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Emerson Remembers Leo Nickole, Founder of Musical Theatre at Emerson

Leo Nickole at table with balloons
Professor Emeritus Leo Nickole ’49 at an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Spring Musical at Alumni Weekend, 1993. Photo/Emerson College Archives

Professor Emeritus Leo Nickole ’49, LHD ’01, architect of Emerson’s musical theatre program and mentor to future stars like Henry Winkler ’67 and Joely Fisher ’88 died Wednesday, April 1. He was 93.

He taught in Emerson’s Performing Arts department for close to 50 years, where he started the College’s musical theatre curriculum and began the tradition of the Spring Musical, directing 45 shows by the time he retired in 2001. That year the College conferred on Nickole an honorary doctor of humane letters degree during a gala tribute at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“’Leo Nickole was synonymous with ‘musical theatre’ at Emerson for more than half a century,” Professor Maureen Shea, head of the Theatre Studies program, said.

Nickole graduated from Emerson in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in theatre and speech, earned a graduate degree from Columbia University, and served with distinction in the U.S. Army during the Korean War before eventually returning to his alma mater to teach in 1953.

In his 48 years as a faculty member, he served as chair of the Drama Department, founding chair of the Theatre Education Department, director of the Musical Theatre program, and internship coordinator for the department.

 “He taught hundreds of ‘MTs,’ many of whom went on to very successful professional careers as performers, directors, and artistic directors in highly respected regional theatre companies and commercial productions off and on Broadway,” Shea said.

He also taught generations of musical theatre teachers, she added, and returned to the Performing Arts department as an affiliated faculty member post-retirement, putting his encyclopedic knowledge of the field to good use teaching History of the American Musical.

Nickole in 1960. Photo/Emerson College Archives

Performing Arts Chair Robert Colby said Nickole’s support of the Theatre for Young Audiences productions allowed the department to reach tens of thousands of school-aged children across New England with award-winning productions.

Colby was hired by Nickole in 1977, when he was in Colby’s position.

“I was struck at the time at his willingness to hire a young, unproven college teacher and trust me with the responsibility to develop a program in theatre education that grew from a handful of undergraduate students to more than 120 BFA, MA and MFA students today,” said Colby. 

“He was a proud man of small stature but enormous ‘size,’ with limitless energy and a passion for musical theatre that knew no bounds,” said Shea.

Broadway star Miguel Cervantes ’99 (Hamilton) credits Nickole with teaching him about what it meant to be a professional actor, live the “theater life,” and instill the belief that Cervantes had what it took to succeed.

“He became a support system when my family couldn’t be around for a lot of things. That made our relationship so much more than student and teacher,” said Cervantes. “He became part of my extended family. I am where I am now because he helped me get through those years in my life, as an actor, as a student, and a person.”

Cervantes remained in touch with Nickole through the years, who came to see him perform, and the two would meet in Boston. While Cervantes said Nickole and he had a very close mentor-mentee relationship, he knew he wasn’t the only one.

“A lot of people who were close to him. I think that’s the cool part of who he was as each student had a special relationship with him. He did whatever he could to make kids feel special no matter the situation,” said Cervantes. 

Fellow Broadway star Jessica Phillips ’94 (Dear Evan Hansen) said she was prepared for her first professional theater job because of Nickole.

“He treated us like professionals because he was teaching us to be them. He showed up prepared and expected the same of us,” said Phillips. “He asked us to contribute creatively to our shows and also to make sense of what we were told to do, to take direction, to be off-book. … He was unforgiving in his feedback, his directness, because he wanted us to learn the first time and because he had created for us a safe space in which to fail, which we did, often.”

Leo Nickole gesturing off frame
Leo Nickole directs a 1961 production of Bells Are Ringing. Photo/Emerson College Archives

For Emerson’s first Spring Musical in 1953, Nickole staged a “modest” production of Lady in the Dark.

“When we started out, we did not start with the idea that it be an annual event,” Nickole told Expression magazine in 2003. “We presented it in the old carriage house behind 130 Beacon. To our happy surprise, tickets were sold out weeks ahead, so we said, ‘Let’s continue this.’” Nowadays, the Spring Musical plays to packed houses in the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. 

In 1956, Nickole and his students decided to produce the new Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town. Bernstein happened to be in town the weekend of the performance, and though he couldn’t attend, he sent a note to cast and crew wishing them good luck and thanking them for choosing his show.

A decade before he played the Fonz on Happy Days, Henry Winkler performed in Nickole’s  Carnival and The Fantasticks, according to Expression. Actress Joely Fisher starred in A Little Night Music, TV news anchor Morton Dean was a guy in Guys and Dolls, and the late Richard Dysart got his start in Finian’s Rainbow.

A prolific and esteemed director, Nickole helmed more than 100 college, community, and summer theatre productions. In 1983, he was elected to the College of Fellows of the New England Theatre Conference, eventually serving as president and Trustee. In 2001, he endowed the Leonidas A. Nickole Educator of the Year Award, which recognizes excellence in theatre education.

Nickole founded the Musical Theatre Society of Emerson College, and served as its advisor for 30 years. He advised the Alpha Pi Theta fraternity for more than 32 years.

For his scholarship and service, Emerson heaped many awards on Nickole, including the President’s Award for distinguished service to the College, and the Gold Key Society Distinguished Teaching Award, and culminating in an honorary doctor of humane letters in 2001.

Nickole leaves his partner, Hank Zappala ‘79.

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