November 2009 Issue
It's 1969. An unpopular war is escalating, racial inequality is rampant, pollution is clouding the skies –– and a rock musical, the likes of which has never been seen before, is creating a buzz on Broadway.
It’s 2009. An unpopular war is escalating, the issue of racism is again making headlines, global warming is “an inconvenient truth” –– and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music is bringing “Hair” back to the stage. The rock musical is being presented November 14 through 21 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the school’s musical theater program.
Although bell-bottoms and love beads are no longer the rage, Aubrey Berg, chairman of the conservatory’s department of musical theater, understands why the controversial work –– with its anti-war theme and provocative stance on individual freedoms –– continues to resonate.
“Maybe the zeitgeist has changed in terms of free love and experimentation with controlled substances,” Berg reflects, “but, unfortunately, the truth is that many of the political and social issues that ‘Hair’ talks about and we battled in the ’60s are still with us.”
And just as “Hair” proved to be groundbreaking, so, too, did CCM’s musical theater program, when it debuted in 1969. At the time, Berg recalls, Broadway musicals were undergoing a significant evolution. “Oklahoma!”, “The Sound of Music” and other plays that featured songs written to move the story along, were giving way to “Sweet Charity,” “Cabaret” and “Hair” –– complex shows filled with musical numbers that added another dimension to the plot. Versatility was clearly the new prerequisite for success on stage.
Since the College-Conservatory of Music already enjoyed a reputation as a premier place to study acting, singing and dancing, Berg says, it was time to combine these disciplines in order to create what he calls “the triple threat.”
“It’s a kind of performing,” he explains, “that incorporates the voice and the body and the acting. We began teaching students to act while they sing, sing while they act, and dance while they do both.”
The result: A noteworthy talent pool that’s a Who’s Who of the Great White Way. Alumni include the conservatory’s first graduate, Pamela Myers, who earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the 1970 musical comedy, “Company”; Faith Prince, winner of the 1992 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical (“Guys and Dolls”); Michele Pawk, recipient of the 2003 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play (“Hollywood Arms”); composer Stephen Flaherty, who won a Tony Award for “Ragtime”; producer Kevin McCollum, who received the coveted statuette for Best Musicals “Rent” (1996), “Avenue Q” (2004) and “In the Heights” (2008); and Ashley Brown, currently touring as “Mary Poppins,” the role she originated on Broadway in 2006.
“The awards are wonderful,” Berg says. “But that’s not what our philosophy here is all about. It makes no difference whether our graduates are on Broadway, doing a national tour or performing on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean.
“The fact that they are working,” he adds, “is what excites us.”
Competition for admittance to the conservatory’s musical theater program is fierce: Last year, 800 students auditioned. Two dozen made the cut.
“We’re in a wonderful position,” says Berg, “to recruit the crème de la crème of young talent.” And although a strong personality is a plus for admission, it’s that indefinable quality that makes faculty sit up and take notice. “You can’t describe it,” he explains. “You just know it when you see it.”
Pamela Myers, who guest-starred on “St. Elsewhere, ” “Major Dad” and Sha Na Na’s TV variety series after “Company” closed, credits the conservatory with launching her stellar career on Broadway and off.
“I had good vocal training and a very eclectic college experience,” the Cincinnati resident says. “I was always in a show, and had the opportunity to play lead roles in the university’s productions of ‘Funny Girl’ and ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’ Those experiences stood me in good stead.”
So much so that Stephen Sondheim hand-picked Myers for “Company,” (that’s her singing the composer’s anthem to New York City, “Another Hundred People,” on the original cast album).
Faith Prince, whose résumé in addition to Broadway work includes five seasons on “Spin City” and appearances on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Monk,” “Law & Order” and “Drop Dead Diva,” remembers being simultaneously scared and exhilarated while a student at the conservatory 30 years ago.
“So many of my classmates had been acting and singing since they were kids at places like Six Flags and Opryland, but I was pretty green,” says the Augusta, Georgia, native during a phone interview from her home in Sacramento, California.
“But all the knowledge my professors imparted –– I just soaked it up like a sponge. They taught me discipline, and the best way to sell the product that happens to be yourself.”
It was a regimen, Prince adds, which prepared her to face anyone with confidence –– including celebrated directors Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, James Lapine and Jerry Zaks, who helped shape her future.
“As far as I’m concerned,” she says, “the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music is the king of musical theater schools.”
“Mary Poppins’’ star Ashley Brown, a 2004 graduate, agrees.
“I learned so many life lessons there,” she says by phone from Dallas, where the show is playing. “I was a little Southern girl from Gulf Breeze, Florida. Being at the conservatory taught me to take on the city as I became immersed in what I needed to do. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
As rehearsals for “Hair” commence, Berg, who’s directing the production, is delighted with what he sees happening on stage.
“The students have no trouble relating to the play’s message,” he says. “When I had them all sing ‘The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In),’ tears flowed.”
To ensure that the ambiance is as authentic as possible, a VW bus painted in neon “flower power” colors graces the stage and funny-smelling cigarettes made, Berg says, from “an exotic seasoning” double for the real thing.
And the nudity the show is known for?
“Let’s just say,” Berg replies, “that there’s a lot of flesh on display, but it’s not full-frontal. After all, this is a college production and grandma is coming to see it.”
“Then again,” he adds with a grin, “grandma might just decide to join the fun on stage as her grandchildren look on appalled.”