Ted Talks

Musical theater impresario Ted Chapin addresses UWSP grads and their families

A seasoned host, moderator, interviewer and lecturer, Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization President and Chief Creative Officer Ted Chapin is no stranger to speaking before large crowds. But then again, his appearance on May 19 at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point marked the first time he had been tapped as a commencement speaker. As such, he had some pretty “Big” shoes to fill—at least in his own mind.

“When my older daughter graduated . . . the commencement speaker was the father of one of her classmates,” Chapin told the 1,300 total graduates and their guests assembled in the Multi-Activity Center during two separate ceremonies. “The classmate was Elizabeth Hanks, and her father, the charismatic Tom Hanks, gave an insightful talk. So, in thinking about the privilege I have been given today, it is certainly my hope to be more in the Tom Hanks mold.”

Early on in his address, Chapin remarked, “Over my life I have learned to say what you want to say and get on with it.” And that is exactly what he did during a 10-minute speech that had him briefly reminiscing about lessons learned when dealing with Broadway luminaries such as Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”) and Chapin’s former boss, Stephen Sondheim. He left audience members with an important one-word takeaway—listen.

“In thinking about what I have liked or not liked about commencement talks in the past, I figured one simple piece of advice would be better than trying to speak about big, worldly matters,” he said prior to the talk.

UWSP-Broadway connections led Chancellor Bernie Patterson to invite Chapin to speak at commencement. Former UWSP students Laura Osnes ‘05 and Tatyana Lubov ‘15 each have starred as the titular character in “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella”—Osnes in the original 2013 Broadway cast and Lubov in the national touring production. Chapin and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization oversee the mounting of classic R&H shows, including “Cinderella,” which originally was written for television.

Chapin does not know Lubov well, but he and Osnes go back a ways. In addition to “Cinderella,” she has starred in other R&H vehicles: “Carousel” at Chicago’s Civic Opera House, the little-known “Pipe Dreams” as part of the New York City Center Encores! series and a recent revival of “South Pacific” on the Great White Way. Osnes also has performed in a tribute to Chapin, and recently worked with him in a benefit concert version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Show Boat” at the legendary Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania. The actress portrayed the female lead, Magnolia, and Chapin served as the show’s narrator.

“I adore Laura,” said Chapin. “She is a rare talent, and a rare human being.”

While in Stevens Point, Chapin toured campus and met with UWSP theater students for a Q&A session. He also found time to conduct a self-guided architectural treasure hunt, which led him to the historic Fox Theater on Main Street. “My colleague and I drove around downtown to see if we could spy an old Vaudeville house that most towns like that have,” he said, “and we did!”

But the highlight of his trip was, obviously, giving the commencement address. Through eleventh-hour editing—spurred by careful listening on the part of the speaker himself—Chapin managed to make the closing of his speech on the importance of listening even more topical by referencing discord over UWSP’s planned academic restructuring.

“I would ask, in keeping with what I’ve said up here today, that each and every one of you, no matter how involved you are in the discussion, to listen to what everyone else is saying and feeling,” he said. “Listen to what others say. You won’t learn anything while you are talking. Listen to those who agree with you and listen to those who don’t. The right solution will come only if you all keep an open mind to solving your problems together.”