Sharon Wheatley grew up on Ayres Road in Anderson Township, but she lives in Manhattan today and has a key role in one of Broadway’s most popular shows, Come from Away. She honed her theatrical skills at Ursuline Academy, including a performance as the Stage Manager in Our Town. Envisioning a career in opera, she explored training at a variety of college programs, but ended up taking a year off.
“Everyone kept telling me I had the best musical theater school in my backyard,” Wheatley says, so she finally decided to explore the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Fast forward a few years, and she left UC’s campus just before graduation in 1990 for a national tour of The Sound of Music.
If she’d been at CCM a few years later, she might have gone to New York City for a senior showcase, but that opportunity didn’t begin until 1993. In Wheatley’s time, casting directors working with renowned British producer Cameron Mackintosh held auditions at several U.S. college campuses, including CCM, and she landed early roles in tours and Broadway productions of his legendary shows Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Misérables.
Over the past decade in Come from Away, Wheatley originated the role of Diane, a gal from Texas who falls in love with a British petroleum engineer when flights are diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, after the September 11 terrorist attacks. She loves the humane musical about community, recognizing the characters as kindred spirits to family and friends back in Cincinnati. “It’s not a big jump from the Midwest to Newfoundland,” she says. “They have very similar sensibilities, a lack of ego and a work ethic, a sort of nonnegotiable pragmatism.” The popular show shut down with most of Broadway in March 2020. Wheatley and her wife Martha packed up their daughters and returned to her roots. “I spent the vast majority of the pandemic in an Airbnb in Cincinnati,” says Wheatley.
Already an established author—she published a memoir, Till the Fat Girl Sings: From an Overweight Nobody to a Broadway Somebody, in 2006—her local lockdown inspired another memoir, Drive: Stories from Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere. Wheatley stayed in touch with the Come from Away cast and traveled back to New York for an Emmy Award–winning film version of the show. The stage production reopened on September 21, 2021, and she was again on a Broadway stage.
Numerous CCM grads have followed similar successful paths while coping with the worldwide pandemic. Scott Coulter (class of 1993) was already on his own journey. Nikki Renée Daniels (2001), Betsy Wolfe (2004), Alysha Desormeaux (2012), and Max Clayton (2014) sustained and grew. Recent grads Gary Cooper (2017) and Aria Braswell (2019) worked on broadening their horizons. They all hearken back to their CCM training, especially with the musical theater program’s longtime chair, Aubrey Berg.
They remember how Berg, who retired in 2019, taught them that successful performers must simultaneously perfect the voice, the body, the head, and the heart. “The greatest gift actors can bestow on their characters,” he says via e-mail, recalling his advice to students, “is the use of their voices and bodies to express what lies in the characters’ hearts and minds.”
Talent is essential, of course, but Broadway careers also require courage, creativity, faith, and optimism. That’s been especially true since the emergence of COVID-19, which caused most theaters to go dark for 18 months. Reopenings have been marred by fits and starts. Even exceptionally well-trained performers, such as CCM musical theater grads, have had to explore new paths.
Since Berg launched senior showcases in 1993, each graduating class has performed for agents, casting directors, and producers and in turn has landed parts in high-profile productions almost right away. For 2020 and 2021 seniors, videos were produced to show off their skills. The Class of 2022 plans to travel to New York City this month for a round of in-person performances.
Scott Coulter was part of the very first showcase in New York, landing him a national tour of the musical Forever Plaid a few years later. While touring he flew back to New York to audition for a Broadway revival of Grease. Feedback convinced him he had the gig, but he never got a definitive “yes.”
“I decided I’m not going to wait ever again for anyone to give me a job,” Coulter recalls. “I’m going to make my own jobs.” With three classmates, he remounted their CCM showcase as a cabaret that got the attention of Stephen Schwartz, composer of Pippin and Wicked. Coulter was recruited for a concert tour with Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte, with Schwartz at the piano. They traveled the world, performing songs from Wicked before it became famous.
Coulter began to create and book shows such as Defying Gravity: The Music of Stephen Schwartz and other concert programs for orchestras and performing arts centers promoted by his company, Spot-On Entertainment. He also organizes cabaret shows at 54 Below (the current incarnation of New York’s legendary Studio 54), including annual events featuring successful alumni when CCM classes come to town for showcases. He involves each current class for a number as well.
After her own New York showcase, Nikki Daniels was cast almost immediately in Elton John’s Aida as an understudy for the title role. For two decades she’s been in show after show, including the revival of Les Misérables. Her principal role debut came in 2012 as Clara in The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess, singing “Summertime.” In The Book of Mormon she played the intelligent but naive Nabalungi for just over three years, the longest anyone has filled the show’s leading female role. She later played Angelica Schuyler in the Chicago production of Hamilton.
Early in 2020 Daniels was cast in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. British director Marianne Elliott reconceived the 1970 show for a London production by switching the gender of the indecisive bachelor Bobby, the central character, to Bobbie, a 35-year-old woman. For the Broadway revival, Daniels played a married friend and understudied Bobbie—and she became the first Black actor to portray Bobbie in late March.
