Commencement singers Oni and Rhodes took unique paths to graduation

Sayo Oni has been part of the cast of Broadway’s “Hadestown” since 2021; Candace Rhodes transferred to Elon in 2020 and is drawing attention from productions around the country.

Two music theatre majors from the Class of 2023 will take to the Elon stage one last time Friday as they sing for commencement ceremonies.

Each has taken nontraditional paths to their degrees. Sayo Oni ’23 has been performing in the Broadway production of “Hadestown” since his junior year. Candace Rhodes transferred into Elon’s music theatre program from Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, in fall 2020. Oni, from Charlotte, will sing the national anthem and the Alma Mater. Rhodes will perform Andra Day’s “Rise Up.”

Both are poised for successful careers in the performing arts.

“I think it speaks to the caliber of talent in our program that both commencement singers are music theatre majors. We’re doing big things and the program is doing big things,” Oni said.

A Broadway detour to graduation

Sayo sings at a podium with an American flag in the background
Sayo Oni ’23 sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” during commencement rehearsals Wednesday, May 17

In the fall of his junior year, Oni was busy rehearsing for the Department of Performing Arts production of “42nd Street” when word came about an opportunity with Broadway’s “Hadestown,” a reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

“’You need to audition as soon as possible. Like, right now,’” the message said. “I saw it and literally left class to submit for it. I still feel a little guilty about that.”

He auditioned as a swing — a fill-in — for the show’s ensemble and understudy to the lead role of “Orpheus.” After callbacks, the creative team selected him and he moved to New York City to join the company mid-semester. Within two weeks of rehearsals, he was on stage in the ensemble. He played the lead role of “Orpheus” for the first time on March 14, 2022.

“Every single time I enter the stage, I take a second to scan the entire auditorium and realize that I’m leading a Broadway show and it’s so wild. The shock never goes away,” Oni said. “It’s dazzling to be in the cast with all these people that I’ve looked up to for so long.”

Oni, a native of Charlotte, began as a dancer before finding his way to theatre in middle school and music theatre in high school. At the encouragement of his family and castmates, Oni continued courses at Elon. The performing arts department assisted in finding creative ways to deliver courses remotely and asynchronously while Oni continued to perform. He likens it to holding two full-time jobs. The production team allowed him to return to campus for his final semester and commencement this spring, for which he is extremely grateful. He’ll return to the cast in just a few days, on Tuesday, May 23.

“They could have said, ‘You should finish your degree and we’ll just find someone else.’ But they didn’t do that,” Oni said. “It was such a generous thing. People have told me it speaks to how valued I am to the company, which I like to think I am, but it was such a generous thing that they didn’t have to do.”

“We are so proud of Sayo and his impressive achievements,” said Brian Kremer, associate professor of music theatre and music theatre coordinator. “He is an incredibly talented and collaborative individual who has had an undeniably positive impact on our Music Theatre Program. Sayo’s unwavering commitment to his studies and Broadway career is a testament to his dedication and hard work, and his talent and collaborative spirit set him up for continued success.”

Though on Broadway, Oni knows his work toward a stage career is just beginning and that continued hard work and artistic growth will be required to sustain his success. He’s confident that his training at Elon and being thrown into the fire at 20 have prepared him for that work.

“One accomplishment is not the be-all and end-all,” Oni said. “Coming back has given me the opportunity to really savor this time I have with my peers, and say the goodbyes I didn’t get to before I left in 2021.”

Finding herself — and her power — onstage

Close up of Candace Rhodes singing into a microphone
Candace Rhodes sings during commencement rehearsals Wednesday, May 17, in the Schar Center.

“I cannot believe I’m singing for graduation,” Rhodes said, beaming. “I’m so excited to sing for all of my peers, and I think ‘Rise Up’ is especially fitting. COVID had a big impact on us, and I’m thrilled to share my gift in this way.”

Rhodes earned an Associate in Arts in Musical Theatre from Santa Fe College in 2019. She took a year to plot her next steps, apply to four-year programs for music theatre and prepare financially.

Rhodes transferred amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, but she found support from faculty and alumni — and auditioned for and was cast in Elon’s inaugural student-led Black cabaret “The Moment” before she arrived.

“I’m finishing in three years, which is almost unheard of. And my classmate, Bryant Howard, is graduating in two. That’s why I’m rooting for transfer students to come to Elon. Faculty are making it easier for us financially and they are truly understanding of what we need as artists. They were so open with my training. That’s why I love it here,” Rhodes said.

Playing the lead in the fall 2022 musical “Head Over Heels,” — the jukebox musical of the Go-Go’s and Belinda Carlisle’s greatest hits set to Sir Philip Sidney’s near-Shakespearean dialogue of “The Arcadia” — is the role that taught her the most.

“I was so nervous, but Professor Matos and Professor Warren helped me find the true essence of who Gynecia is through myself,” Rhodes said. “Gynecia can be seen as this woman who’s just angry, and she’s written as a sassy queen, but I saw the big heart she had underneath and that’s what I wanted to portray. As a Black woman, I don’t have to play into stereotypes. I can bring myself to the character. Pushing through that was humbling and empowering and helped me grow as a person.”

Another highlight was training and performing with opera star Angela Brown during a spring 2022 performance of “Opera … from a Sistah’s Point of View.”

In late April, Rhodes signed with an agent. By that weekend, she had already booked a flurry of auditions for musicals on Broadway and around the country. As of Thursday, she was in the callback process for several shows and had more auditions scheduled just after commencement.

“Candace is blessed with the gift of being able to sing in a lot of different styles, both classical — full operatic — and what we call ‘belt’ — wider and more contemporary theatre and pop kind of sound,” said her voice teacher Brian Carter, adjunct assistant professor of music. “She’s literally singing an audition for contemporary musical theatre in the same weekend she’s performing Italian opera by Puccini. She’s a rare breed.”