CMU Alumni Patina Miller and Billy Porter pose with their awards in the press room at the 67th Annual Tony Awards, in New York, June 9,
(Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
by Mark Kennedy
AP Drama Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — There was plenty of applause heard during the Tony Awards — and perhaps no place louder than from as far away as Pittsburgh.
Six alumni from Carnegie Mellon University took home Tonys in five categories, a glittery haul that was both a school record and a huge source of pride for a theater department that turns 100 next year.
Billy Porter, Patina Miller and Judith Light each took home acting Tonys, while Ann Roth got one for best costume design, and partners Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer won for best lighting design of a play.
“We’ve had a bumper crop,” said Peter Cooke, head of the university’s school of drama. “I’m just delighted that they received rewards from their peers. It was just a terrific night.”
The six wins means Carnegie Mellon took bragging rights from the better-known Yale University School of Drama, which had four Tony winners Sunday: costume designer William Ivey Long, actor Courtney B. Vance, set designer John Lee Beatty and playwright Christopher Durang.
In addition to Carnegie Mellon winners, there were plenty of alumni serving as presenters and performers: “Newsies” lead Corey Cott graduated last year, “Star Trek” reboot star Zachary Quinto is from the class of 1999, and Megan Hilty, who recently starred on NBC’s “Smash,” is a 2004 graduate.
“You’re looking at a broad continuum of talent that’s come out of this school,” said Cooke, who has hosted representatives from theater schools as far away as Estonia and Brazil. “They’re coming to us to ask, ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Can you help us?'”
Founded in 1914, the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama is the oldest conservatory training in America and the country’s first degree-granting drama institution.
The school is known for its interdisciplinary work, embrace of technology and stress on learning-by-doing, meaning acting students help make the sets and backstage designers get a chance to shine onstage. Alumni come back not just to make speeches but to teach.
“It’s a very rigorous program but I have to say it’s one of the best in the country because they really just prepare you in all avenues of this business,” says Miller, who graduated in 2006. “You do everything. The actors sing. The musical theater students do as much acting as the actors. We were all very well rounded in all aspects of theater.”
Graduates include Cherry Jones, Rob Marshall, Ted Danson, Christian Borle, James Cromwell, Blair Underwood, John Wells and “The Book of Mormon” stars Josh Gad and Rory O’Malley, who roomed together as freshmen. Stephen Schwartz wrote “Godspell” and part of “Pippin,” which won the best musical revival Tony on Sunday, while on campus as an undergraduate.
The university’s graduates have won 29 Tonys to date, which is impressive, but easily dwarfed by Yale, which has had at least 97 Tonys, according to a spokesman, starting at the first awards in 1947 when Elia Kazan was crowned best director for Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”
Eisenhauer has won three of Carnegie Mellon’s Tonys, most recently on Sunday for the lighting design of “Lucky Guy.” Smitten by the theater bug as a preteen, she said she saw lots of Broadway shows and was blown away by lighting designer Jules Fisher’s work in the original “Pippin” in the early 1970s.
She found out he went to Carnegie Mellon, so she applied there. “I wrote my essay to get in — I was asked who I most wanted to meet — and I said Jules Fisher.” She got in and got her wish when Fisher came to the campus to teach.
She followed him to New York and he eventually hired her as his assistant, “after, as he put it, I ‘stalked’ him,” she said with a laugh. Later they decided to join forces as co-designers and together have won Tonys for “Assassins,” ”Bring in da Noise/Bring in da Funk” and now “Lucky Guy.”
“It is a magnet and it perpetuates itself,” she said of the school.
The alumni network is very tight and Miller said her teachers are still in contact with her seven years after she graduated. She herself is advising a new crop of soon-to-be graduates, some very likely to grace Broadway.
“I put everything down to the faculty. The faculty is everything in a theater school,” said Cooke. “You can have great buildings or lousy buildings. But the person at the front of the class needs to know more than person sitting in the chair. That’s how it works.”
Mark Kennedy can be reached at https://twitter.com/KennedyTwits