By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
8:14 AM EST, January 30, 2013
When William A. Martin arrived at the Peabody Institute to work on a master's degree in 2001, he was of two minds, thinking about a performance career and a teaching one. You could say he was also of two voices.
"He was a 'bari-tenor' when he started out," said Stanley Cornett, Martin's teacher at Peabody. "He had a beautiful, rich voice with a deep resonance to it."
Once Martin moved firmly from baritone to tenor, he faced another dichotomy — whether to focus on opera or music theater. He finally settled on the latter, which is why you can find him these days at the Hippodrome in "Disney's Beauty and the Beast."
He is a month away from his one-year anniversary with this national tour of the hit Broadway musical, giving a charming and sure portrayal of Maurice, the "beauty's" father, who dabbles in inventions and ends up the Beast's prisoner.
"The tour has been a whirlwind, and it's been wonderful," the Louisiana-born Martin, 40, said. "It taught me the ins and outs of doing eight shows a week for a year. It's amazing what I'll be able to take back to my students."
Those students are at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where Martin earned his doctorate and is now an assistant professor, serving as director of vocal instruction for the school's musical theater program.
"I believe in getting students ready for the stage, the real world," he said, "so I have to be onstage."
While studying at Peabody, Martin's stage experience was primarily operatic. He had the title role in a 2002 conservatory production of Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring" — "People loved him in that," Cornett said — and he started performing around Baltimore.
The tenor was engaged for an early Mozart work staged by Opera Vivente and sang in Gilbert and Sullivan works with the Young Victorian Theatre Company. He also performed in the chorus of the old Baltimore Opera Company, which occasionally gave him small roles.
"People noticed me for my acting and presence oftentimes more than for my voice," Martin said. "That was interesting to me. I sort of ran with it and started to working on my ability as an actor."
While still studying at Peabody, he began to rethink his career path.
"We encourage singers to learn music theater, oratorio and opera; the key is versatility," Cornett said. "Bill took a music theater class given by my wife [Eileen Cornett, director of the graduate vocal accompanying at Peabody], and he was pretty marvelous in it."
That experience proved pivotal for Martin.
"Eileen inspired me to dream music theater dreams," he said. "After I left Peabody, I made music theater my niche. Peabody taught me I was capable of doing a lot more than I thought I could when I came here. It showed me what my strengths were."
Over the years, Martin performed in such shows as "Man of La Mancha," "Cats" ("I also conducted that one, dressed in a cat costume"), "Crazy for You," and "The Secret Garden." Along the way, the singing actor made some valuable connections, especially with some casting directors in New York.
He got called in to audition for "Beauty and the Beast" in April 2011 and eventually got the call-back. He has been performing as Maurice since last March. Getting to sing the songs of the show's composer Alan Menken has been a major plus for Martin.
"He is one of my favorite music theater composers," Martin said. "The first musical I really fell in love with is 'Little Shop of Horrors,' which Alan wrote the music for. There's a rumor he may come to L.A. when the tour gets there in March. I'm really geeking out and hoping I get to meet him."
If you go
"Disney's Beauty and the Beast" runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $27.25 to $127.25. Call 410-547-7328 or go to broadwayacrossamerica.com.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun