PRINCETON — One Princetonian’s musician’s dreams have taken him from Illinois to New Zealand and then across the pond to England.
Griffin Jenkins is originally from the Princeton area, and now lives in London and works with some of the biggest names in musical theatre in the UK and New Zealand. He grew up in Lashmeet-Matoka and started in music as a church organist.
“My parents were always encouraging with music, I was in piano lessons when I was little,” Jenkins said. “I was doing music in church and school. I went to Mercer Christian School. We did not have a big music program there so that made me go out and try different music opportunities like a choir in Bluefield.”
He went to the University of Illinois when he graduated High School, still not completely sure what he wanted to do with his life. He soon found that music was his passion.
“It was a lot of self-starting,” Jenkins said. “When I knew that I wanted to go to University, I went to the University of Illinois after applying all over the country. I was not sure where I wanted to go. I thought I would just explore and see what happened. I was taking a lot of classes like Biology, thought I might want to do that. I took linguistics and sign language. Wound up deciding that music was what I really wanted to do. In my first year of university, there was a drama club and I thought that was cool and what I wanted to do and they had a live band in the corner and I asked to come aboard and play the piano. It was really cool and it kind of stuck.”
Jenkins went to college in Illinois for a year before moving to New Zealand. He settled there for nearly five years, working as a conductor and pianist for theatre shows, teaching in the arts, and performing. He plays the piano, organ, harpsichord, accordion, saxophone, trumpet, oboe and carillon, just to name a few.
“My second year of college I decided I wanted to study abroad because it seemed like fun and it was something my school was really encouraging of as well,” Jenkins said. “I looked into different programs and New Zealand seemed like a really cool place. I took the plunge and decided to do it in July 2014. I signed up for a year-long program. I was at the University of Auckland and it was great. I wound up making friends with a lot of different international students and we had a similar mindset and we ended road-tripping a lot.”
He ended up studying music and linguistics at The University of Auckland. He said he used to not agree with people that linguistics has played into his musical theater career, but after some experience, he sees music as a language. in fact, during his time at the University of Illinois, he was taking a class in Yiddish and ended up reconstructing some parts of a Yiddish opera that was lost and had not been played in years. “I think that some Yiddish scholars are still looking into that area and I feel like I contributed to that,” he said.
“Music is kind of a language,” Jenkins said. “I see that now they are different ways of communicating after moving around and going to different places. You can connect to different cultures through music, Practically, I have done research with music and linguistics.”
Jenkins quickly settled into the local community music and local theaters in New Zealand.
“I really felt at home in New Zealand and ‘kiwi’ culture as well,” Jenkins said. “Everyone was really welcoming and nice and big on arts and fostering that kind of creativity and self-starting kind of attitude for everyone within the arts and the culture as well.”
While Jenkins enjoyed his time in New Zealand and had connections, London was calling his name.
“I love New Zealand and I loved living there, but it is a small country and there are just more opportunities over here and a different scene as well,” Jenkins said. “New Zealand has a very high standard but in the UK there are people doing more innovative things.”
He applied to Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, a drama school in Peckham, south London, England, founded in 1945. The Academy provides specialist vocational training in acting and musical theatre, as well as production arts. He said he did not expect to necessarily be accepted to this prestigious school, but when he was, he could not turn down the opportunity.
“Technically at Mountview Academy, I am doing my MA in musical direction, piano, vocal coaching and then on the side when I can, doing some teaching and playing piano and for the last couple years since I graduated my undergrad,” Jenkins said. “I am doing my thesis on opera but with actor-musicians. There is no band. Everyone on stage is accompanying themselves. That is a big craze in the UK now it has never been done in opera before.”
In addition to pursuing his Master’s degree, Jenkins is a Musical Director. According to Jenkins, in musical theater, that title encompasses conductor, pianist and vocal coach and sometimes a lot of other hats as well.
“They are keeping us very busy working on the shows, we basically direct the performances the undergrads are doing,” Jenkins said. “There are two aspects to my job and there are times when I am in charge, I am the teacher, in those times, I really love people who are interested in the arts and discover for themselves. Building up that and watching them grow and figure out what theater really means or what it means to them. The other side of the job is when you’re the pianist assistant or another production role and that has been my experience working on academically I analyze the different working styles of all these different people.”
Jenkins said that in his career, it is usually formal, but when he gets to work with accomplished Musical Directors, there aren’t as many rules.
“When you are working with these people that have been doing this for 30 or even 50 years, there is no rule book for them,” Jenkins said. “Some of the people I am interviewing for my thesis, they are the ones that literally invented this kind of genre and they all have such a different approach to take into your of operating.”
As far as what the future hold, much like many university students, Jenkins is not completely sure where his studies will take him. He said the dream in his career is to end up on the West End or Broadway, but he is not opposed to bringing fresh, quality theatre back to his home community.
“It kind of depends where the work takes me,” Jenkins said. “ Right now I am looking to be able to stay in London because of the contacts I have made here. Still being young and still learning and still breaking into this scene as it were.”
— Contact Emily Rice at email@example.com