The Tony Awards are set for this Sunday, June 12. Whatever surprises are in store, they’ll be hard-pressed to match the thrill that last year’s ceremony gave to USM’s Ed Reichert.
Among all the talk of Broadway luminaries, Reichert suddenly heard his own name. The nominees had recorded a series of promotional videos, later released online, about the educators who inspired them. For Broadway star Robyn Hurder, that inspiration was Reichert.
“He just put full trust in me,” Hurder said in her video. “As an educator, that is so important that if you see something in someone and they have a voice and they’ve got an energy and a personality, trust them.”
Reichert has been teaching Musical Theatre as a lecturer at the Osher School of Music for 20 years. His involvement in Maine’s theatre scene extends back even further as a frequent director of regional productions. It was during one of those shows that he met Hurder.
Based on a recommendation, Reichert borrowed Hurder from the Maine State Ballet to dance in the ensemble for a staging of “Chess” by The Portland Players in 1999. She was 17 years old and had just found her life’s ambition.
Hurder returned the following season with her sights set on a lead role. Despite Hurder’s youth, Reichert couldn’t deny her talent. He cast her as Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Hurder quit ballet to give the role her full commitment.
In recounting his early impression of Hurder, Reichert said, “This girl has got that star quality. She’s got that little bit of something special that’s just jutting out from her eyes and every inch of her.”
Their relationship followed Hurder to college at the University of New Hampshire, where Reichert sometimes worked as a guest director. Reichert’s decision to cast her as Linda in “Blood Brothers” didn’t sit well with some members of the department who objected to giving such a big role to a freshman.
Reichert refused to cave to the pressure and defended Hurder as the best person for the part. His vote of confidence helped convince Hurder that she could still dream big even though she came from a small town like Windham, Maine.
“He took chances on me and gave me these opportunities that made me believe, ‘Oh wait, I can actually do this,’” Hurder said. “It makes me want it even more, makes me even more hungry, and I want to keep working harder and harder and harder to get more roles like this.”
Those roles came soon enough. Hurder left college in her second year and ran the gauntlet of auditions in New York City. Within a few years, she built an impressive résumé. Her success reached a new level in 2019 when she originated the role of Nini in a new stage adaptation of the hit movie “Moulin Rouge!”
In a show that revels in the decadence of Paris nightlife in La Belle Époque, Hurder still managed to stand out. She went to the 2021 Tony Awards as a nominee in the category of Featured Actress in a Musical. She didn’t win but had faith the next time will be different.
The Tony experience also put Hurder back in touch with Reichert for the first time in years. They reconnected for this story over Zoom to discuss the promotional video about inspiring educators. Once hellos were out of the way, they quickly began sharing memories of past shows and mutual friends.
“Robyn is a perfect example of what I try to teach my kids here at USM, one of the things,” Reichert said. “That is, always be nice to everyone you work with.”
Reichert tries to apply that philosophy to his teaching style, as well. As musical director for USM’s spring production of “Urinetown,” a light touch helped calm the cast and crew. Emotions were especially high because a musical hadn’t been staged on campus since before the COVID-19 pandemic two years prior.
One of the final dress rehearsals fell on March 1. A superstition holds that it’s good luck to say “rabbit, rabbit” whenever a new month begins. Reichert went a step further by pinning a ball of fluff to the seat of his pants. When the cast needed a pick-me-up, he surprised them by turning around and flashing his rabbit tail.
“On top of his vast expertise and knowledge as a musician and an accompanist and a teacher, he does a lot for morale and joy,” said Dr. Rachel Price Cooper, director of “Urinetown.”
Reichert makes a big deal of birthdays to connect with cast members on an individual level. One of his favorite tricks is to interrupt rehearsal mid-stream with a chorus of “Happy Birthday to You.” He’s also well-known for treating students to baked goods from his own kitchen.
The fun compliments the hard work that Reichert demands from his students. He has their trust when he asks them to make a difficult adjustment to their performance or learn a new skill outside of their usual comfort zone.
“He likes to work together with his students and it’s very appreciated,” Brandon Wong said during a break in “Urinetown” rehearsal.
Wong entered college intending to pursue Classical Voice training, but gravitated instead toward Musical Theatre. He turned to Reichert for guidance about making the change and found the encouragement he needed. By senior year, Wong headlined “Urinetown” as Bobby.
Two months after playing Pennywise in “Urinetown,” Meg Walz was a graduate in search of professional acting opportunities. She knows it’s a tough road, but trusts the lessons she learned from her teachers at the Osher School of Music, particularly Reichert, will help tilt the odds in her favor.
“It’s very encouraging knowing that the training he is giving is what’s expected in the big professional world and that he has been successful in getting people to where they want to be in life,” Walz said. “I’m super happy to have made a connection with him.”
That connection, along with loads of talent and drive, certainly worked for Robyn Hurder. Her run in “Moulin Rouge!” ended in February, but her break is almost done. She can be seen next in “A Beautiful Noise,” a new musical based on the songs of Neil Diamond. It will debut on June 21 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston before moving to Broadway.
For the New England native, the show is a homecoming, not that her roots are ever far from her mind.
“I am still so much the 16-year-old, 14-year-old girl from Maine. I will always have that in my soul and I’m so grateful. It has never gone away,” Hurder said. “I grew up learning from the best, man. I did.”