Changing My Major: SMU’s newly endowed musical theater program is being built by a Dallas legend

Since 1969, Southern Methodist University has been offering performing arts degrees in theater, music, and dance through undergraduate tracks in the Meadows School of the Arts. But beginning in 2026, incoming students will have the option to enroll in a BFA program dedicated to musical theater. It’s all thanks to a $15 million gift from philanthropist and Broadway producer G. Marlyne Sexton, and the tireless research, foundation-building, and passion of the program’s inaugural director, Joel Ferrell.

Ferrell is a Dallas-Fort Worth musical theater icon. He is the former associate artistic director of Dallas Theater Center (from 2011-2019) and artistic director of Casa Mañana (from 1996 to 2001), as well as the current director-in-residence for Theatre Three. He is currently professor of practice in theater at SMU and teaches regularly at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. He’s also the longtime director of Broadway Dallas’ annual High School Musical Theater Awards.

“I got a call last spring from [Meadows Dean] Sam Holland when they announced Marlyne’s very generous gift,” Ferrell recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope they’ll call me when they decide to search for the vibrant young leader they’ll need for this new program.’ I never thought it would be me!”

Ferrell, who just turned 65, reiterates that he wasn’t looking to settle into a job for the next 15 years or so. “A big part of my job now is to make me obsolete in a few years,” he says. “I’m here to set the foundation. To use my industry connections from my long career, my established relationships with donors, the media, and working artists around the country, and then step aside for a young, talented leader to come in and take over.”

During the pandemic, Ferrell was pulled into a nine-month consultancy with Meadows to research what it would take to build a musical theater program. He interviewed roughly 100 faculty, former students, and colleagues from across the country, gathering feedback and making recommendations on what resources would be necessary for a course of study that reflects the diversity, inclusivity, and modern approach to musicals today.

“Most of the big musical theater college programs out there now were built 40-50 years ago,” Ferrell says. “Musical theater is expanding and changing and broadening; we can’t produce Golden Age shows with 40 people onstage anymore. We need to be intentionally looking toward what musical theater is going to be over the next 50 years.”

As Ferrell points out, Meadows was established with all arts disciplines under one roof to foster cross-collaboration. One of his favorite parts about this new gig, he says fondly, is opening his office door to hear an opera aria or a trumpet solo echoing through the halls. But the solution has never been to just slot musical theater into the existing acting program. “It’s so much more than just adding some singin’ and some dancin’,” he says, especially for staff and faculty that are already working well beyond capacity. The Meadows sound system, for example, will need to be upgraded to support all the microphones performers will now be wearing—something that wasn’t needed before.

SMU is also known for its academic rigor, so Ferrell was adamant that “if you’re going to have a prestigious and well-respected university in the dead center of Dallas, you’ve got to shoot for big, bold, exciting ideas.” It’s an investment in the city, he says. Ferrell mentions that many of his New York colleagues love to work in Dallas, thanks to its reputation as a major metropolis where the arts are thriving. Plus, it’s only a short, three-hour flight away from the Big Apple.

Some of these new offerings that Ferrell is creating are already accessible to current students. Using connections forged over a long career of regional, Broadway, and touring directing and performance, Ferrell is lining up a series of master classes that should begin as early as March 2024. Kimberly Grigsby, a groundbreaking Broadway music supervisor and conductor—and a Meadows graduate herself—is slated to visit first. Ferrell says he’s purposely choosing working artists who have expressed comfort with SMU students staying in touch, giving them valuable access when they venture into the “real world.”

“SMU students are in a sort of bubble,” he says. “It’s a very nice bubble, but the general public doesn’t seem to be aware of the incredible talent we’re producing. I want to produce musicals off-campus to increase visibility and teach students how to do site-specific work, how to tech a show quickly in a new space. That’s part of the education we’re going to offer.”

Ferrell jokingly calls himself the Dolly Levi of Dallas-Fort Worth, having brokered introductions and partnerships between countless theaters, performers, artistic staff, and more during his long career. Now he turns that energy toward the G. Marlyne Sexton Institute for Musical Theatre, and much like the Yonkers of Hello, Dolly!, SMU will be all the better for the attention.