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Star Quality

| Laura Mayer

New York City is a surprisingly small town. It attracts the ambitious, adventurous, idealistic and slightly crazy. But as the song goes, if you can make it there … well, anywhere else misses the point entirely. This is the place! Especially if one's ambitions best flourish in live entertainment.

This is a true story. A reality not yet exploited on any faux-reality TV show, but one that we all daydream of, poking that sweet spot where talent, incredibly hard work, charisma, persistence and —oh yes! —luck all fall perfectly into the universe's brilliant, sparkling nexus. And the best part? All of our characters (and they are characters, in the very best sense) are UW-Eau Claire music graduates.

Jeremy Miloszewicz

Jeremy MiloszewiczImagine teaching trumpet to precocious diplomats' kids at the United Nations International School by day and playing trumpet on Broadway by night. Jeremy Miloszewicz '96 studied with UW-Eau Claire music professor Robert Baca and got his first gig in 1994: "Miss Saigon" at Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre, for which the occasionally moonlighting Baca was unavailable. He continued playing in the show for two months, commuting from his studies at UW- Eau Claire.

"I was 22, and it was the time of my life," he recalls.

He continued to work in shows for which Baca ("I still call him Mr. Baca") was unavailable: "Grease," "Phantom of the Opera" and "Beauty and the Beast." It's a career he has handily succeeded at.

Jeremy also played during college at Eau Claire's Mandarin Club with Baca and Greg Keel, another local musician. After earning his bachelor's degree in music education, he received a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, which led to a master's in jazz and commercial music. He also studied privately with William Adam, Baca's mentor, at Indiana University.
Jeremy's path took him from various jobs in Minneapolis (The Minnesota Opera) to Canadian and Los Angeles tours with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Then on to New York City, where he first did Broadway shows as a sub, filling in for trumpet players in pit orchestras who needed a night off.

"There's no glory in subbing, but it's a great way to make contacts," he said. "You record the performance and practice the music, you try not to have to sight-read. Total preparation usually takes about 10 hours. You work with a lot of the same people from show to show."

Jeremy eventually toured with "Ragtime" in 2000 and has subbed in a slew of hits: "The Producers," "Sweet Charity," "West Side Story," "Miss Saigon," "Showboat." In 2006 he was hired for the off-Broadway hit "Grey Gardens" and recorded the original soundtrack but didn't move with the show to Broadway because of a new job with the hit show "The Drowsy Chaperone."

"Generally, I enjoy playing more if it's novel and fresh, but the capricious nature of unemployment can be hard," he said. "You can go from being really busy to just subbing. You can never have too many friends."

You can't lose footing with the right foundation –Jeremy Miloszewicz

He most recently played full time for the sold-out, Tony-nominated “Follies” revival and then with the Tony-nominated “Leap of Faith,” which turned out be exactly that — closing in May after only 44 performances. No regrets, said Jeremy, who had been subbing for “Jersey Boys” and “The Book of Mormon.” He recently was hired to perform full time in the Disney hit musical “Newsies.”

Ultimately, it all goes back to training. Jeremy still visits the 94-year-old Adam for lessons and, besides Baca, cites as major influences former UW-Eau Claire jazz director and trumpeter Dominic Spera, UW-Eau Claire grad Bill Buchholtz and Cameron High School band director Mike Joosten, who encouraged him to study with both.

“The program at UW-Eau Claire and Mr. Baca all recommended an approach based on musicality, on musicianship,” Jeremy said. “You can’t lose footing with the right foundation.”

Jeremy recently was asked by Dennis Luginbill, band director at Eau Claire’s Memorial High School, to do a weeklong artist residency at Memorial this coming January.

Laila Robins

Laila RobinsThere are actors whose faces we know, though their names might escape us. But for avid New York City theater-goers or, especially, critics, Laila Robins '81 is a goddess. Nominated for a slew of awards through the years, Laila arrived at UW-Eau Claire on a music scholarship and studied classical piano with Penelope Cecchini.

“I wanted to be Joni Mitchell,” she recalls.

