“Boom bah boom bah pah pah boom bah.”
Assistant professor Jacob Brent yelled to his musical theatre styles class. They pirouetted, clapped and slid to the beat as Brent stood in the front of the classroom, observing. Brent, a former Broadway and West End performer, is the musical theatre coordinator at JMU.
Brent’s success story isn’t a traditional one.
“It happened lightning fast for me,” he explained. “I was in the right place at the right time, and I could fit the costume.”
At 20 years old, Brent was cast as Mr. Mistoffelees in “Cats” within a week of moving to New York City, and he ended up staying at the show for a decade. Brent’s ballet background helped him get the part, but other than starring in a production of Starlight Express in Las Vegas, he had little musical theater experience.
“The universe sort of lined up, and I was there, and I was ready and prepared, and they needed a slot and it just happened,” Brent said. “It sounds kinda magical, and it was, but it was also a lot of hard work.”
Although he’d done one show in the past, Brent was new to Broadway and sought to learn from his fellow cast members, some of whom were Broadway veterans.
“I was aware enough just to keep your mouth shut and listen and watch and learn from these people,” Brent said.
Brent jokes that he had “an undergraduate and master’s degree in ‘Cats’ and a residency.” He said it “really was my schooling.”
As Brent himself became a veteran performer, he said he gained confidence in his skills and abilities, which he now shares with his students. He became a professor wanting to make a change in the musical theater education industry, he said, and one of the ways he does that is by teaching in a different way than how he was taught.
“It’s a different world with different students,” Brent said. “How do we make it better?”
Brent has personal connections with many students. Brent can’t walk more than a minute through the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts without a student stopping to say, “Hello.” He addresses each student and makes an effort to help them in any way he can.
“He’s definitely just, like, a bubbly guy, and he definitely makes an effort to know everyone’s name,” Makenna Stergion, a senior musical theatre major and one of Brent’s students, said. “Even if you’re not a musical theatre major in the class, he definitely still engages with you and makes a connection with you.”
In class, Brent takes time to joke with his students. They all laugh and joke back to him while waiting for the music to start. Then, all Brent has to do was count, “five, six, seven, eight,” and the class begins to dance.
The students work on a black Marley dance mat in a large dance studio. The studio, their classroom, is located in a back corner of the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts, down large halls with dressing rooms and prop shops. The classroom entrance leads to the stage, with rows of students facing the mirror and eager to learn. Past the large red curtains is a wood floor where the audience could sit if the room was used for a performance. The ceilings are high, but the wings of the stage are small. Brent stands in the front of the classroom, wearing black sweatpants and a black T-Shirt that says, “You can’t fight the jazz.” His hair is silver, and his voice is loud as he projectes to class.
At one point, he asks Stergion to demonstrate her favorite move for the musical theater styles class. The whole class bursts into laughter and cheers as she dances.
Stergion later explained how she’d taken this class in the past and knew the dance combination he was teaching. She said she’s taken multiple classes with Brent and has been in two musicals he’s directed and choreographed: Twelfth Night, a musical adaptation, and Side Show, a musical about conjoined twins looking for fame and acceptance in the vaudeville era .
“In, like, every class I’ve been in with him, he’ll bring in his Broadway friends,” Stergion said. “It’s honestly been really helpful to get so many connections from him and also learn firsthand from him how to prepare to go into the real world of the theater industry.”
Senior musical theatre major Colie Vancura said she’s thankful to be taught by a Broadway performer.
“His firsthand knowledge and experiences are so helpful,” Vancura said. “It doesn’t seem unattainable.”
Vancura explained how Brent “doesn’t sugar coat it” when talking about his experiences, and he tells stories about the good and the bad to fully prepare his students.
Brent’s class focuses on moving chronologically through the theater world, starting with classic styles and moving toward contemporary. Brent also adds some of his own musical theater history knowledge to the class, exploring topics like dance anthropology and the African roots dance comes from. Sam Sinnott, a senior musical theater student of Brent’s, said dance and musical theater have a complex history, and he’s thankful Brent takes the time in class to address those issues.
“It’s important that people that are training to be in that field to know, kind of, like, our history,” Sinnott said.
Sinnott said his Tuesdays and Thursdays are busy, but he enjoys starting the day with Brent’s class. Not only does Sinnott enjoy dancing, but he said he enjoys the energy Brent brings to class every day.
Sinnott said Brent is constantly cheering on his students.
”If you hit a triple pirouette, he’s screaming your name across the studio,” Sinnott said.
Contact Grace Feuchter at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.