The Catholic University of America

Music Alum Takes the Lead

Gannon O’Brien, B.M. 2011, had understudied for a lead role before. “You have to hit all your marks as a member of the ensemble,” he says. “At the same time you have to be watching the lead — his blocking, his choreography. What is he doing with the role? It can be a challenge.”

When O’Brien was cast in the ensemble for Signature Theatre’s fall 2013 production of Miss Saigon, he was also asked to be the understudy for the leading role of Chris, an American soldier who falls in love with a Vietnamese bar girl in 1970s Saigon.

Gannon O'Brien in Miss Saigon  
CUA musical theatre graduate Gannon O’Brien stepped into a leading role in Miss Saigon after just four hours of rehearsal for the part.
Photo by Christopher Mueller

Just after the show opened to preview audiences, leading man Jason Michael Evans, an accomplished performer who had come down from New York City to take the role, pulled a muscle in his throat. O’Brien was called up.

“I thought I might get a few matinees. But never thought I’d be stepping in so early on,” he says. O’Brien had not had any rehearsal time as Chris, a vocally demanding role. He had learned about 75 percent of the music on his own, and learned the rest overnight.

He had four hours to rehearse with the director before taking the stage. Within days, it was determined that Evans’s voice would need more time to recover and O’Brien was cast in the lead for the show’s six-week run.

“I felt a lot of mixed emotion when that happened,” says O’Brien. “I was thrilled and excited, and at the same time felt terrible for Jason. But he was so great about it, really supportive. He gave me a lot of pointers and insight into how he was playing the role.”

In those few days while O’Brien was in the lead on a day-to-day basis, his mom made a quick decision to get on a plane and fly to D.C. from Chicago. Not even sure he would be in the lead that night, she didn’t tell him about her arrival.

“She texted me at intermission saying ‘Guess where I am?’ with a photo of the playbill.” In the following weeks, many more family members made their way to the Arlington, Va., theatre to see O’Brien in his lead role.

His reviews in the role of Chris were very favorable. The Washington Post ran an article about Miss Saigon’s “nick-of-time moment” and quoted Director Eric Schaeffer about O’Brien, “We just literally threw him into the show. We’d never even sung Gannon through the music.”

Schaeffer also noted that it was fortunate for the production that O’Brien was a sight reader. “We were just lucky that he was so prepared,” he said in the article.

O’Brien credits much of that preparedness to his training in musical theatre at CUA’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, which offers a conservatory-style program in which bachelor of music majors focus on music, theater, and dance.

Two Gannon O'Brien shots from Miss SaigonO'Brien received favorable reviews for his turn in the lead role of Chris, an American soldier in 1970s Saigon.
Photos by Christopher Mueller

“CUA’s program is different from most musical theatre programs, which offer a B.F.A. The voice training gave me a huge advantage in stepping into this lead role. The program emphasizes musicality, music theory, ear training, sight singing. I went through four levels of music theory. I didn’t realize at the time how beneficial all of that would be in preparing me to perform at the professional level.”

Tom Pedersen, chair of CUA’s musical theatre division, said he wasn’t surprised a bit when he heard that O’Brien had stepped into the demanding role with so little notice. “I had no doubt he had the training and the talent to handle it,” he says. Pedersen and Grayson Wagstaff, dean of the music school, went to see O’Brien and several other music school alumni who were in the ensemble of Miss Saigon, and he says they felt like proud parents.

“It really is emotional when you see your students on stage, succeeding, following their passion,” Pedersen says.

O’Brien fell in love with musical theatre at a young age at the Circle Theatre in Forest Park, Ill. “My twin brother and I were in so many of their youth productions that they asked us to join the theatre as junior company members. We sat in on company meetings and I loved being involved in all aspects of theatre from costume and set design, to choreography and directing, to performing. I love seeing all that creativity come together.”

O’Brien says he knew he wanted to attend Catholic University right after his audition there. “It was a very comfortable, inviting, and supportive process and experience. I knew I wanted to be on stage many more times in Ward Recital Hall.”

His favorite part on the CUA stage was Anthony, one of the principal roles in Sweeney Todd. “It’s one of my favorite musicals and the role was a dream come true.” Other highlights while a student at CUA included performances with his classmates at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

O’Brien, who has appeared professionally in several regional theatres including Olney Theatre and Keegan Theatre, says he is grateful to be supporting himself as a working actor. Last January, he was nominated, along with several CUA students and alumni, for a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Ensemble, Resident Musical, for Spring Awakening at Keegan Theatre.

Broadway, he says, is always a goal. “But I’m in no hurry right now. I’m enjoying the D.C. theatre community and I might even like to head back home to Chicago to try opportunities there.”

His advice to budding performers? “You will hear the word ‘no’ over and over again. Don’t get discouraged. Stay confident in your talent and your passion. You will find work. And when you do, learn and grow and take something away from every performance experience that will make you even better prepared for the next opportunity.”

Next up for O’Brien is Signature’s production of Gypsy, in which he appears in the ensemble. Who knows where that opportunity will lead…




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Gannon O’Brien

Hometown: River Forest, Ill.

Degree: Bachelor of Music in musical theatre, 2011

Favorite place on campus: A tie between the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music and the Pryz

Favorite course at CUA: Body Movement

Favorite musical he’s appeared in: Spring Awakening

Dream role: Marius in Les Miserables
What his DVR is set for:Sons of Anarchy and I cannot wait for season 2 of the original Netflix series House of Cards.”
Best part about the D.C. theatre scene: “The amazing amount of camaraderie, support, and friendliness among D.C. actors.”