UC’s musical theatre program celebrates milestone year

The College-Conservatory of Music established the country’s first bachelor of fine arts in musical theatre in 1969

It’s a classic Hollywood tale: a young Broadway hopeful moves from the Midwest to New York City and is quickly discovered, sparking a career on stage. But for Pamela Myers, the University of Cincinnati’s first musical theatre graduate from the College-Conservatory of Music, it was no fairy tale.

In 1969, Myers graduated from CCM’s first-of-its-kind program, packed her tap shoes and took a Greyhound bus to the Big Apple with big dreams. They came true when she auditioned for a new musical by a composer she’d never heard of: Stephen Sondheim. She was cast in the now-renowned composer’s production, “Company,” and garnered a Tony Award nomination for her role. She went on to enjoy years of success on stage and screen and continues to perform to this day.

Fifty years later, times have certainly changed. A success story like Myer’s is rare. But what’s remained constant over the years is CCM’s illustrious musical theatre program and the talent it consistently produces, like:

  • Faith Prince, ’79 (Tony award for playing Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls”)
  • Shoshana Bean, ’99 (the first actress to take over the role of Elphaba from Idina Menzel in “Wicked”)
  • Betsy Wolfe, ’04 (“Waitress”)
  • Ashley Brown, ’04 (originated the title role in “Mary Poppins”)
  • Christy Altomare, ’08 (originated the title role in “Anastasia”).

CCM is one of the most represented institutions on Broadway today and the program is frequently ranked among the top in the country.

With many events planned for this year, the musical theatre program celebrates its 50th anniversary, and for a majority of its existence, it’s been under the direction of professor and department chairman Aubrey Berg.

With the college’s roots dating back to 1867, CCM became part of UC in 1962. The college introduced the country’s first bachelor of fine arts in musical theatre seven years later. It would be another two decades until Berg found himself guest-directing for CCM’s summer music series and the college was searching for a new department head.

He was teaching in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time and had just purchased a home there, but he decided to apply anyway. He got the job.

“I had been teaching at a liberal arts school, and I thought it would be fun to teach in a conservatory,” Berg says. “So I sold my house and moved up here, thinking I’d be here for a year or two.” It’s now been more than 30 years.

Under Berg’s leadership, CCM’s musical theatre program began to soar. What sets it apart from other universities and conservatories is a focus on “triple-threat training.”

Triple-threat performers can sing, dance and act, Berg explains, “if not equally well, at least well in each area.” Some popular triple-threat celebrities include Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris and Jennifer Lopez.

“The word that you hear all the time here is integration,” Berg says, “and that means putting your skills together so that you can move flawlessly from singing to speaking to dancing. I think that’s why our students work so quickly, because their skill set is very good.”

The program also emphasizes the business side of show business. The odds of “making it” in this profession are low, and artists face frequent rejection. “That’s why we feel that not only do your skills have to be good, you have to understand that this is your career,” Berg explains. “It’s very different, doing theater as a hobby or doing it to put bread on the table. We like our students to have their childlike sense of creativity intact, but also to have their eyes wide open.”

He routinely talks to seniors about what other jobs they’re prepared to take and encourages them to get experience in some other type of skill. One of his recent students minored in business so that he could get a job during tax season. Some alumni find success by pivoting into directing, producing and choreographing.

Berg acknowledges the big egos associated with show business, but maintains that the best rise above. “I believe you can be a really good performer and a really great person all at the same time,” he says. “Our students always say this: they grow not just as performers, but also as people.”

Another way Berg made his mark on the program was by introducing the annual musical theatre showcase, where seniors create a program to perform in front of agents, casting directors and other influential figures in New York City. “It’s a great way to bridge academia and the profession,” he says. The showcase recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

The opportunity came about when prominent Cincinnati arts philanthropist Patricia Corbett — who, along with husband J. Ralph Corbett, contributed to the creation of many CCM facilities — endowed a Distinguished Chair of Musical Theatre, which Berg has held ever since. With those resources, Berg was able to start the New York showcase in 1992.

“Very few schools were taking their students to be showcased for agents and casting directors, and it was an entirely new thing,” Berg recalls. “I thought, why not?"

In that first group of a dozen students was Scott Coulter, ’93, now known for his cabaret performances. Richard Oberacker, a ’93 acting grad, wrote an original song for that first showcase called, “Get Your Tickets Now.” He went on to write and compose the smash Tony-winning musical “Bandstand” on Broadway in 2017.

“Like anything else, I’ve discovered there’s an art to doing a good showcase,” Berg says. “You have to really try and define the essence of each student and make sure that whatever materials they perform will demonstrate that. If they’re a terrific dancer, they have to be dancing somewhere. If they have an amazing vocal range, they need to be picking songs that will show that. If they have no talent, we’ll hide that,” he jokes, laughing.

The showcase is a proud moment for the students — and Berg.

“It tickles me to stand in the lobby before and after each show and really see the creme de la creme of the industry come and see our students’ work.”

As for the program’s first graduate, Pamela Myers will return to CCM along with alumni from all of the program’s five decades for an anniversary celebration on Sept. 16. On Oct. 20, CCM will present a special performance of “Guys and Dolls” and a gala after-party to celebrate UC musical theatre’s 50th anniversary.

Featured image at top: musical theatre students prepare for their senior showcase. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

It’s a major moment for UC anniversaries: CCM reached its 150th year in 2017 and the university itself kicks off its Bicentennial celebration this fall.