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Emerson Remembers Stephen Terrell, ‘Soul of the Musical Theatre Program’

Stephen Terrell head shot B&W
Stephen Terrell was head of the Musical Theatre program at Emerson from 2003-2016. Courtesy photo

By Diana King

The College is deeply saddened by the loss of Stephen Robert Terrell, 63, who died in Milton, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, July 30. An accomplished performer, director, and choreographer, Terrell joined Emerson in 2003 as head of the Musical Theatre program, where he revitalized the curriculum and inspired a generation of students.

During Terrell’s 13-year tenure, the program sent scores of students into successful theatre careers, including jobs in high-profile productions such as War Horse at Lincoln Center, The Little Mermaid, Avenue Q, and the revival of Hair.

At once fun-loving and driven, gracious and exacting, Terrell was something of an anomaly: a brilliant dancer with no dance training, an ambitious artist with no ego, a college educator with no terminal degree. It was as if “a country western singer with a Texas drawl wandered onto campus” to lead Emerson’s musical theatre program.

“And he saved us,” said Scott Wheeler, senior distinguished artist-in-residence, who co-taught with Terrell until his retirement in 2016. “[He was] not only the head of the Musical Theatre program … but its soul.”

At the time, the program was struggling to redefine itself. Terrell, by sheer force of charisma and decades of industry experience, overhauled the curriculum and transformed the program. Under his leadership, the program’s core instruction in acting, singing, and dancing techniques was enhanced by opportunities to collaborate with professionals on exciting new work, as well as by practical knowledge about the business side of the industry.

In an interview with The Seattle Times in 1999, Terrell described his passion for theatre as a “crusade to legitimize musicals.” As part of that crusade, at Emerson, he was a “champion of new musical theatre pieces,” said Jonathan Goldberg, musical director/senior-artist-in-residence. He added new musicals as well as works-in-progress to the curriculum, inviting composers and other creatives to campus to work with students and faculty.

A native of Longview, Texas, Terrell had a diverse and prolific career that took him all over the world, including to stage operas at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Paris Opera, Teatro Real in Madrid, and Bunkamura Theatre in Tokyo.

He grew up watching his father, a veterinarian, perform in amateur musical theatre productions. His mother was a homemaker and gifted amateur painter. He left college after two years to pursue theatre, landing a show at Six Flags Over Texas. He would later perform in the first national tour of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and as a chorus member of Michael Bennett’s Dreamgirls on Broadway in the 1980s.

Terrell went on to direct and choreograph countless shows, including productions at Off-Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House (where he was awarded the Connecticut Critics’ Circle Award for Best Choreographer), and the Texas Shakespeare Festival, of which he was a founding company member. Shortly before joining Emerson, he was a top director-choreographer in Seattle’s independent theatre scene.

At Emerson, “he lived for the theatre and for his students, wanting them to love it and be as good at it as he was, as he knew they could be,” said Professor Melia Bensussen. “He was generous and kind, and his love for the texts, the songs, and the world of the American musical was full of wonder.”

As an instructor, he had an uncanny ability to see and bring out the best in others. He “could sense the specific talents of each student, and kept inventing fresh ways to bring out those talents, always in a welcoming atmosphere,” said Wheeler.

In the classroom, on the rehearsal stage, in audition spaces, and always outfitted with a large Bubba mug of iced tea, Terrell “never stopped pushing us. He wanted to see us soar,” said Jordan Gross ’17. Gross recalled his first encounter with Terrell at an audition for Emerson College in New York: “He taught a fun dance combo from Hairspray and then had us line up à la A Chorus Line. As he moved down the line, he asked each of us to share our dreams with a group of strangers.”

As Terrell listened intently, Gross was struck by “how special it was that in [under] an hour, he made a safe space for a group of young students to dream openly, loud and proud, about the future we wanted.”

That was his greatest gift: to see others, with all their strengths, flaws, hopes, and dreams – and to make a home for those dreams, wherever he landed.

He is survived by his husband, Neal Lee; their Wheaten terrier, Bertie; his father, Robert Terrell; and four brothers, George, Paul, Mike, and Russell Terrell.

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