LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - There's no business quite like show business. At Viterbo Unviersity, students in the theatre and music theatre department are working towards those aspirations -- one class at a time.
"[Musical theatre training at Viterbo] consists of dance and acting and singing. All three are really equal in our minds. That is eight semesters of private voice. That is six semesters, although everyone does eight semesters, of dance. That is seven semesters of acting," said Viterbo University theatre/music theatre chair Matthew Scott Campbell.
The intense conservatory-like training program at Viterbo is what is attracting students from all over the country to attend the private school in La Crosse. While Viterbo students are given the tools to succeed after they graduate, the road to success is different for every actor.
"It takes determination and preparation and preparedness and, most of the time, patience to understand that the line is not always straight, and that you can find a whole wonderful life in a lot of different directions," said Campbell.
For some, that direction leads them from the Coulee Region straight into the heart of New York City to star in a Broadway show. Three alums of the Viterbo musical theatre program will simultaneously be appearing in Broadway shows this play season.
1998 Viterbo graduate Arbender J. Robinson said he would have laughed during college if you had told him that he would eventually be on Broadway. Now, Robinson has more than ten Broadway credits to his name including "Hairspray", "The Lion King" and "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical."
After an injury prevented Robinson from attending his top choice college, he was contacted by Viterbo. The following week, he applied to the school and auditioned to be a part of the theatre program. A few weeks later, he drove up to start his freshman year at the university. Robinson said going to Viterbo ended up being the best decision of his life. Some of his credits at Viterbo include "A Streetcar Named Desire", "Patient A" and "The Birds." The Broadway veteran said his success would not have been possible without the life lessons he learned at Viterbo that ultimately shaped his career.
"The department at the time was not as diverse as it is now. La Crosse, as a whole, was not as diverse as it is now. All of those issues that were small or could have become bigger later in life, I was forced to deal with at that age where I'm starting to become an adult. That self-worth and the pride that I have in my ethic origin became an important part in the fabric of my life. When I got out in the real world, those struggles that some people would have, I already dealt with in the safe university environment," said Robinson.
Robinson is currently in the cast of the Tony Award-winning musical, "The Book of Mormon" that is running at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. He has also received the Legacy Robe three times during his career. That prestigious award is given to a cast member in the ensemble of a Broadway show with the most Broadway credits. However, Robinson said one of the greatest honors of his life was being asked to serve on the Viterbo University Board of Regents.
Samantha Pauly, a 2012 Viterbo graduate, is set to make her Broadway debut in "Six." It will begin previews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway in February. "Six" is a concert-like show that combines contemporary musical styles for a modern retelling of the six wives of King Henry VIII of England.
"To be making my Broadway debut in a principal role is beyond my wildest dreams. I don't have enough adjectives to explain," said Pauly, who plays King Henry's fifth wife, Katherine Howard. She continues, "It is an all-female cast. We have an all-female band that is onstage. The show was written and is being directed by a female. I cannot think of any other shows that exist that check those boxes."
Being a strong female lead is nothing new for Pauly. She learned to craft her skills as a triple threat during her time at Viterbo. She initially discovered Viterbo during high school at the Iowa Thespian Festival. Her credits at the university include "Violet", "Assassins", and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." After she graduated college, Pauly landed acting jobs from Chicago to London's West End. However, she almost gave up acting in 2018 after a show she was expecting to tour in closed abruptly. After giving it some consideration, Pauly eventually decided to send in an audition tape for "Six."
"I'm also a firm believer that if things hadn't gone the way that they did, I would not be where I am right now. Follow those impulses. Follow any feeling you get where you're thinking you should take a chance. If you don't, then you will never know what might have happened," said Pauly.
Jhardon DiShon Milton is currently in one of the hottest tickets on Broadway -- "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. He previously appeared in the musical adaptation of "A Bronx Tale," based on the 1993 film and the 1989 play starring Chazz Palminteri.
"While [A Bronx Tale] was my Broadway debut, I consider Tina a second Broadway debut because I'm a part of a brand new show. It's my first official Broadway opening," said Milton.
Milton found out Viterbo right before his senior year of high school while attending a theatre festival in Nebraska. It became one of the top picks for college. Jokingly, Milton said a mistake with the application process prevented him from being accepted to the school prior to his high school graduation. He completed his freshman year of college at St. Mary's in Winona before transferring to Viterbo his sophomore year. As soon as he got to Viterbo, he hit the ground running. Some of his credits at at the university include "The Secret Garden", "A Chorus Line", "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone."
Milton said one of the main things he learned at Viterbo was how to discipline himself, and said that is advice he would give to any student who wants to pursue acting as a career.
"Know what it is that you want, set those goals, be disciplined and ask questions. There are not any stupid questions. If you are unsure, you are just unsure. Two other people before you may know the answer, but your journey is completely different from theirs. You want your journey to be what your journey's supposed to be," said Milton.
One thing Robinson, Pauly, and Milton all emphasized is that to get to the point where they are now, they had to endure some failure. However, that failure has become a part of their success stories. They also said that there are many way to achieve your dreams. That is a sentiment that is echoed at their alma mater.
"We see Sam Pauly and Jhardon and Arbender and these other ones having big commercial success. We are so proud of them," said Matthew Scott Campbell. He adds, "We are also really proud of graduates last year who have year-long contracts. We are proud of graduates from 4 years ago who are finding their success and footing. We create families. The theatre does that and Viterbo does that. When we celebrate, we celebrate all of them and all their success -- no matter what that may be."
Click here for more information on The Book of Mormon
Click here for more information on SIX at the Ordway Center in St. Paul
Click here for more information on SIX on Broadway
Click here for more information on Tina: The Tina Turner Musical