Broadway actor Will Burton, BFA ’11, didn’t know whether to be “extra nervous or extra relieved” when he got the call to do a chemistry read for the Tony-nominated musical “Beetlejuice.” He knew his audition partner would be fellow Broadway actor — and former U-M classmate — Britney Coleman, BFA ’11. If compatible, these Wolverines (center and right, above) would share the stage as Adam and Barbara Maitland, the married ghosts portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis in director Tim Burton’s 1988 film.
Spoiler alert: Burton and Coleman were more than compatible.
Turns out these graduates of U-M’s Department of Theatre and Drama lived as roommates in Ann Arbor from 2010-11 in a legacy apartment passed among musical theater students. The “Round House,” located above the Jamaican Jerk Pit, had a longstanding reputation for late-night parties on Thayer Street.
So when Burton texted Coleman about their pending chemistry test, she replied, “They should just give you the role.”
Shared history comes in handy when you play husband and wife. “It’s been pretty wild,” Burton says, “and it makes it a little bit easier every step of the way.”
Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!
The musical theater pair appeared in three plays together while students at the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance: “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” “Rag Time,” and “Ella Minnow Pea.” “Beetlejuice” marks their first Broadway collaboration; it also is Burton’s first Broadway tour.
Based on the 1988 horror-fantasy-comedy of the same name – and starring Michael Keaton as the titular character – “Beetlejuice” revolves around Adam and Barbara Maitland, a pair of novice spirits haunting their earthly home. When their amateur antics fail to scare off goth teenager Lydia and her parents, the Maitlands turn to the Netherworld for assistance. “Bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice answers the call and, well, all hell breaks loose.
Burton (no relation to the film’s director) admits he had low expectations for the musical comedy when it debuted at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre in 2018. But he bought a ticket anyway, hoping for a decent adaptation of the film he hadn’t seen since childhood. He suspected producers were “just using the IP to get butts in seats.” He was pleasantly surprised.
“The show was sold out, and people were dressed up like Beetlejuice and Lydia. From the second it started, it was this rock concert and it was hilarious.”The actor was especially impressed by Broadway veteran Rob McClure’s portrayal of Adam Maitland.
“He turned the role into something more active and interesting than what I thought Baldwin did in the movie – and Baldwin was great – but Rob is so dynamic,” Burton says. “I thought, ‘I’d love to do that one day!’ I clocked that role and told my agent if it ever comes in, I’d love to audition.”
Like Burton, Coleman was pleasantly surprised when she saw the stage production. “The show had so much heart, and it was really, really fun from start to finish.”
Accelerating to the stage
Once cast, the college roommates were able to skip the tenuous and vulnerable process of building trust with a new scene partner.
“That can be really challenging at first, because nobody knows what they’re doing,” Burton says. “Everyone’s figuring it out, trying to discover what their show is going to look like, what their role is going to look like.”
It’s important to know your fellow actor has your back and vice versa, Coleman says, and normally that takes time. “With Will, we walked in with that already in hand. It’s always us — ready to play.”
“When you know each other like college kids know each other,” adds Burton, “you hit the ground running.”
Theater to theatre
Coleman and Burton prepared for their roles by rewatching Burton’s movie for the first time as adults. The experience inspired Coleman to “make a meal out of the audition. I brought a lot of joy into the room with me and made the role my own.”
And while Burton describes the production as “laugh-a-minute,” he admits some of those laughs are unplanned.
“I know Britney so well that I will get a look onstage from her, and then we’ll just start giggling,” he says. “We definitely understand each other on a level not everyone else does.”
Adds Coleman: “I love being able to walk out of the show, having had a really good laugh every night.”
A2 to NYC … and beyond
Not surprisingly, Burton and Coleman are just two U-M grads contributing to the production, which includes casting director Rachel Hoffman, BFA ’99, and performer Nevada Riley, BFA ’19. Riley made her Broadway debut in the ensemble; she also covers the lead role of Lydia.
“We got to officially open the tour in San Francisco with [Riley] as Lydia: Three U-M grads at the helm,” Burton says.
SMTD alumni thrive on Broadway due to their rigorous training, professionalism, and networking, Coleman says. The program is designed to graduate smart, well-rounded people, which resonates in the theatre community. Just last week, the New York Times profiled Tony-nominated Lorna Courtney, BFA ’19, starring in “& Juliet.”
Supportive, local alumni make all the difference, Burton says. “The school’s reputation is really good. We have a huge network of alumni who can help us get on our feet. They know what jobs to take while auditioning. They tell you how to prepare for these auditions, where to go, and the people to talk to.”
The system seems to be working. Coleman’s first Broadway play was “Sunset Boulevard,” alongside eight-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close. She also appeared in the Tony-winning revival of “Company” as well as “Tootsie.” Coleman also performed in “Beautiful! The Carole King Musical” in New York and as a member of the show’s first national touring company.
Burton made his Broadway debut in “An American in Paris,” a rigorous song-and-dance ensemble, also cast by U-M alumna Hoffman. He has since appeared in “Holiday Inn,” “Kiss Me, Kate!” and “Hello, Dolly!” He also can be seen on NBC’s long-running crime drama “The Blacklist.”In addition to the musical theatre training, both performers learned a valuable lesson about life from their shared mentor Brent Wagner, Arthur Thurnau Emeritus Chair and Professor of Musical Theatre. Wagner was chair of the Dept. of Musical Theatre for 32 years and is credited with building the department into one of the top musical theatre programs in the world.
“Everybody had such an impression of him; he was such a character,” Coleman says. “Everybody talked about this man being this incredible leader of the program – and he really was. He’s also a great teacher.”
One of Wagner’s most enduring lessons was to focus on and express gratitude, even in a cutthroat industry, Burton says.
“Writing thank-you notes was something he encouraged and something he taught us how to do — and how to do well,” he says. “Throughout my career, I’ve found it’s really important to tell people you appreciate them and their time. First of all: It’s a wonderful thing to do. Second of all: It helps your reputation, which you carry with you in this business. That’s something I’ll hold on to forever.”
(Lead image is a production still by Matt Murphy. From left: Isabella Ensler, Will Burton, and Britney Coleman.)