It’s more the rule than the exception that shows have a grad or two from Berg’s musical theater training program. Berg, who has taught at UC for 23 of the program’s 40 years, has been honored by the League of Cincinnati Theatres with its 2010 Continuing Achievement Award and will be inducted into the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame at Sunday’s CEA ceremonies.
“It’s still a thrill to attend a show on Broadway or Off-Broadway,” Berg observes, “to see a national tour or go to a regional theater and find one of my graduates in the cast. I know that I played a small role in getting a performer to that point. As Mrs. Brice sings in Funny Girl: ‘Who taught ’em everything they know?’ I can sometimes say, ‘I did’ — and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Berg previously chaired theater programs at Catawba College in North Carolina and Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. After guest directing a production of Nine for CCM’s Hot Summer Nights in 1987, he learned the program was seeking a new chair for musical theater. Almost on a whim, he applied and was hired. After several years, he was named the first holder of the Patricia A. Corbett Distinguished Chair of Musical Theatre at CCM, the first such honor established at an American university.
Last fall Berg marked the program’s 40th anniversary with a joyous production of Hair, a show he saw as a teen and which marked its own 40th anniversary in 2009. He has been at CCM for more than half of the musical theater program’s existence.
“There have certainly been ups and downs along the way, but the good times far outweigh the stresses and frustrations,” Berg says.
“What keeps me happy here? The excellence of my colleagues, our outstanding designers, the fabulous facilities and, most of all, the students.”
Every year Berg auditions more than 800 students from across North America for roughly 20 slots in a class of first-year students.
“We attract the creme de la creme of young talent,” he says. “They come from all over the United States and Canada and provide me with challenges and rewards every single day. I enjoy directing and even performing on occasion, but I am at my happiest in the classroom teaching the art and craft of musical theater.”
A native of South Africa, where he trained at the University of Capetown, Berg says, “I was fortunate to have very strong mentors as a student, especially Burnet Hobgood, and I try to stay true to the vision they instilled in me.” He earned his Ph.D. in theater arts from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana; he also studied at the Bristol Old Vic, the British Drama League and the British Council at Stratford-upon-Avon.
But his greatest learnings have certainly derived from years of staging shows at CCM and elsewhere: West Side Story, Oklahoma!, Cabaret, Chicago, Into the Woods, Evita, Hair, A Chorus Line, The Pirates of Penzance, Assassins, Cyrano, Passion, Chess, Godspell and many more. In 2007, Berg directed a very popular production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical for Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati with a cast featuring several current and former students.
“There are 50,000 out-of-work actors in New York City alone,” Berg says, “but many of our graduates are performing on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in national touring productions and in every related field of the entertainment industry. We keep our training current, reflecting trends and fulfilling needs as they arise.”
Many of Berg’s students have successful careers. Aaron Lazar (class of 1999) is currently playing the arrogant Count Carl-Magnus opposite Bernadette Peters in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Berg’s former student Karen Olivo accepted a 2009 Tony Award for her performance as Anita in the Broadway revival of West Side Story. Ashley Brown (2004) played the title role in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins and toured with the show for more than a year. Christy Altomare (2008) is Wendla in the touring production of Spring Awakening that stopped in Cincinnati earlier this year.
Berg says, “I always think, ‘I knew you when,’ and it still brings a great deal of satisfaction.”
Berg was “flabbergasted” to be selected for the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards 2010 Hall of Fame recognition. But he knows his work at the university has a strong, positive impact on Cincinnati.
“CCM plays a rather unique role in the cultural life of the city,” he says. “With musicals, dramas, dance recitals, orchestral performances, operas and every kind of artistic event constantly on our stages, we provide theater and music lovers in Cincinnati with a cornucopia of choices on a nightly basis. We regard them as our gift to the city and a small way to pay back the generosity of support we receive from the community at large.”
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