Although he fell in love with theatre at age seven, Leighton Samuels very nearly pursued an alternate career in music production. But a summer at Perry-Mansfield’s Pre-Professional Intensive summer program crystalized what years in children’s theatre companies and performing arts school had suggested – Samuels was destined to be a performer.
Following that life-changing summer, Samuels got serious about pursuing theatre in college. On the advice of his teachers at the Professional Performing Arts School and some of his older friends, he auditioned for the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. As soon as he stepped on the campus for a visit, he said, “I knew I have to be here.”
As a Brooklyn-bred New Yorker, Samuels recognized the advantage of leaving home for training. “There’s something magnetic about the school and something very comforting,” he said. “I knew if I wanted to grow as an artist, because I’m from New York City, this was the best place to go to – Ann Arbor, MI– to hone my craft, grow and work as much as I can to come back to New York.”
It was back in his hometown for Michigan’s senior showcase, on the stage of the Tony Kiser Theatre, that Samuels learned he was chosen to receive the 2017 Equity/Alan Eisenberg Award Scholarship. The scholarship was established in 2007 in recognition of Alan Eisenberg’s 25 years of service to Equity as its executive director. The $5,000 award is annually presented to a graduating senior from the university’s Musical Theatre Department to recognize outstanding talent and career potential.
That outstanding talent and potential was radiating from the stage as he delivered a rousing performance of “Caldonia,” the Louis Jordan hit known to theatergoers from the revue Five Guys Named Mo. His favorite role, however, is somewhat more dramatic: the Dryer from Caroline, or Change. “It’s a darker character in a sung-through show, almost operatic,” he said. “It was great to learn I could do something that ambitious.”
Samuels is an ebullient presence and full of gratitude for all those who helped him along the way; when asked if there were any faculty he’d like to shout out, he proceeded to name just about every teacher, administrator and guest artist who’s crossed his path at Michigan, Professional Performing Arts School and Rosie’s Theater Kids. He reserves special thanks for his classmates, “for always being supportive at school and for giving a helping hand outside of the classroom,” and his mom. “She will always be a ‘faculty member.’ I love her, and she’s always teaching me.”
(L-R) Former Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenebrg, Honoree Leighton Samuels, University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program Chair Vincent J. Cardinal and Former Chair Brent Wagner. Photo by David Levy.