It’s for shrewd, poised characterizations that Laila is known, most notably in the Tony-nominated off-Broadway transfer “Frozen” in 2004. The performance garnered her a Lucille Lortel Award nomination and critical raves.

After being mentored at UW-Eau Claire by theater professors Wil Denson and David White, Laila grappled with an enviable choice for grad school: a Fulbright scholarship to study in England or a coveted spot at the Yale School of Drama. She chose Yale. She was soon at the Williamstown Theatre Festival performing in Ivanov with Christopher Walken and Dianne Wiest, directed by John Madden.

“I thought, ‘Wow! Is this going to be my life?’” she remembers. It was.

Her first New York play was for Mike Nichols in his Broadway premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” Laila stepped into the role for which Glenn Close won the Tony. And she starred opposite Jeremy Irons. Working with the notoriously meticulous Irons proved to be a challenge to the young actress.

"I thought, 'Wow! Is this going to be my life?'" she remembers. It was. –Laila Robins

“It was tough!” she says now with a hearty laugh. “I wish I had been more experienced at the time and better able to understand all the things he was teaching me.”

Much regional theater followed. Then, in 1990 she secured the lead on the network series “Gabriel’s Fire” opposite James Earl Jones. The series was lauded, even garnering a Golden Globe Award for Jones, but as fickle as television networks are, was soon canceled. Still, “it bought me this apartment,” Laila said, indicating her Upper West Side spread.

In subsequent years, Laila has kept busy, receiving typical praise for meaty roles on the New York boards in “Antony and Cleopatra” and Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” and as Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and again with the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (where one critic praised her work as better than Cate Blanchett’s). Film roles include “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” Robert DeNiro’s “The Good Shepherd,” Clint Eastwood’s “True Crime” and the more recent HBO film “Too Big to Fail.” She has an eclectic list of television roles: “The Sopranos” (young Lydia), “Sex and the City,” “Bored To Death,” “In Treatment,” “The Good Wife,” “Blue Bloods” and “Person of Interest.”

One career highlight was premiering Arthur Miller’s “Resurrection Blues” at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater in 2002. Not only did she find Miller “a soul mate,” but she had the giddy privilege of introducing him to Denson and Cecchini when Miller accompanied her to Eau Claire for a lunch date, where Cecchini also played piano. (Miller had admitted to never having been to Wisconsin.)

Laila has taught as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York City and twice has chaperoned student groups to the Moscow Arts Theater School. She recently appeared off-Broadway in Edward Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque.”

“It’s really nice to be in that sort of energy,” she said. “I know my process on stage, I love to rehearse. In TV and film the rehearsal process is so quick. I tend to work from the outside in: get the accent, the physical.”

Still, that one universally renowned job has, so far, inexplicably eluded her.

“I would love to do that one big film role,” she admits.

As with so many seasoned actors, her list of near-misses is interesting: “The Money Pit” opposite Tom Hanks (she was doing “The Real Thing” on Broadway); “Roxanne” opposite Steve Martin (“they wanted a star instead”); “Bull Durham” opposite Kevin Costner (it was between Laila and Susan Sarandon); “Big” opposite Hanks again (Elizabeth Perkins).

Nevertheless, she says she’s had the kind of career she wanted to have.

“It’s been an interesting life,” she said. “I’ve been very fortunate, very lucky. I’ve had a wonderful balance of all the media.” (While visiting Laila in the theater in March after a performance of “Lady,” Albee stopped to chat with his leading lady.)

She also recently shot a new Steven Soderberg film with Jude Law. During the summer, Laila worked with Chloe Sevigny in the play “Abigail/1702” with New York Stage and Film at Vassar College. Meanwhile, awards season proved fruitful: her performance in “Lady” was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award, and her participation in a quartet of Richard Nelson plays received Obie and Drama Desk nominations for best ensemble. And she was awarded the annual Actors Equity Richard Seff Award, a recognition bestowed on a veteran stage actor, for “Lady.”

Larry Lelli

Larry LelliMeanwhile, drummer Larry Lelli '90 learned his Tony-winning show, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," was closing at the end of May. That's the business, a job contingent on fate, luck, a constant hustle. In any event, it's been a good ride, and Larry doesn't worry about the next gig. The nature of Broadway is, simply, totally unpredictable.