The Broadway shutdown came just 10 days before Company’s scheduled opening. “At first, I thought it was going to be great to have some time for my kids, but it turned into much longer than that,” says Daniels. “For months, we weren’t even certain we’d be coming back. Broadway was so bleak compared to any other field. Being able to perform for audiences is such a gift.” But the cast held out hope and began rehearsing again in October 2021. The show opened in December, although performances were again interrupted by COVID infections.
Betsy Wolfe grew up in California obsessing over a VHS tape of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. “I watched it every single day for an entire summer,” she says. Her CCM training prepared her for a number of high-profile Broadway productions, including a 2012 concert staging of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at City Center Encores with Lin-Manuel Miranda. In 2017, she spent a year on Broadway in the lead role in Waitress.
Her pregnancy and the lockdown led to an unusual project: the title role in Estella Scrooge, a modernized video retelling of A Christmas Carol. As an arrogant Wall Street tycoon descendent of Ebenezer Scrooge, Estella is visited by a trio of ultracontemporary ghosts. Shot in mid-2020 using a lot of well-known Broadway talent, the musical has been available for video streaming the past two holiday seasons.
“It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever done,” Wolfe says, laughing. “We all just kind of said yes because we didn’t really know what it was.” Actors were safely recorded one at a time using green-screen technology. “Dickens stories were cleverly woven together with constant twists and surprises for audiences. I was amazed with the final product, something that truly looked beautiful and seamless. It was one of those pieces in your career when you have to take the biggest leap of faith.”
Alysha Deslorieux corked continuously following her 2012 CCM showcase. She was first cast in Sister Act, then Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. She joined the original ensemble of Hamilton, the mega-hit that started at New York’s Public Theater, playing multiple roles. She went on to the Chicago production and the national tour. She recently returned to the Public Theater for a new musical, The Visitor, originating a role alongside David Hyde Pierce.
“I love to be busy, and I love to work,” says Deslorieux. While in Chicago doing Hamilton in 2019, she traveled back and forth to New York to film The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for Amazon TV. She’d leave after Hamilton’s Sunday matinee, work for several days in New York, then hustle back to the demanding role of Eliza Schuyler. At first, the lockdown struck her as a welcome break after nearly 10 years of steady work. “I guess I just went back to my roots,” she says. “I was always a musician, I loved to sing and play, so that took me back to the core of who I was. I play the piano. I taught myself to play the ukulele. Growing up, I learned the most when I spent time by myself.”
Last year Deslorieux filmed another TV series, Only Murders in the Building, on Hulu. She played the wife of a police detective investigating a murder in the building where series creators Steve Martin and Martin Short were amateur detectives. Her pregnant character was married to another woman of color. “We were painting the nursery, regular life stuff,” she says. “It was diverse without having to do a lot of talking about the importance of diversity. It felt like a privilege to do something that represented my community.”
Max Clayton likewise had some exciting opportunities before the pandemic in On the Town; Gigi; Bandstand (by Cincinnati composer Richard Oberacker); Something Rotten; Hello, Dolly!; and Moulin Rouge! The Musical. During Hello, Dolly! he met choreographer Warren Carlisle, who moved on to the revival of The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman. “Warren was doing a four-week dance lab in October 2019 with the Music Man ensemble and some principal actors,” says Clayton. “Hugh was unavailable. I got a call saying the team would like me to stand in for Hugh Jackman in The Music Man lab.” Naturally, he leapt at the opportunity.
Clayton worked closely with Sutton Foster, Jackman’s costar, while still performing eight times a week in Moulin Rouge. “I was so fulfilled, so exhausted, but that will always be a career high for me,” he says. Just before the pandemic shutdown, he received an offer to be Jackman’s standby for The Music Man, someone who’s ready to step in for the show’s star on a moment’s notice. Rehearsals for the show’s January opening began in October with Clayton working exclusively with Jackman and Sutton. “It was the three of us and the creative team teaching Hugh what we’d learned a year prior,” he says.
Younger CCM grads without those kinds of connections had to scramble during the pandemic. Gary Cooper performed in Awaited at Crossroads Church for several years while at CCM, then was cast in Aladdin on Broadway and on tour after graduation (he performed at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in 2018). Once that tour ended, he had several roles in the long-running Broadway revival of Chicago, which the pandemic cut short.
Cooper flew home to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and worked on songwriting, a side project he’d begun in New York. A musician friend from the Chicago orchestra helped him produce a batch of songs that he released during 2021. Cooper remained in New Mexico, with occasional trips to New York to record vocals and stay in touch. “I took the pandemic to figure out the music industry,” he says.
He moved back to New York in October. “I have a family of theater artist friends there, and we’re trying to infiltrate New York’s night life,” says Cooper. “I’m trying to paint a bigger network for myself, definitely Broadway and theater but also the dance music industry, all kinds of night-life entertainment. I’m saying yes to a lot of things and seeing what kind of cool projects can come out of that.”
