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CCM Is Broadway's Farm Team

By Rick Pender · November 11th, 2009 · Curtain Call
The University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music — familiarly known as CCM — is one of the best musical theater training programs at any American university. The program was established slightly more than four decades ago and its first graduate burst forth in 1969.

That was Pamela Myers, a voice student of Helen Laird, who spent most of her time preparing opera singers. Laird saw in Myers a talent that needed a different kind of training, perhaps a whole new kind of program. She convinced CCM’s powers-that-were to begin to help students find work on the stages of Broadway and beyond.

Myers proved it was worth it: She went straight from UC to New York City and within a year landed a Broadway show, securing a role in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s groundbreaking musical Company. For her work, Myers was nominated for a 1970 Tony Award. That kind of success has been replicated by dozens of CCM grads for four decades. Karen Olivo picked up a 2009 Tony as Anita in the Broadway revival of West Side Story. She’s a former CCM student, too.

How does CCM make this happen? For starters, they choose carefully.

Each first-year class of 20 or so is filled by auditioning approximately 800 aspiring young performers from across the United States. Admission to this program is as elite as playing big-time college football or basketball.

Once aspiring performers arrive in Cincinnati, they are immersed in a rigorous program. Aubrey Berg, chair of musical theater for 23 years, says, “I believe in the ‘triple-threat’ approach to musical theater training, preparing young performers to sing and dance and act with equal accomplishment. We seek to liberate the special qualities within every one of them. We do not favor a cookie-cutter approach to training.”

Erin Ortman (a 2000 grad) grew up in Montana, but as a teenager she saw a few Broadway shows and knew what she wanted to do. She noticed CCM grads in many casts and decided it was the school for her. When she got in, others told her, “If you can make it through this program, New York will feel easy.”

That might be a bit of an overstatement, but if you see Broadway productions or touring shows the CCM credit shows up over and over. Sharon Wheatley (1989) was in the original cast of Avenue Q. Ashley Brown (2004) played the title role in the original Broadway production of Mary Poppins; she’s now performing in Los Angeles and could be leading the tour when it reaches Cincinnati next April. Christy Altomare (2008) plays the leading role of Wendla in Spring Awakening, which we’ll see at the Aronoff Center in January.

Faith Prince (1979) says, “CCM gave me everything.” She won a Tony Award for best actress in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls and nominations for Bells Are Ringing (2001) and A Catered Affair (2008) in which 1999 CCM grad Leslie Kritzer played her daughter.

If you’re a fan of the touring musicals at the Aronoff Center, you should be going to CCM on a regular basis. It’s Broadway’s farm team, training tomorrow’s stars. I’m grateful for Helen Laird and her great idea and for CCM’s dedication to sustaining it.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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