CMU Alumni Help ’The Heart of Rock and Roll’ Beat on Broadway

In the six months of preparation for the brand-new musical " The Heart of Rock and Roll ," costume designer Jen Caprio said her costume team tried 30 pairs of jeans for the lead character, Bobby, to settle on just the right combination of form and function.

"Were they too loose, were they too tight? The ’80s jeans had no stretch in them. Could he move in them?" said Caprio, who earned a master of fine arts degree from the  School of Drama in 2003.

"The way CMU approaches collaboration is different from other schools and it’s always really refreshing." - Jen Caprio
Among the many CMU alumni who have made careers on Broadway, Caprio said Carnegie Mellon prepared her in the way she works on script, storytelling and character analysis, and how she works with actors to include them in the design process.

"The way CMU approaches collaboration is different from other schools and it’s always really refreshing," Caprio said. "It’s always a more in-depth dramaturgical process when I come across other CMU alumni, and maybe that’s just because we share a language."

Actor and CMU alumnus Corey Cott, who plays lead character Bobby Stivic in the show, graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in drama in 2012.

"With Corey, we really worked together with his character," said Caprio. "We ended up cutting the sleeves off his T-shirts because he’s got a little bit of an edge, but not too much of an edge. He’s not the most intimidating person, but he’s also a rocker - and he’s got good arms; you’ve got to lean in to that."

She led a team of six people on the design team who oversaw about 70 people working on the show, which features 23 cast members in scenes wearing a range of outfits including business attire, fitness spandex and clubwear.

Propelled by the music of Huey Lewis and the News, "The Heart of Rock and Roll" is set in a high-energy, sherbet-colored version of the 1980s. In one scene when Bobby is preparing to go home from his box factory job, Cott quickly changes from his uniform jumpsuit onstage. But, just beforehand, Cott had to be able to do a dance number in the coveralls.

"For weeks, he would do the lunge and every night it would rip," Caprio said. "We had to use everything, a combination of snaps, magnets and Velcro. Every night, the wardrobe supervisor would come out during rehearsal, and my associate and I would sit there, like ’Is it going to split’’ Finally, it didn’t!"

To convey the ’80s time period, costumes help audiences better understand each of the era’s character archetypes, like preppies, rockers and nerds.

"You have to be able to take the modern eye and merge it with what the period is," she said. "Make the people look fun and attractive."

The jukebox musical that  opened April 22 is the latest in more than 250 productions over the last 25 years to feature Caprio’s designs.

Cott said the energy and compassion behind Lewis’ biggest hits are what make them work well as part of a Broadway musical.

"Our music team did a really good job shifting and molding them for the stage, but Huey writes from a place of such truth that to make them active is not really that hard," Cott said. "He’s been our coach and our champion and our cheerleader."

Creating a character

Big on ambition and drive for both leading a rock band and sales of cardboard boxes, Cott’s character Bobby finds himself falling in love with his boss Cassandra Stone while his band is about to have its big break.

"I have to give credit to the team, the ’80s are really fun to explore and be in," he said. "Jen did a wonderful job making us fully immersed in that period. She was very open to our ideas, it always felt super-collaborative."

He and his brother Casey Cott, a fellow School of Drama graduate (2016), will serve as social media ambassadors for Carnegie Mellon at The 77th Annual  Tony Awards on June 16. 

Six CMU alumni are  nominated for 11 Tony Awards and this marks 15 consecutive years alumni have earned nominations. Carnegie Mellon and The Tony Awards will present the 2024  Excellence in Theatre Education Award that night  recognizing CJay Philip of Baltimore for her exemplary work inspiring K-12 students through her theatre arts program, Dance&BMore. 

Cott, who has played the leading man in four Broadway productions, said establishing a character in a new musical has been the most rewarding part for him, including the opportunity to improvise lines during rehearsals that were added to the script.

"The best is creating your own thing. It’s the hardest, but the most satisfying," he said. "I would rather make it more myself."

After graduating from the School of Drama, he  performed as Jack Kelly in Disney’s "Newsies," a role he held for two years. He later appeared as Gaston Lachaille in the Broadway revival of "Gigi" and as Donny Novitski in the Tony Award-winning musical "Bandstand."

In the climax of "The Heart of Rock and Roll," Cott sings a ballad, alone onstage on the verge of tears grappling with Bobby’s emotions.

"Some days that’s very true and honest and it’s exactly how I feel, and some days it’s just not there and you have to fake it, but I know what it is to feel those emotions, so I know what it is to give the illusion that I’m feeling it," he said, adding that connecting to the character to express those emotions was something he began learning at Carnegie Mellon. "You go through it in class in a really safe way so you can simulate it in your work."

Foundational knowledge from CMU builds careers

While at Carnegie Mellon, Cott said he learned not only how to get a job, but also how to develop a prosperous career.

"The acting technique that I learned there, how my body functions as an actor, how to move through space and the vocal technique to sustain, technically, eight shows a week, but also to build a career," he said. "Every day, I’m using the technique that I learned at CMU in order to sustain myself."

Looking back, he also appreciates the foundational knowledge of theatre repertoire - not just musical theatre -- that the School of Drama taught him, as well as the small class sizes.

"It’s very competitive, but the yield of that competition is an incredible amount of attention from each professor," Cott said.

The versatile careers of the CMU alumni community also proves the university’s distinctive spirit. Cott cited inspirations such as  Patrick Wilson ,  Megan Hilty and  Leslie Odom, Jr.

"We have over 100 years of alumni that have been shaking and moving and making the business better in every medium," he said. "I always wanted to work in film, television and theater, and if you look at the successful Carnegie Mellon actors, they are able to do that."

In the Playbill for "The Heart of Rock and Roll," Caprio hinted at a Tartan connection in her biography dedication: "For Barbara and Cletus."

Barbara and her husband Cletus Anderson, who died in 2007, were professors in the  College of Fine Arts , mentoring generations of students. Caprio learned that  Barbara Anderson had passed away on the day she had to submit her bio. 

"Legends, of course," Caprio said of both. 

When she meets and works with recent Carnegie Mellon graduates, Caprio said she knows they, too, will be innovative, striving toward what’s next.

"I meet a lot more recent graduates who are changing the way we look at the way we create theatre and the way we do storytelling," she said. "There’s something about meeting the people who keep coming out of the school and have a new way of looking at what we do, which has been really exciting."

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