Recent grad Aria Braswell had just a year of professional experience before the lockdown. The winter after performing in a summer 2019 production of Oklahoma in Pittsburgh, she sent an audition video for a new musical at Lincoln Center, Flying Over Sunset, by director and playwright James Lapine. She earned a role as an understudy. The show, which is about authors Aldous Huxley and Claire Booth Luce and actor Cary Grant experimenting with LSD, began rehearsals in early 2020 but was postponed until late in 2021. Its brief run (December 13 to January 16) was an invaluable experience for Braswell to work with a legendary director and veteran actors.
As the lockdown extended to months and then more than a year, she explored writing, composing, and recording music. She restarted a novel she began during her first year at CCM and rewrote during her junior year, and she’ll publish two fantasy short stories later this year.
All of these CCM grads—and indeed theater and music performers everywhere—have been trying to find positives from the disruption caused by COVID. Clayton attended real estate school and obtained his license to be an agent for luxury properties in Manhattan. He paused for The Music Man’s rehearsals and previews, “but once we get settled on our regular schedule, I’ll be able to do more and more.” Standing in for Hugh Jackman could open doors for future prominent opportunities, but Clayton believes this flexible career path will give him something to fall back on.
Wolfe launched a Broadway training program based on her experience preparing for college. Aspiring performers ages 14 to 18, whose theatrical experiences were upended by the pandemic, participated in Zoom sessions with professional actors. In 2021, she says, “we held three open-air summer sessions in New York’s Bryant Park for over 100 students, 34 in each session.” Broadway artists offered the masked participants training and inspiration.
Throughout the pandemic, Coulter’s Spot-On Entertainment organized online master classes by CCM alums on acting, singing, dancing, business administration, and audio/visual recording for aspiring performers. A video contest, “Give My Regards,” garnered 700 submissions from around the world, with many participants winning orchestra placements in their home towns.
Deslorieux’s work on The Visitor at the Public Theater last fall was especially meaningful to her. “This was a dream I’ve had for nearly 10 years,” she says. The play tells the story of a pair of illegal immigrants struggling to stay in the U.S.; Deslorieux played an iron-willed Senegalese jewelry maker partnered with a spirited drummer from Syria. The show was about to open in 2020 when the lockdown happened, then went back into rehearsal in September 2021 and was presented from October 14 to December 5.
“It was an intense process trying to return after the social and racial awakening that occurred during the pandemic,” says Deslorieux. “If our show had opened before the pandemic, it would have been received much differently. While I’m glad society is moving forward, I do think everything that occurred in 2020 will have long-lasting effects on the creation of art, both positive and negative.”
A number of these CCM grads hearken back to advice from their theater professor, Berg, about the importance of auditioning. “You can be really talented, but it’s hard to execute when you’re under pressure and you really need a job,” says Deslorieux. “You can tell yourself, I’m really good, but how do you show that? Whenever I’ve done a master class for young actors, I tell them their real job is auditioning.”
Daniels says Berg ingrained in his students that show business is tough and not necessarily fair. “Your job is not to try to compete with people, but to compete with yourself and be the best version of yourself that you can be,” she says. “You can do a great audition and not get the job, but at least you’ve shown yourself in a good light. Maybe it will turn into something else later.”
Other aspects of CCM training have buoyed these performers. “CCM has a really well-rounded approach to learning and absorbing a lot of different types of techniques,” says Cooper. “Nothing really feels new when you’re asked to do it after graduation because you dabbled in it when you were at school.”
CCM grads in New York have created a supportive network for new arrivals. Coulter says it includes people who make websites or direct cabaret and concerts, drag performers, and Broadway actors and musicians. Daniels calls the network an advantage of sorts. “When I’d go into auditions with my University of Cincinnati binder, people behind the table would say, Oh, you went to CCM,” she says. “That opens doors.”
Any sort of support system in the competitive Broadway world is welcome, say the CCM grads. “I think that theater in general is a hard job, because there’s a lot of rejection,” says Wheatley. “But right now I have the job I dreamed about when I grew up in Anderson. I’m not gonna give it up. I’ve worked too hard to get right here. I’m gonna love it, and I’m gonna help other people who want to do it.”
Wolfe shares that sentiment. She’s had considerable success, but now she’s moving on to a new stage in her career. “There’s no time in this life for Uh, maybe,” she says. “I’ve got to do it. I’m trying to be positive about the forward momentum coming out of the pandemic and making sure the stories we tell are relevant and will challenge the status quo.”
Even recent grad Braswell is brimming with optimism. “I definitely have high hopes for Broadway’s future,” she says. “Things need to change with inclusivity and things like that, in addition to safety. This past year has made everyone much more empathetic.”
Coulter says that if there’s anything COVID has proven to artists, “it’s the importance of live performance.” Creativity around streaming shows was initially exciting, he says, “but it pointed out that you just can’t replicate the feeling of a live performance. Musical theater is the true American art form.”