By Cathy Rainone
OLIVER HOUSER would be the first to admit that his childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan wasn’t exactly conventional. How else to explain the home videos of Houser at 6 years old, playing the part of Gwen Verdon, running around the family apartment belting out “Whatever Lola Wants” from the musical comedy “Damn Yankees.”
“It was a free-for-all, be-yourself kind of mentality,” says Houser, of the family dynamics, “which I can’t thank my parents enough for.”
As a sophomore in the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter, Houser is majoring in music and hopes to be a composer, but he doesn’t plan to give up acting and singing. He envisions a career similar to Tim Minchin’s that would combine all of his talents.
“Minchin is a musical comedian and he just wrote a Broadway musical, ‘Matilda: The Musical,’ and he wanted to be an actor and now he plays piano and sings funny songs and he’s genius,” says Houser. “He also appeared on an episode of Showtime’s ‘Californication.’ His career path is the perfect one for me — being able to explore all these aspects of creativity.”
Houser has been following a similar path. He recently wrote a 10-minute play, “Preschool: The Musical,” that examines contrasting philosophies of child-raising “when Teacher Turner, an unsympathetic woman with a no-pain-no-gain approach is brought in to teach alongside the pampering, loving Ms. White.” He staged and filmed it at Hunter, and in February it was selected as a finalist at the Festival of New American musicals in California.
He’s currently working on a musical about the Model UN, “a popular extracurricular activity in high school and college in which students compete as they simulate what goes on at the United Nations.”
His piano teacher at Hunter, music professor Steven Graff, says Houser composes high-caliber Broadway-sounding melodies and does it very quickly. Graff first met Houser in the Arts in New York City seminar at Macaulay, where he had his students write a musical. It was an ambitious project, Graff says, and Houser wrote most of the music for the performance — about a cow that couldn’t moo.
“I don’t think it would have happened if it wasn’t because of him,” says Graff. “It’s extremely unusual to have a student who can just come up with one song after another. He did it very fast. He’s very talented and very gifted.”
Houser had quit piano lessons in ninth grade, but his passion for music and composition was reawakened when he met Graff at Macaulay.
After that seminar, Houser decided to major in music, but he has been acting professionally since his sophomore year at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts where he played Iago in “Othello” and Wilbur in the musical “Hairspray.” He has appeared on ABC’s “What Would You Do?” Spike’s “Phowned” and Oxygen’s “Life on the Line,” and he has sung in the Children’s Chorus in four performances for the New York City Opera and was a writer for the MTV series “Skins.”
A big acting role came last summer when Houser played Melchior Gabor in the “Spring Awakening” musical at the Virginia Repertory Theater in Richmond, Va.
“I usually play character roles, but Melchior was an intellectual thinker. [The role] made me a better performer. I’ve gotten terrific auditions because of that.”
Houser says that recently he’s been pouring a lot of energy into both acting and composing. “I love writing music for myself to perform,” says Houser. “I can create and perform so I get to act, act things out through music.”
Houser, who has a 3.8 GPA, many not have to choose between acting, singing or composing. “He’s so versatile, he’s a kind of guy that can do it all,” says Graff. “I don’t want to narrow his dreams because he’s a very talented actor, and he’s a great composer and a great performer. He’s so passionate about all of it.”