"A show will get postponed, or the budget will fall apart, an investor will pull out," he said. "You have to go with it. You get a job, and it'll happen until it doesn't happen anymore."

Larry arrived in New York via Nashville in 1996 with a broad music background and deference to UW-Eau Claire drumming guru Ron Keezer, who he says prepared him to really know a little bit of everything.

"UW-Eau Claire's music performance program taught us to be well-rounded musicians," Larry said. "You learned swing, big band, marching band, choral, orchestra. You have to be able to piece together a career. You can't be a one-trick pony. I thank Keezer every day."

Larry paid the typical dues: playing on cruise ships, in Minneapolis' Cedar Avenue Big Band and for the Pinkard &Bowden comedy show from 1994-95. He started in New York by knocking on doors and subbing in shows.

After much part-time work in Broadway smashes ("Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon," "Beauty and the Beast," "Titanic," "The Music Man," "Annie," "Fosse" and "Footloose"), Larry's first show as a "chair-holder" was for "Jekyll &Hyde." That led to chair-holder in "Tom Sawyer" and then "Assassins." Scheduled to open in fall 2001, producers for "Assassins" postponed it after the Twin Towers tragedy and opened it in spring 2004. Faith in the show and persistence won out.

"There's no safety net," Larry said. "I really feel like I got lucky."

He also worked full time for "The Producers."

Larry credits Baca with masterminding UW-Eau Claire's feeder program.

"He really knows when you're ready," Larry said. "He took his own real-world lessons into school, and we soaked them up like sponges."

Larry also teaches privately, nurturing next generations of Broadway drummers.

UW-Eau Claire's music performance program taught us to be well-rounded musicians. –Larry Lelli

"I really have the best gig in town," he said. "With Broadway, you have to be fully committed, especially the trumpet and drums, who carry the show at 8 o'clock. It's high pressure, but I love the music of it, creating something that's live. I want to give the audiences their money's worth —and it's not cheap!"

Dan Urness

Dan UrnessDuring his years at UW-Eau Claire, trumpeter Dan Urness '04 too was primed under Baca's guiding hand.

"He was really inspiring;he believed in me more than I did," Dan said.

Having spent some summers with Kids From Wisconsin, Dan went right from college to touring with the Glenn Miller Orchestra —on a cruise. As glamorous as it may sound to land-locked desk jockeys, "a couple of months touring was enough for me," he said. The job helped him get his sight-reading skills together and, of course, more contacts. Who did he know in New York? Jeremy Miloszewicz, of course, for whom he had filled in on "Grey Gardens." When it moved to Broadway and Jeremy had other commitments, Dan was hired.

Dan also arrived in the big city by way of the Manhattan School of Music and considered getting a doctorate.

"I thought I'd teach college for the job security until things started rolling," Dan said.

Perhaps as part of that need for security, Dan also teaches trumpet at the United Nations International School. For fun, he plays with The Awakening Orchestra, performing a mix of rock and pop music.

This past year, Dan went from playing for the Tony-nominated out-of-town production of "Newsies" and the annual Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular to jumping right into the Tony-winning revival of "Porgy and Bess." Other past productions include "Ragtime";"Promises, Promises";and subbing for "Gypsy" and "Chicago." He currently is performing on Broadway in the musical "Chaplin," based on the life of Charlie Chaplin.

"I've been really fortunate these six years," he said.

Just to prove the point is the story of Dan's wedding a few years ago. He was rehearsing "Promises, Promises," a 2 p.m. call, and he still managed to get married that morning and then spend his first few married hours playing trumpet in a pit.

Sue Anderson

Sue AndersonSue Anderson ’77 ended up in New York by accident — it was never part of a master plan.

“I planned to stay here for one year and then go to Europe,” she said.

Sue originally attended UW-Eau Claire on a business scholarship. She played piano but had no formal training and really only did theater for fun: “all performance — no scales, no repertoire,” she recalls. Did she figure on a career in music? “Heavens no!”

