Few college majors are more misunderstood than musical theater students. More than just acting, the University of Miami (UM) Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) musical theater program captures a high level of student talent, one that many students in other sections of the university may not understand.
Luciana Ragolia and Jenna Hochkammer, senior BFA students from Setauket, New York and Birmingham, Michigan, discussed the high-energy task of being a musical theater major with The Miami Hurricane.
Ragolia, a self-proclaimed “In the Heights” fanatic, developed her love for theater early on.
“In sixth grade, I was a gymnast but broke my ankle, so I auditioned for the school musical ‘Cinderella’ and got the lead,” Ragolia said. “It just stuck with me from there.”
Hochkammer, a fan of Broadway legend Bernadette Peters, found success at a young age by winning major performing competitions.
“I won a competition in high school called ‘Access Broadway,’” Hochkammer said. “I was Miss Access Broadway. That was my moment where I thought, wow, I could do this.”
Both stressed how different their college admissions processes were compared to typical students.
“It takes extra steps of showing them our talent,” Ragolia said. “I got into [UM], but then I had to wait to see if I got into the program itself.”
Hochkammer provided an alternative backstory, explaining she did not originally plan to apply here.
“I did not apply here until after I auditioned,” Hochkammer said. “I did a walk-in audition, where you don’t schedule ahead of time. Miami happened to be hosting one with a bunch of other schools where students walk in over the course of days, so I went.”
Ragolia said the types of classes the major coveres may seem unorthodox to students in other majors because of the variety of classes they are required to take.
“Starting as freshman, we have music theory, then voice and speech learning about different accents and dialects, movement classes, lectures about the anatomy of vocal cords, acting, singing for the stage and dancing,” Ragolia said. “As seniors, we have classes about auditioning in the real world, branding ourselves, marketing and how to film ourselves to send out to professionals and put together a showcase.”
UM’s musical theater professors themselves also bring talent to the classroom, as many have backgrounds in Broadway productions with years of performing.
“Our professors are theater people, which is a very specific brand of human,” Hochkammer said. “I’ve had some of my professors every semester since I was a freshman, so you establish close, professional relationships that you don’t get in other departments.”
Having the same classmates for four years provides a sense of community for BFA students.
“It’s a high school feel because it’s not as many people,” Ragolia said. “We’ve known each other since before we got here but having an immediate family is one of the reasons why I’m still at this school. I know if I was stranded on the side of the road that at least one person, if not all twenty of them, would save me.”
Hochkammer expressed the same sentiment.
“We’re all so supportive,” Hochkammer said. “It’s not easy to stand in front of your classmates, performing a piece on an eating disorder, bearing your soul. People discount that all the time. Think about how much anxiety public speaking gives other people. That’s my everyday life.”
A common misconception that both students stressed is the difficulty of balancing their work and personal lives with their majors.
“During rehearsals, I don’t really have much of a personal life,” Hochkammer said. “We typically have class everyday from about 9 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.] or even 6 [p.m.], at night, but at 7 [p.m.] you’re expected at rehearsal. Rehearsals go until 11 [p.m.]. It’s just crazy, busy and hectic because the same professors teaching classes go and spend all night with you at rehearsals.”
Ragolia expressed that majoring in musical theater is not for the weak of heart, given the hectic schedule.
“This major is something you should only go into if you are super passionate,” Ragolia said. “If it’s not running through your veins, you won’t be able to keep up.”
Ragolia said she and her fellow BFA classmates are aware of how they are perceived by students outside the program.
“They think we’re weird,” Ragolia said. “They think we sit in circles and yell at each other followed by singing and dancing, but we have work to do. We still have to get a grade in every class, so on top of the performance aspect I have to write essays to fulfill that.”
Hockhammer demanded that others stop claiming their work is easy.
“People think we do nothing, which is crazy,” Hockhammer said. “I’m still expected to write a thesis paper and do coursework for other academic classes outside the major. We do the bulk of our work in class, but that means I can’t zone out. I have to be actively participating.”
Both young actresses made it clear performing is not the only career path for theater students.
“Teaching is probably the biggest path, but there’s many different jobs,” Ragolia said. “There’s producing, writing, casting. Most of my classmates want to do more than just performing.”
“I’m currently working at GablesStage, a theater in Miami at the Biltmore [Hotel],” Hockhammer said. “I’m learning about arts administration, what it takes to run a theater, cast and produce shows. It’s an outdated idea that you can only be an actor. During the pandemic, I applied to modeling gigs, film and TV, things I never thought I’d do.”
Both actresses can be seen onstage in performances later this semester. Ragolia triumphantly returns as Sonia in “Godspell,” while Hockhammer tackles the role of The Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods.”