Fostering the next generation of musical theatre artists
New faculty members Justin Lee Miller and Doug Peck share their teaching philosophies and advice for young artists.
Fueled by a desire to influence the next generation of talent, two award-winning musical theatre artists recently relocated from creative capitals to join the Theatre Division at Interlochen Center for the Arts.
“I came to Interlochen from Manhattan, where I took the subway every day and lived around millions of people. It’s beautiful here and I’m humbled by the opportunity to join this community of artists, but I’m still getting used to coming to work in the woods!” says Justin Lee Miller, who joined Interlochen as the inaugural program director of musical theatre.
A seasoned theatrical performer who appeared on Broadway in My Fair Lady, Phantom of the Opera, and On the Town, Miller started in theatre with plays and then migrated to musicals and operas. “I think for me, it has always come down to having an insatiable curiosity for something new,” he recalls.
This summer, Miller will direct students in Interlochen Arts Camp’s 2022 High School Musical Theatre Production program in Anything Goes.
Eight-summer Interlochen Arts Camp alumnus Doug Peck returns to Interlochen from Los Angeles as an instructor of voice. Peck has shared the stage with Renée Fleming, Heather Headley, and Kristin Chenoweth, among other musical luminaries. His accomplishments include conducting the original full orchestration of Carousel at the Glimmerglass Festival, creating new Indian/jazz fusion arrangements for the stage version of Disney’s The Jungle Book, and serving as musical supervisor for the hit off-Broadway musical Ride The Cyclone.
“Coming to Interlochen all those summers and playing piano for all my singer friends, some of whom have gone on to gigantic careers, I realized that this is what I wanted to do and these were the kind of people I wanted to be around,” he says.
Here, Miller and Peck reflect on their first fall at Interlochen, their teaching philosophies, and their advice for young artists.
How have you found your first few months at Interlochen?
Justin: Having worked with professionals and college students for so long, I have to remind myself that I am working with high school students. They’re all so talented—but they’re also at the very beginning of their careers and they still have a lot of growth ahead of them. As teachers, it’s important for us to keep that in mind.
Doug: The most important thing I have found in my first months at the Academy is that the students here are just so impressive. They have so much sensitivity and clarity about what they want to do and what kind of artists they want to be. I love working with students like that.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
Justin: Even though my position is new, it’s not a new program; Interlochen has been doing musicals for a long time and has earned its outstanding and well-deserved reputation. But this is the first time we have someone on the administrative side focused solely on musicals. I’m looking to expand and organize the program and add more dance and music training opportunities. The goal is to give our students a leg up when they start applying to musical theatre programs at the college level.
Doug: Nina Simone said that the artist’s duty is to reflect the times, and I try to live by that every day of my life. It’s not just about making musical theatre that is diverting or entertaining—it’s about telling stories and expressing the identities of the people who are singing and making the art, as well as the audiences who are experiencing the art. My teaching philosophy is about being inclusive of the whole student as a person.
I also really enjoy working in and teaching a wide variety of genres. In their first lesson with me, I ask students what they like to listen to, and they usually rattle off the latest three Broadway musicals, which is what they think they’re supposed to say! But if a student likes different genres—R&B, gospel, country, or folk—I want to know that. Because theatre is becoming more inclusive of different sounds, genres, and styles, and theirs is a generation of performers who will push that evolution even further.
What do you think sets Interlochen’s musical theatre program apart?
Doug: One thing I noticed in the first week of the Academy is that all the students in the acting track still auditioned for the musicals, and all the musical track students auditioned for all the plays. That doesn’t happen in a lot of college programs—much less at the high school level. It’s so great that our actors who are not on the musical theatre track still get that musical experience. As a voice coach for professional performers, I’ve answered a lot of panicked calls from actors who thought they were safe from having to sing! So having this foundation is important even if students don’t plan to focus on musical theatre.
And it goes both ways too. Our musical theatre track students really benefit from the strength of our acting program. I’ve been at professional auditions in New York where the singers just forget to act their songs. They just sing it at you. Even after such a short time here at Interlochen, I see that our musical theatre students perform with a clear point of view and a strong acting foundation.
Justin: Our program is totally immersive. When you’re at Interlochen, you’re surrounded by the arts, day and night, and that makes a big difference in a student’s long-term growth as an artist.
How is working with students different from coaching professionals?
Justin: One of the fundamental differences is the need to rehearse and teach at the same time. When we ask a student to use a specific technique, it may be the first time they’ve ever heard of it. And when that happens, we’re going to stop and teach. All these teaching moments mean that our rehearsals move at a slower pace–and that’s okay. Of course, it’s important for students to recognize this too; because they need to expect to pause every now and then so we can take advantage of all the teachable moments that happen along the way.
Doug: When you work with a mid-career professional, it's so centered around their immediate goals and you can’t change them as much because their identities and habits are so established. You can work with them–but it’s a lot of suggestions. Interlochen students want to learn everything–and they have the time and motivation to do it.
If you could give one piece of advice to young musical theatre artists, what would it be?
Justin: If I was offering advice on how to have a great career in musical theatre, I would say: take piano lessons and enroll in dance classes. You can start both at a really young age, and they’re great preparation not only for musical theatre, but life in general. A lot of people think about voice lessons, but when you’re young, your voice will change so much that you’ll end up needing to make lots of adjustments later.
It’s also important to remember that there are many different types of musical theatre careers. When students are younger, they may be focused only on performing. Then, in college, they may realize that they’d rather be the music director, or the songwriter. Or maybe they’ll decide that they really want to teach—and then who is going to play the piano for rehearsal? Having those fundamental skills can prepare you for any path that you decide to follow.
Doug: Musical theatre means doing several jobs at once, and you have to take them all seriously. You can’t be somebody who sings but doesn’t really care about acting or dancing—or any variation of that. You have to polish all those skills. The students who excel are the ones who find great joy in doing the hard work in all these disciplines. Those are the students who go the extra mile here at Interlochen, then in college, and then out in the professional world. And they do that, not because their teachers are telling them to do it—but because they love doing all these things.