But often, careers choose us, and sometimes New York is just in one’s blood. She got a day job at Cornell University Hospital editing research papers for the hematology department, yet picked up performance work at night.

“I had absolutely no expectations,” she said.

She soon learned “never to say no — it’s all fun.” She enrolled in an extension program at Julliard just so she could play. She worked with the Village Light Opera, a children’s group, and played actor Ben Stiller’s bar mitzvah.

She kept making connections and soon was Rex Harrison’s rehearsal pianist for “My Fair Lady.” She joined the musicians union and then the Broadway run of “The Pirates of Penzance” with Kevin Kline, eventually conducting the show as well as playing in the pit. She was hooked and continued to work as musical director/conductor or pianist for “Me and My Girl” and “Cats” (conducting well into one of her two pregnancies) and was the onstage pianist for the Broadway run of “Jerry’s Girls.”

"I planned to stay here for one year and then go to Europe," –Sue Anderson.

There was the time she was hired to teach piano to an occasionally soused Peter O’Toole for the film “Svengali.” He was unable to convincingly learn it for close-up shots, so Sue played, literally tucking herself under the keyboard and playing with her head more or less in his lap. Another fond memory involves sharing chocolates with Katharine Hepburn during “The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley.”

Though her last pit was in “Spamalot” a few years ago, she performs and tours a cabaret show with husband Cris Groenendaal (Monsieur Andre in the original Broadway “Phantom of the Opera” and then the Phantom himself for two years) and keeps busy with various community performances (she and Cris moved north of New York City several years ago).

The art of possibility

Bob Baca“The reality of dreams comes from naive idealism.”

For years, this quote adorned the office door of Robert Baca, UW-Eau Claire professor of music, trumpet instructor and director of jazz studies, a man whose professionalism and idealism have propelled the careers of hundreds of definitely not naive young musicians as they embarked on their journeys.

As the music alumni in the accompanying article freely offer, Baca not only opened portals to fulfilling and competitive lives as professional musicians, but opened their souls to potential and possibilities that they may easily have otherwise overlooked. Both the program itself — which puts emphasis on students collecting a broad and well-rounded repertoire — and the myriad opportunities for undergrads to meet, be mentored by and play with other professionals throughout college preordain that grads will ultimately find success.

Baca refers to musicians’ skills, their musicality, as their product.

“Along with our product being the best quality possible, we learn the necessary life skills that give us confidence to have others feel comfortable around us: Play well and be that good guy,” Baca said. And that “good-guy,” pay-it-forward mentality becomes a lifelong philosophy.

“In music, we are always willing to share what we know because it is what we love to do,” he said. “Many of the professional musicians (in this article) are UW-Eau Claire alumni who will do whatever it takes to help the next generation become successful. They are giving back to the university in this way.”
But to Baca, what is in one’s soul is as important as what is coming through one’s instrument.

“The No. 1 aspect is being a good human being,” he insists. “Once students feel comfortable in their skin, they are free to experience the art of possibility and work like a fiend because they want to, not because they have to. All music is sound, which affects us emotionally in every way. In order to create this emotion, the musician goes one step further than the average listener. They must first feel what good music, in any genre, does to us and then learn to produce those qualities through imitation and imagination.”

Ultimately, it is all a part of being a good teacher.

“In high school, like a smorgasbord, we are introduced to a plethora of life’s opportunities,” he said. “Many pique our interest. Some will become a favorite pastime. At least one will lead to what we will call our profession. In college, we continue our broad-based education, but for the subject that we choose to make a living at, we must become excellent. For those who choose music, college is where the rubber hits the road and we learn how to become excellent.”

Another favorite quote comes from Baca’s own mentor, trumpet player and teacher William Adam: “Be socially acceptable. Be politically acceptable. Play the heck out of your instrument.” — Laura Mayer

Our guest writer

Laura MayerLaura Mayer, a 1987 UW-Eau Claire journalism graduate, lives and works in New York City. After several years in the publishing industry, she segued into teaching high school special education. She says she had a blast rubbing shoulders with these five alumni Broadway performers and chronicling their stories of how they made it on the Great White Way.

Photos by Nick Romanenko