Inspiring Students With His Lifelong Love of Musical Theatre

Tania Thompson
 | Jun 01, 2021
Musical Theatre Class
Tom Shelton, top row, second from left, with his musical theatre students.

About ​​Tom Shelton

He’s an award-winning composer/lyricist as well as an acclaimed vocal coach and professional accompanist. He has appeared on many local Southern California stages including South Coast Repertory (The Trip to Bountiful, In the Next Room, A Christmas Carol and many more), Pasadena Playhouse, Musical Theatre West (1776), La Mirada Theatre and Laguna Playhouse, as well as off-Broadway at Manhattan Punch Line. He has written a half-dozen murder-mystery scripts on commission for The Gourmet Detective. His other works, which include musical adaptations, original plays, screen and radio projects, have been produced and seen nationwide, most notably Caddie Woodlawn, the original musical, and The Boy Who Ruled the Moon and Sun for the San Diego Opera. His other original works include The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot Jesse James, The Disciples Undoing, Darling, You Slay Me! and a long string of classic fairy tales musically adapted for the Barnsdall Theater in Hollywood.

Musical Theatre Teaching Artist Tom Shelton offers encouragement up front for prospective students: “If you can speak, you can carry a tune.”

Shelton, who has been teaching Musical Theatre for nearly a dozen years in South Coast Repertory’s Adult Conservatory, likens his role to that of a coach by supporting his students where they are vocally, encouraging them and also helping them stretch themselves artistically.

“Of course, people may be nervous,” he acknowledges. “But this class is a safe place to try things, where students bring their own ideas for vocal material and consider some other options. Most of all, it’s about singing for the joy of it.”

Student Gabrielle Tinto describes Shelton as nurturing, encouraging, engaging, fascinating and fun.

“He often will point out to a student a personal strength they have and say, ‘That’s one of your superpowers!’” she says. “He does not teach in a one-size-fits-all way.”

For student Jami Bartlett, musical theatre classes can be about being part of a community.

“One thing Tom emphasized in the first class has stuck with me: we all sing as children—it’s a fundamental part of the learning process, not only because singing is great for memorization (think about the pleasure of learning your ABCs), but also for community-building: singing gives us a sense of belonging, a sense that everyone has a unique individual voice that supports and enriches everyone else’s,” Bartlett says. “In singing, we create art collectively. And then, many of us learn to quiet that part of ourselves, in part because we internalize criticism from others or ourselves, and in part because we have fewer and fewer opportunities to sing—and live—out loud.”

Musical Theatre is open to all levels of experience and the eight-week, online summer session begins the week of June 21. New students are welcome—as are continuing learners.

Tom Shelton
An animated Shelton teaching his class.

About a Song: “Jacky”

Student Jami Bartlett worked with Shelton on ​Jacques Brel's song “Jacky.”  “It is sung by a character who is experiencing something of an identity crisis: she considers all the lives she could live and the people she could be—a pop star, a mogul, even a god—and realizes that her strongest desire is to be a kid again, to go back to ‘the time when they called me ‘Jacky,’” Bartlett says. “It was easy for me to understand the appeal of childhood—innocence! silliness! cuteness!—but Tom really helped me think about what childhood looks like for the character. The character is thinking about what it would mean to be a powerful adult, but for her, a child holds a kind of ultimate power, a unique ability to persuade, a forgivable mischievousness that no adult can get away with. That insight brought so much depth to my performance of the song, because I could meet the character where she was, and communicate from that place.” 

About a Song: “I’ll Be Here”

Student Gabrielle Tinto recalls a watershed moment in class working with Shelton on “I’ll Be Here” from Adam Gwon's musical Ordinary Days. “Up to that point, I had been performing songs in a rather general way, with a general kind of emotion, and to a generalized, non-specific audience. During our work on this piece, Tom taught me the importance of identifying for yourself as a performer exactly who you are talking to when you a sing a song, what it is you want from them at that moment and why, and how you will go about getting it. When I was able to do that, and really focus in on who I was talking to and why, the song took on a new life, a specificity and an emotional intensity it didn’t have before. By the end of my second time through the song, I was in tears, and I understood what it meant to truly connect with your character. It was a breakthrough in my journey to become a singing actor.”

Drawn to Musicals

Shelton’s introduction to musical theatre came during childhood. His mother would bring home Broadway cast albums that were available in the grocery store and young Shelton was smitten.

“After dinner, as a family, we would listen to these show albums and that was how I got immersed in musical theatre,” he recalls. One of his favorites was My Fair Lady. “There was an aliveness to those recordings and I guess I became stage struck. It also was the beginning of my long-distance love affair with New York City and Broadway.”

His path to becoming a self-professed “musical theatre geek” was also helped by his mother’s insistence that he take piano lessons. By his mid-teens, Shelton was determined to become a Broadway songwriter/composer, so he teamed up with a friend, wrote songs together—a team like Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, among Shelton’s heroes—and produced shows in the back yard.

Shelton confesses to having crushes on certain writers and teams, falling for their style and the unique things they brought to musical theatre. A rapid-fire list of his favorite writers and writing teams includes Jule Styne (Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy, Funny Girl) for his “elegance and swinginess and real Broadway sound.” He’s also a fan of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green: “Oh, I wanted to be them!” he says of the latter team. “They had such quality and sassiness.”

Teaching Musical Theatre

Shelton is a teacher, accompanist, encourager and more for his students. When the pandemic moved classes online classes moved online in 2020, he started making customized piano tracks available for students to practice with. “I’m bringing my perspective and knowledge of the repertoire to help them develop not only the song but their confidence.”

The way Shelton teaches, says Tinto, connects with students at all levels.

“His approach to teaching is tailored to meet each individual performer where they are on their own journey and to give them what they need most in that particular moment to grow," says Tinto. "His vast knowledge of the repertoire enables him to select songs for each student to work on, with their specific set of skills and personal goals in mind.”

SCR’s Musical Theatre class isn’t about doing big group numbers, it’s very detail-oriented. Students may dig into the context of a song, dig stylistically into the era of the song or into the mood of the song or more. And it’s as much an acting class as it is a singing class, since Shelton likens songs to monologues.

Each week, all students have the chance to sing and Shelton has praise for how the students encourage each other through Zoom’s chat feature.

“They’re so supportive of each other and tell me it’s great to see what everyone else is doing,” he relates. “It’s marvelous to see the positive impact of their instantaneous reviews. Students need to hear this kind of feedback.”

In the first class, Bartlett recalls, Shelton said something that was life-changing.

“He said, ‘When we are performing, we often aim for the illusion of the first time—the idea that we are singing this song for the first time, keeping it fresh for the actor and the audience,” says Bartlett. “But just as important is the sense of the only time: the idea that we are only ever going to sing this song and express these thoughts once.’  I have found that advice transformative, not just as a way of singing, but as a way of living: it reminds us that every moment, thought, and behavior is unique, even if it isn’t new to us. Valuing that uniqueness and allowing it to sink in and transform every moment—that’s powerful stuff.” 

Learning From Each Other

Shelton says the learning in his class is a two-way street: what the students learn from him and what they teach him. While he mostly assigns songs from Broadway shows of all eras, and an occasional piece from the Great American Song Book, his students bring him a broader understanding of contemporary music.

“They may find a song I’m recommending on YouTube, then learn it and bring it back to the class,” he says. “They’re marvelously responsive.”

Shelton is looking forward to the summer Musical Theatre class, seeing it as a positive experience for everyone and a rewarding journey.

Learn more about Musical Theatre and other summer acting classes for adults.