For some, they can only imagine what it’s like to be center stage for a Broadway musical. For Salisbury University alumna and professor Jennifer Hope Wills, she dreamed of it, worked for it, achieved it and came back to SU in a matter of years.
Being brought up in a world of singing and performing in Ocean City, it was only natural that Wills end up in the big leagues of theatre production; however, for Wills, this was not always her plan.
After growing up with parents who owned a theatre company and being surrounded by the spotlight of performing, Wills decided that in her adult life, she wanted to do anything but that. So, instead of theatre arts, Wills attended SU as a history education major.
But alas, Wills could not run from what was meant to be. She explains this inevitable fate of hers as a “funny story.”
“When I came to Salisbury, I wanted to do anything but theatre or music ... I didn’t want anything to do with any of that,” Wills said. “But then I started to sing in the local choir and community theatre, and I was like, ‘Aw, man! I guess I do still like this.’”
Wills ended up changing her major to music and getting her master’s at Indiana University in opera, but after teaching, she still felt a part of her that wanted to live out a childhood dream.
“So, then I thought ... if I don’t go now and see what happens ...” Wills said. “So, then I’d gotten it in my mind that why don’t I just see if I can do it?”
At 31 years old, Wills made her big Broadway debut in 2004 as the understudy for Belle in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Wills then starred in a number of top regional theatres around the country and went on to co-star Brooke Shields in the Production of the “Wonderful Town” on Broadway.
Enjoying the spotlight and New York City for nearly six years, Wills began to miss the laid-back lifestyle that came with living on the Eastern Shore. She also decided that Salisbury was a better environment to raise her son, so she returned.
In her first semester back at SU as a professor, Wills has raved about the campus and how nice it feels to be home.
Currently, Wills meets with ten different students on a weekly basis with 30-minute to hour-long sessions. She highlighted that one of her favorite parts about this teaching style is the diversity of her students and her ability to get to know each of them one-on-one.
“If you had one big class full of people, you don’t really get to know them so well ...” Wills said. “But this. When it’s one-on-one like this, you really get to know the person.”
A typical session for Wills often does not start talking about music at all, but rather talking about the individual and their own well-being. The session then leads into warm-up exercises and voice coaching by Wills.
Because her students all range in their ability levels from beginners to the more advanced, Wills works to tailor each lesson to work for each specific student.
"Each student is different, and each lesson changes drastically based on which student is walking through the door," Wills said. "Voice is all about your body ... so you have to sort of be a detective to figure out how each student works."
Seeing Wills on Broadway nearly eight years ago, SU senior Alyssa Mullins had never imagined she’d be in the same room as Wills, nonetheless have her as a professor at the university. When she received word that Wills would be her voice coach this semester, she could not contain her excitement.
“It was really incredible to see someone who had come from this place, and had started in the same arena of homegrown community theatre and gone to that,” Mullins said. “When I found out she was my voice teacher this year, I sent her the largest fangirl email.”
Mullins takes Music 390, which is a course specifically for voice lessons for non-music majors. She enjoys the class because she feels that the course consists of a wonderful blend of exercises and course work.
Mullins emphasized that the class allows for a great deal of flexibility in that no student is required to learn a new language or memorize specific pieces for a musical jury.
Right now, Wills is helping Mullins with an English aria and a German aria from "The Magic Flute." Mullins feels that much of the class works around technique and emotions.
“Singing is very emotional, and I don’t know that everybody really realizes how much it takes not only to sing in front of people, but to sing to in front of someone directly that you are expecting to criticize you,” Mullins said. “To ask someone to make you good ... what does it feel like, what does it sound like, but most importantly, what does it make you feel like?”
It is this sense of true emotion and depth that Mullins feels Wills has brought to her lessons that no teacher had ever done for her in the past.
Mullins feels that Wills’ experience on Broadway brings not only authenticity and experience to the classroom, but also a sense of genuine-ness that not every class has the ability to give a student.
“She is an incredible addition to the faculty because she brings, not only that real world experience, but she can give it to you in a way that is non-condescending. It’s very much like, ‘I’m willing to tell you as much as you’re willing to listen,’” Mullins said. “She’s incredible.”
By CAROLINE STREETT
Gull life editor
Featured photos by Caroline Streett Images and Broadwayworld.com.