Aaron Lazar, From Duke to Broadway

After a performance of Sting’s musical The Last Ship in mid-November, a couple of exceptional Duke theater alums and a transformative faculty member talked about their connection to Duke. Aaron Lazar graduated in 1998 with a music degree. The Last Ship was his ninth appearance in a Broadway show. Nathaniel Hill is a 2012 graduate of the Theater Studies program. In his senior year he produced Ragtime, Duke’s first Graduation with Distinction project in production. Standing next to them was a man who played a crucial role in both of their college careers—Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg, an eminent Broadway producer who doubled as a professor at Duke for many years.

This is Lazar’s story, lightly edited.

I got a scholarship to sing in the opera department that was new. They had just brought Susan Dunn down from the Met to teach and create the opera program, and so I was very grateful for the scholarship. It required me to be a music major, so I was majoring in music and then minoring in pre-med. My parents were going to be very happy because they’d have a nice Jewish doctor in the family, and then two things happened. One, I took Manny [Azenberg’s] class. I’d never read a play before, and the first play we read was Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which was absolutely a joke for me, I seriously didn’t understand a word of it. Manny’s entire class hinges upon visceral essays in response to the play that you’ve just read. I couldn’t write anything, I didn’t understand anything that I read, so I made up some… crap, I’m sure. And I got to meet Tom Stoppard here, on stage, a couple of weeks ago, and tell him that story. He was very gracious. Anyway I took Manny’s class. And then a drama professor at Duke, Jeff Storer, and Jody McAuliffe, cast me in Carousel. Carousel was a reintroduction to musical theater for me. I’d done some musicals in high school and said I wouldn’t have time to do it in college because I’d have to get good grades and all that. And then, after Carousel, professors started pushing me, saying, you should try it, you should try it. I kept my parents happy after, because the MCATs are good for three years. I went to graduate school for theater for two years at Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and then I had one year to get a job. I got a job six months in and then never wanted to take the test again and so, here we are.

Nathaniel Hill went from his senior production at Duke into the professional world, where, among other things, he served on the general management team for The Last Ship. This past fall he returned to campus during DEMAN (Duke Entertainment Media and Arts Network) weekend to share his experience with students coming along behind him. As he says in the video, DEMAN is “an amazing program that’s been created to help students who don’t necessarily want to be doctors and lawyers get their toes wet in the business, get that first internship and start meeting people, which is so important in our business.”

It’s worth quoting comments Azenberg made about his Duke class when he received the 2012 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. Lazar, it turns out, had exactly the experience his professor intended him to have.

For 25 years Azenberg also taught a theatre course at Duke University, where he was famous for handing out in class plays with the covers and title pages ripped off, so that he could elicit an unbiased “visceral response” from the students. “It was a fun course and the kids were challenged,” he says. “If they didn’t understand the play, they would have to just say that, not that they hated it. By the end of the semester, hopefully, they actually had some confidence in their own opinion and also recognized that all the arts are subjective.”