Beating the Blues with Broadway on “Oberlin Stage Left”

By Megan McLaughlin

One of my favorite things I’ve watched online since the beginning of social distancing has been the playful banter between Opera Theatre Professor Chris Mirto and Musicology Professor Jamie O’Leary in their “Oberlin Stage Left” stream, Beat the Blues with Broadway

Started by Oberlin Conservatory in mid-April, the new series of livestreams hosted by Conservatory faculty ranges in format from documentary viewings to question and answer sessions with guests. Beat the Blues with Broadway is a carefree discussion about some of the hosts’ favorite choreographers and singers, complete with interactive audience participation and clips from different musicals.

As the duo welcomed their viewers and explained the chronology of what was to come, I couldn’t help but chuckle at Mirto’s purple-sequined blazer and dark sunglasses. Both hosts employed fun, virtual backgrounds to further set the Broadway mood — O’Leary’s a marquee with neon lettering reading “Broadway” and Mirto’s a scene of Times Square lit up at night, with a prominent billboard reading “Stay home when you are sick.”

The discussion began with a big-ticket question: is Bob Fosse or Michael Bennett a better choreographer? Mirto gave a short preface, including a word of advice to pay special attention to the dancers’ wrists, before showing a clip of “Steam Heat” from the movie musical, The Pajama Game. Fosse’s choreography included three dancers in spiffy suits and shiny shoes doing neat tricks with their bowler hats as they shuffled and grape-vined around the stage.

O’Leary followed by giving a rousing defense of Bennett’s choreography, introducing a clip of the Montage from A Chorus Line, where dancers recount stories from their younger days. O’Leary marked the number as distinct because “Some of us may never have left our teenage awkward years.” As O’Leary pointed out, the clip included a much larger group of dancers than the Fosse, performing moves reminiscent of cheerleaders at a pep rally. 

The number of dancers seemed to double when, partway through the scene, mirrors appeared onstage, reflecting the dancers from behind and expanding the crowd. The small floating panel of Mirto and O’Leary on the side of my screen made my viewing experience even more pleasurable. The two brought a smile to my face as they danced, reacted, and gave appreciative snaps to the performers.

Following the videos, the hosts asked their audience to participate in a poll to decide which choreographer was better, with O’Leary warning the audience, “don’t vote for the sparkly purple jacket,” referring to his colleague’s distracting attire. Fosse won by a twelve-vote margin, and Mirto jokingly declared the poll a waste of time.

Just when you thought the stream couldn’t get any better, a surprise guest popped onto the screen. Oberlin College President Carmen Ambar joined just in time to let everyone know that she voted for Fosse, much to the shock of O’Leary. Ambar shared her experience growing up with a musical mother, which even entailed having done a Fosse choreography workshop.

The next topic was favorite singers, with three videos being shown in quick succession. Ambar led with a video of Patti LuPone performing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from Evita, remarking on the artistry and interpretation LuPone brings to everything she sings. Mirto followed with a performance of Jessie Mueller singing “She Used to be Mine” from Waitress. He conceded that, while it may not be the best musical, the raw power and emotion Mueller shares with her audience shines above all else. O’Leary turned to something a bit less emotionally charged: Kelli O’Hara singing “A Cockeyed Optimist” from South Pacific. Albeit short and quirky, O’Leary said that there was just something about it that brought him to tears the first time he saw it live.

Wrapping up the session, O’Leary cheerily said, “We look forward to seeing you when we can all be together again, but until then, Zoom will have to do.” Beat the Blues with Broadway was recorded and can now be accessed on the website for “Oberlin Stage Left.” Lighthearted and upbeat, the video is absolutely worth 43 minutes of your day, and proved exactly what the event description stated: “it’s a good day to be fabulous,” especially when it’s in the company of Mirto and O’Leary.

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