CARMEL DEAN AND HER PATH TO SUCCESS
In the world of theatre and performance, there is no one road to success.
If we were to look back on some of the most successful names in the theatre world – Andrew Lloyd Webber, Hal Prince, Audra Macdonald – and put their career trajectories side by side, we’d see that each person has hacked out their own path through the jungle to reach their goals.
Of course, each of these examples lives in a different realm of theatre work, but whether you are a writer, a director or a performer, it is immediately clear as you take your first steps into your career that there is no beaten track in the wonderful land of theatre. There is no sure-fire, foolproof plan to follow to get you from point A to B. And so it is always so fascinating to hear how those successful people forged a career from the ground up. For Carmel Dean, successful Australian composer and musical director, her path was as unexpected as anyone else, and has taken her from her early days doing amateur theatre in Perth all the way to Broadway where she has worked with countless big names and stars. So how did she do it? We had a chat with Carmel to find out.
“It was around first or second year Uni,” she says of the moment she knew she wanted to pursue a career in theatre. “I was studying classical piano performance at UWA and at the same time I became involved in the amateur theatre scene in Perth, and fell in love with it.” After that realisation, she approached the head of musical theatre of WAAPA at the time, Dan Follington, who encouraged her to transfer her studies so that she could focus on music-direction.
During her time at WAAPA, Carmel applied for the Fullbright Scholarship, a scholarship that exists to help forge a cultural and educational bridge between Australia and the United States. With this amazing opportunity in hand, Carmel headed to Arizona State University to study musical direction. It wasn’t long after that when she arrived in New York City to do a Masters program in Musical Theatre Writing. Here, she was closer to her goal than ever before.
“Both programs were beneficial in terms of practical skills,” says Carmel, “but studying in New York was really the best place to make contacts and have real life experience in the industry. I was able to sub on a few Broadway shows while I was still studying, as well as hone my skills as a pianist and writer.
But this exciting step forward also means a step away from home. This can be a hard decision to make for some people, but it was a clear choice for Carmel. “I was obviously so excited to be living and working in NYC as it’s the home of musical theatre. And as much as I loved Australia, there was no question I needed to be in New York to be at the epicenter of it all.”
In 2005, Carmel had her ‘big break’ – a permanent position as associate musical director and vocal arranger, as well as keyboardist for the original production of The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee. “It was a thrilling experience because it was the first Broadway show for so many of us who were involved. We were all young and hungry! The show was so joyous and funny and we were all thrilled to be a part of it.”
It was just the start of this ‘thrilling experience’ for Carmel, who went on to add more regional, off-Broadway and Broadway credits to her resume. She was vocal arranger for shows such as Vanities and Elegies: a Song Cycle, as well as wearing both hats (arranger and musical director) for American Idiot, Hands on a Hardbody and the recent Idina Menzel led production, If/Then. She was even involved in the 64th Annual Tony Awards, a huge event for anybody who works in or just loves the shimmering world of Broadway.
“American Idiot was probably the show I learned the most from,” says Carmel, looking back on her varied career. “It was my first show as musical director on Broadway, and the stakes were high as I was working with a famous rock band (Green Day) and many well known theatre people. It was [also] a genre I was not entirely familiar with – punk rock! I learned a great deal about many things working on that show.”
However, any theatre career has it’s fair share of pitfalls, rejection and painful experiences, and Carmel was willing to share both her ups and downs with us. “One of my first big disappointments was when I worked on the Broadway show Hands on a Hardbody. It closed after only three weeks of performances in New York. I had been working on it (as musical director and vocal arranger) for over a year, through various out of town productions and workshops, and we all put so much work and hope and love into the show. When the producers decided to shut it down so quickly after it opened we were all so devastated.
The thing is,” she adds, “you ask anyone who’s had a long career in NYC - or anywhere in theatre, really - and pretty much everyone has a similar story. But it still hurts because you’re so personally invested in every show you do. You just have to accept it [as] part of the biz, and move onto your next project.”
Which is exactly what Carmel has done in her career. She has seized opportunities as they appeared and forged artistic partnerships with many talented Broadway creatives. “I would have to say there are 2 people who have been the most influential on me both in terms of giving me opportunities, and being creative inspirations,” says Carmel. “William Finn gave me my first Broadway show, and has been a mentor - and like family - ever since. And Tom Kitt has hired me for many projects now (American Idiot, If/Then, Everyday Rapture) and has also become someone I constantly ask for guidance and advice.”
As someone who travelled from Australia to make a career in New York, Carmel is uniquely situation to give us some perspective on the major differences between the two industries. With many people in Australia trying to campaign for the support of original work, now seems the perfect time to understand what has made Broadway the central hub of musical theatre that it is today. Carmel believes the simple difference is that “Americans have a greater attachment to musicals. They are part of the culture - especially the tourism industry in New York - and that’s just a fact. And because New York is the birthplace of musicals as a genre, there are many more opportunities and support systems in place to cultivate this industry than there are in Australia.
“Producing original work is no mean feat - the theatre industry professionals who do that here have really honed their skills, and there is a system in place for development. It’s just done on such a frequent basis here. By nature of the Australian population being smaller, and therefore having fewer writers and fewer people demanding to see new work, I believe there just hasn’t been a system that’s put in place there yet where new work is able to be systematically cultivated. Australia is a much younger country in all respects - and that’s no different in this genre.”
But she, along with those of us at Home Grown and other organizations here in Australia that work to promote new work, see that this situation is slowly changing. “That’s very heartening and exciting!” says Carmel.
Despite her many successes, Carmel is not one to stop the momentum of her ever growing career in New York. “I’m really wanting to move away from music directing (for the time being!) and focus on my own writing! I have a few ideas I’m working on as a composer - and hopefully one day I’ll be able to bring one (or more) of them to fruition in Australia!”
We in Australia know that we would be proud and thrilled to see a Carmel Dean show on our shores. She is a prime example of the fact that there is no one-way to find success in your career. The best we can all do is work hard towards our goals, seizing opportunities as they come up and being willing to learn from the people around us. Then, who knows, maybe one day we will be working on Broadway, or mounting shows here in Australia, happily surprised that each step we took lead us to where we wanted to be.