David Cook to Perform at President's Gala

Celebrity Alumnus Embodies All Aspects of School of Visual and Performing Arts

By Kathy Strickland

David Cook bw

David Cook, ’06, has a way of getting noticed — from the moment he “got cornered into singing a solo” at a Christmas pageant in elementary school to the time an “American Idol” producer spotted him in the audition line supporting his younger brother, Andrew, ’09, and persuaded him to try out too. Somewhere in between, a Blue Springs South High School performance of “Singing in the Rain” caught the attention of Richard “Buzz” Herman, then a UCM theatre professor and department chair, and led to a scholarship for Cook.

It wasn’t until last year, a decade after the unforgettable Season 7 “American Idol” win launched his musical career, that Cook returned to theatre as the lead role in the Broadway production of “Kinky Boots.” While developing his characterization of Charlie Parker for the musical — based on a book by Tony winner Harvey Fierstein, featuring a Tony-winning score by Cyndi Lauper and with direction and choreography by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell — Cook remembered the acting class he took with John Wilson, now chair of UCM’s School of Visual and Performing Arts.

“There was a moment in each class where you’d lie down and focus on breathing, and I loved it as a freshman because I was exhausted,” Cook recalls. “The class opened my eyes to elevating the art form a little more, which was extremely helpful, especially last year. I feel like I’ve kind of been known as David Cook, pop rock singer, for 10 years. To get to expand on that and try something different and step outside my comfort zone was a welcome challenge.”

When Cook was a student at UCM, then called Central Missouri State University, theatre, dance, music and art were not part of the same school. Last year, just as Cook was making his debut on Broadway, the programs intertwined to become the UCM School of Visual and Performing Arts, comprising three areas: Art and Design, Music, and Theatre and Dance. Cook’s creative life exemplifies the relationships among all of these art forms. He graduated in 2006 with a degree in graphic arts technology. Although he can’t say he regrets passing up a coveted design job at an arts and entertainment magazine to take a chance at “American Idol,” he has found a way to merge the two passions, creating his own album covers and merchandise and being “involved to a fault” in the visual aspects of his musical career.

The upcoming President’s Gala will likewise blur the boundaries between the visual and performing arts, incorporating music, dance and many forms of art, including sculpture, painting and even animation. UCM’s 16th president, Roger J. Best, Ph.D., is reviving the event as an avenue to celebrate student, faculty and alumni collaboration while raising needed funds to extend the educational benefits of the School of Visual and Performing Arts.

“Collaboration strengthens every strain of the arts,” says Jackson Thomas, UCM’s opera director, assistant director of choral activities and event coordinator for the President’s Gala, which will take place at the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall (pictured below) on March 30, 2020. “The arts bring us all together. They teach us about the human experience, how to be empathetic and how to find our purpose through creativity.”

Kauffman Center Helzberg

Cook says he is looking forward to reuniting with his alma mater to share something special with student performers in the spirit of the gala’s theme, “The Arts Are the Future.”

“Each performance is its own thing that’s never going to happen again,” he says. “I do feel like I figured a lot of things out about myself while I was at UCM — things that helped get me to where I am now.” 

Cook grew up watching his father play guitar but couldn’t pick it up himself because he was left-handed. As a young teen he got a guitar of his own for Christmas, wrote his first song at age 15 and started a band called Axium, playing their first “gig” in the drummer’s driveway one Halloween. Axium gained popularity when Cook went to college, was voted best band in Kansas City in 2004 and performed as one of the opening acts for Smashmouth in the Pre-Cram Jam battle of the bands held at UCM’s Multipurpose Building.

After staking his claim to fame with the “American Idol” win in 2008, Cook returned to campus on a college tour in April 2009 and received the Alumni Foundation’s Outstanding Recent Alumni Award after a sold-out show in Hendricks Hall. When he accepted the award, Cook asked his fans to donate one dollar to the Race for Hope he was running in Washington, D.C., the following month. The night before that race, his older brother, Adam, lost his decade-long battle with brain cancer, and Cook has been honoring him by running the race annually ever since.

“Everybody has someone they’d consider a hero, and Adam is certainly that to me,” says Cook. “If I were to walk away from all this tomorrow, that would be the feather in my cap, to be able to say I was a part of something that helped raise seven figures for brain tumor and brain cancer awareness and research. That’s more a testament to my fans who have supported that cause — because it’s important to me, and therefore it becomes important to them.”

At a July 2008 stop in St. Louis on Cook’s first tour as the new “American Idol,” Cook got backstage passes for his UCM theatre professor’s family (Wilson's sons, Noah and Harry, are pictured with Cook below). Wilson remembers being uncharacteristically “star-struck” when watching his former student.

David Cook - Wilson Sons FINAL

“You could tell there was something special about David right away, and it wasn’t only talent,” Wilson recalls. “There was just this strong confidence that exuded from him. Nothing arrogant, but just a confidence that belonged on stage. He had a quirky energy and a real presence in scene work; he made the scene come alive.” 

Looking forward to performing on stage with current theatre, music and art students and reflecting on his run on Broadway, Cook says the chance to revisit acting in the past year has been a blast.  “To go from lying on the floor in Professor Wilson’s class to standing on the stage on Broadway is pretty surreal,” he quips. 

The way different art forms have intertwined in his career make him the perfect guest performer for an event that showcases the best work from students studying in all of these areas within UCM’s School of Visual and Performing Arts.  

“Our students will be a part of designing the future,” says Rahila Weed, assistant school chair and head of Art and Design. “They will be the creative force for change, the creatives in the workforce of the future.” 

The University of Central Missouri President’s Gala is free and open to the public, with seat reservations becoming available in spring 2020. Bryan Busby, chief meteorologist for KMBC-TV 9News, will be master of ceremonies for the evening. Busby has a musical background of his own and is currently the principal timpanist for the Kansas City Civic Orchestra and the principal guest conductor for the Kansas City Youth Symphony. 

To learn more and support the UCM School of Visual and Performing Arts by sponsoring this event, please visit ucmo.edu/gala.




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