Hamilton and 'Moulin Rouge' Pianist Rachel Dean Speaks on Her Career Journey After Graduating From Frost

Alumna, Rachel Dean shares how the skills she learned while studying at the highly acclaimed Frost School are helping her pave her way into the fiercely competitive world of musical theater.
Rachel Dean and business partner Wes Braver.

Composer, pianist, music director, and Frost School of Music alumna Rachel Dean always envisioned herself in New York City, the U.S. cultural hub for musical theaters. Upon graduating from Frost in 2015, she ventured to the big apple to play the piano at multiple events before enrolling in NYU's graduate musical theater writing program. While at the program, she met Wes Braver, her theater thesis partner and co-writer of their now full-length musical, Medusa

Dean has made other notable partnerships, such as the David Brush and Rachel Dean songwriting team. Since 2018, the two created music and lyrics for many musicals, including The Anxiety Project, produced at the Phoenix Theatre Festival of New American Theatre, and selected for the Musical Theatre Educators Association New Works Catalog. Other upcoming full-length musicals on which this duo collaborated include Amelia, inspired by Amelia Lost! by Candance Fleming, and The Word Collector, based on the book by Peter H. Reynolds, with producers KGM Theatrical and Sammy Lopez.

This trajectory has served this Frost Classical Composition and Songwriting minor well. And she credits the Frost campus environment for her straightforward "Sit down and get it done" mindset. "I lucked out with the type of students that Frost attracted. It was this wonderful combination of people who were driven but also supportive of each other. That's a rare thing to find in a music school," says Dean.

According to her, some of the best learning she did at Frost was in offhand conversations or through informal mentorships with her Frost professors. She observed, "They were not afraid to be real with me about the skills and training I needed to land a job as a songwriter on Broadway."

Her hands-on training began in the summer of 2016. Dean worked as a pianist at NYU while she and her theater thesis partner, Braver, began to shape Medusa, a musical featuring a strong female lead with an eclectic mix of hip-hop, R&B, funk, rock, and pop soundtrack. Their idea came from the character by the same name, the most famous monster figure in Greek mythology. 

Towards the end of 2017, Medusa went through a 'reading'—29 hours of reading by professional actors who learned and performed the music as they went. While the music was not memorized or choreographed, it gave the librettists a sense of the story on stage. 

"Hamilton heavily influenced the writing process at the time," admits Dean. Hamilton had just come out, and she was a rehearsal pianist for the show; she still is. So that influenced the story's essence, though it continues to evolve. "With every single draft, we've added different flavors. And I wouldn't say that people would watch it now and think Hamilton, but they would probably also think HadesTown, Wicked. We've gotten responses of all of those natures, which are great shows to be compared to, honestly." 

Through NYU's collaboration initiative called CDP, where specific thesis projects from the program are picked for further development using their undergraduate performance students, Dean received another reading option, what some call 'workshop'—in between a reading and a fully-staged production, where the actors memorize the script and the music, and perform it in full costume. There's also some staging and a set with lighting elements suggesting what the piece could be.

By the Spring of 2019, Medusa went into full production with major Broadway players in the show, and producers, artistic directors, and theater owners were invited to attend. Dean has had many of them interested in the show. She also has other musicals in development, including The Ballad of Janis Matthews and the Dodo Scouts with Giancarlo Rodaz. "The hope, as it always is in this musical theater business, is that this will be the final step to get some major investors and involvement from the theaters to keep moving it forward," says Dean. "With the final dream being Broadway." 

She admits to using the skills she acquired at Frost, such as collaboration, innovating musical trends, and bettering her craft, daily as she pursues her dreams and aspirations. After all, her well-rounded background continues to help her gain traction and stand out among the crowd inside the musical theater realm. An ASCAP award recipient, Dean’s work has been performed in major cities like New York, Miami, Cincinnati, Phoenix, and New Jersey.