operetta, whether it was German, French or Gilbert and Sullivan coming out of England. These comic operas included dialog and singing, but one typical difference between operetta and musical theater is that operetta tends to require a lot of technical singing skill, whereas for musical theater, the composer can create the song in such a way that a character can speak-sing it.

Another antecedent is minstrelsy, the most popular theater form in the 19th century. While minstrelsy was blatantly racist, it did give American audiences the chance to hear American music. Tap dancing comes into the picture during minstrelsy and then vaudeville, which was also very popular and infused musical theater with the sense that it had to be fast. With vaudeville, if your act was not landing with the audience in 30 to 60 seconds, you literally would get the hook and be pulled off the stage. The result was that audience expectations traveled regardless of the theater form they were attending. As soon as somebody new hit the stage, the audience wanted them to deliver or they would get up and leave. Vaudeville also infused musical theater with the sense of specialty acts.

Since musicals are a populist theater form, any innovation with music – whether ragtime or rock ’n’ roll or hip-hop or big band – became part of the production. Musical theater composers look at what is selling in sheet music or what is playing on the radio, and jump on that bandwagon because that is what people are listening to. 

Road productions have also evolved. It used to be that when a Broadway musical went on the road, the sets might be worn out, or a lot of things were cut out of the production, or the actors may not be up to speed. That really changed, especially because of Cameron Mackintosh (think “Cats,” “Miss Saigon,” “The Phantom of the Opera”) who said that the shows were his brand and he didn’t want to send out a road production of “Les Misérables” if it was a “B” version of an “A” show. He really upped the quality of road tours. If you see “The Book of Mormon” at the Buell Theatre in Denver, it is going to be a fabulous show because the producers realize that they are hurting themselves if they’re sending out a less-than-stellar quality production.

Musical theater also has been helped a lot by popular television shows like “Glee,” “America’s Got Talent” and “American Idol.” Young people are inspired by the art form of singing and telling a story. There’s a competition in Colorado called the Bobby G Awards. I’m one of the volunteer adjudicators, and so I go to see musicals produced by high schools. Some of them are incredible because the cast and crew’s hearts are in it. Do they have the same production values as Broadway? Of course not. But you can tell that a lot of people have put a lot of heart and soul into this production. And my bottom line is, if somebody is on stage, has worked very hard, and is having a really good time, chances are you are, too. 

3. You wrote and presented a one-man play. Was it your first and why did you decide to go in this direction?

It came about because of a theater conference. The organizers that year wanted to have something besides academic papers being presented so they encouraged performance as part of the proceedings. I took on the challenge. I had never done it before. It was nerve-racking because you are up there by yourself and so it is all up to you to keep the energy going and keep connected with the audience. I was performing for my peers, for people I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve never had that kind of relationship with them, myself as performer and them as an audience. It was not for the public. It was a situation where I know each person in the audience and I will see them for the rest of the conference.  I’m glad I wrote and performed a one-person show, but I don’t need to do that again!

4. You’ve been involved with numerous productions and endeavors, both as part of the university and away from it. What are some favorite moments in your career?

First, I am honored to be able to continue to perform. I had not performed in quite a while when one of my colleagues was directing “You Can’t Take It With You,” a very fun play written in the 1930s. There are a handful of amazing character parts, people who are not the stereotypical leading man or leading lady but off-the-wall characters. She asked me to play the Russian ballet teacher who is giving private lessons to a young lady who doesn’t have any talent. That was a ton of fun. The same year, I auditioned for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and performed as one of the mechanicals – the working-class guys – in “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was an amazing company and an amazing director. It was an honor to be part of that company.

At the university, we have a very generous donor to the Department of Theater and Dance, Roe Green. About 13 years ago, she set up a visiting artist program so that every year we are able to bring in a professional director, a playwright, a designer or a performer to work with our students on a production. It is an amazing gift that she gave us. I’m the producer of that series. Several years ago, we approached Roe with another opportunity for investing in the department and we were able to set up an endowed chair. I am the holder of the inaugural Roe Green Endowed Chair in Theater and it has been an amazing honor to take that on.

A highlight this year was a sabbatical this spring when I was invited to Mahidol University in Thailand to direct and choreograph the Thai premier of “Fiddler on the Roof.” That was an absolutely amazing experience. The university has the only musical theater training program in Thailand, and the students are fantastic. 

Musical theater is also hugely popular in Japan. The Shiki Theatre Company contracts with American producers to do Broadway musicals – “Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Wicked,” you name it – so Japanese audiences have the opportunity to see these productions. They have the same direction and the same design but are translated into the Japanese language. American musicals are very, very popular in Japan. One thing that was a happy surprise for me when I was teaching in both Thailand and Japan is that the students already have a great deal of knowledge of musical theater; this was not something that they hadn’t had exposure to or weren’t aware of.

5. Do you have a favorite item or artifact that you keep in your office? If so, what is it and what is the story behind it?  

I’m looking at my shelves and the answer is “yes.” I had the opportunity to direct Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” in Russia and the cast gave me a replica of a Russian sailing ship. I have quite a few photos from other productions and about two dozen collectible coffee mugs from different shows.