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The Producer

Having worked on the most successful Broadway production of all time, the 12-time Tony Award-winning The Producers, Phil Reno knows a thing or two about getting singers to sound their best.

Singing at 11 a.m. is never easy, even for the most accomplished singer. But an early start time couldn’t deter more than 20 Ohio Northern University students from experiencing a master class with Broadway musical director Phil Reno last month at the Freed Center for the Performing Arts.

Phil Reno works with senior Jim Scofield
during his master class at the Freed Center
for the Performing Arts.

Reno’s career spans nearly 30 years in musical theatre, including the past decade on Broadway working on shows like The Producers, The Drowsy Chaperone and Promises, Promises. As a musical director, his job includes both auditioning talent and working with singers once they are cast, two very different tasks that he combined into an innovative teaching experience on the Freed Center stage.

His wealth of knowledge and energetic personality were on full display as he worked with students on singing and talked about life in New York City and what it takes to make it as a professional singer.

His advice on auditioning ranged from the practical – “Pick a song that you can relate to and do well and can form some kind of emotional connection to” – to the insightful – “Sixteen bars of a song in four-four or six-eight time gives you longer to sing than a song in two-four time” – to the cautionary – “Don’t tell a musical director you can hit a high ‘C’ and not have a song to show it.”

When it was time for students to sing, they did so like they would at an audition, singing portions of songs they had prepared with only piano for accompaniment. However, instead of saying, “Thank you very much. Next!” at the end, Reno worked with each singer on his or her selection, sometimes going word-by-word to find a deeper connection to the song.

Junior musical theatre major Mary Beth Donahoe of Lakewood, Ohio, appreciated the level of coaching Reno gave to her.

Sights and sounds from Phil Reno's master class.

“It’s the kind of thing that you don’t necessarily get in a voice lesson because a voice lesson is a lot more focused on the technique,” she says. “He focused on the performance aspect of it and helped me connect to the characters in the story that the song is about.”

While Reno is very happy to be doing what he does for a living, he admits that working with students is one of his passions. He majored in music education at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati and planned to become a high school band or choir director.

“Doing this is so much fun. These students are just so much fun to get to know and to work with. I just try to give them some ideas of things to keep working on. They keep getting so much better year after year, which is really a tribute to the department here,” he says.

When it comes to master classes for the arts at ONU, the “department” Reno speaks of spans the range of music, musical theatre, theatre, international theatre production and dance. Reno’s master class was the result of Kirsten Osbun-Manley, resident artist and lecturer in music and musical theatre, reaching out to Reno.

“We are constantly out and about trying to find people to bring back for our students. We go to New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago to find current industry professionals. We really feel strongly that they need to see how the real world works,” says Osbun-Manley.

There are usually two or three master classes each year in the performing arts at ONU, and the performers run the gamut of directors, casting directors, musical directors, dancers, choreographers, singers, stage lighting technicians and set designers. According to Donahoe, ONU’s reputation for bringing in talent to work with students is well known among students looking to pursue the arts in college.

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“It’s actually one of the biggest reasons why I came here,” she says. “I knew that I would have the opportunity to develop personal relationships and make personal connections with people who are actually in the business. When I graduate, hopefully I can look them up and say, ‘Remember me? Let’s work together again.’”

Apart from the professional connections the students make and the technical instruction they receive, master classes teach students another lesson that is very important to learn in a business like professional performance.

“This business is very subjective,” says Butler. “So it’s important for students to understand that one casting director’s opinion can be completely different from another. They shouldn’t get discouraged if an audition doesn’t go the way they want it to; that’s part of the game. By being exposed to many different industry professionals while they are students here, they can see that.”

Last month’s master class was Reno’s fourth at Northern, and if Osbun-Manley and Butler have anything to say about, it certainly won’t be his last.