No Time Like Ngo Time

January 8, 2020
Charlotte Maskelony ’21
cast of Oberlin Theater Department's production of Cabaret
As a student in Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences, Alex Ngo ’19 (second from right) served as music director of the theater department’s production of Cabaret, one of many musical intersections he experienced on campus. Photo credit: John Seyfried

In four short years at Oberlin College, Alex Ngo set his course for a life in music.

Alex Ngo’s passions lie somewhere just beyond the worlds of classical, jazz, and TIMARA: The 2019 Oberlin College grad lives and breathes musical theater. In his four years on campus, Ngo served as music director for five shows and even wrote and produced an original musical of his own, his world intersecting with the conservatory at virtually every turn.

Musical theater famously borrows from many other art forms, and Ngo wanted an education to match the diversity of the Broadway stage. His major in Musical Studies is popular among Oberlin College students who are passionate about making music a fixture in their lives.

photo of recent Musical Studies graduate Alex Ngo from the class of 2019
Alex Ngo graduated in spring 2019, then dove directly into music direction for the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival's Cabaret series. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alex Ngo)

“Finding this major at Oberlin really piqued my interest,” he says, recalling his college search. “It’s as flexible as an individual major, but it’s still music-focused.”

In addition to liberal arts classes, Ngo’s coursework included music theory, music history, composition, conducting, and classes on jazz, pop, classical, and Brazilian music—all of them taught in the conservatory.

And his studies translated into action: He pursued multiple music-direction opportunities on campus, including productions of Cabaret, Assassins, and Merrily We Roll Along. Drawing on skills learned in his conservatory courses, he coached music with the cast, accompanied rehearsals on piano, rehearsed the pit orchestra, and conducted the show. His synthesis of classroom study with practical application remains a hallmark of the Oberlin experience.

“They weren’t officially part of my major,” he says, “but they prepared me for the world beyond our classrooms.”

Although Ngo carved an unmistakably unique path at Oberlin, his passion for music is a theme common to many students in Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences. Each semester, some 300 college students take courses in the conservatory. And beginning in fall 2020, Oberlin will introduce five new areas of interdisciplinary study involving music and drawing upon the resources of all corners of campus: Music and Cognition, Music and Popular Culture, Interdisciplinary Performance, Arts and Creative Technologies, and Arts Administration and Leadership. Each new area of study is available to all students in the college and conservatory. (Read up on other ways college students pursue musical opportunities at Oberlin.)

Ngo graduated with a concentration in music theory. For his capstone project, he combined his passions for the theoretical and performative sides of music by writing his own musical, Retold, which follows a fairy-tale narrator as she inserts herself into the story out of frustration with her passive role. The show synthesized Oberlin’s college and conservatory communities, combining actors, musicians, and creative teams from both. Ngo especially appreciates the opportunity to stage a full production of original work, noting that outside of an academic environment, “it costs a lot of money, a lot of time, and you need to pull a lot of strings to make it happen.” Oberlin’s focus on undergraduate education allows students like Ngo the resources and faculty support to make their artistic vision reality.

The production strengthened Ngo’s autonomy as an artist and entrepreneur: “Retold wasn’t for a class or a degree requirement,” he says, “but with tremendous support and guidance from my professors and colleagues, I made it happen—and it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Upon graduating, Ngo was selected to serve as music director for the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival Cabaret series, which included three shows in rotation for a month. For Ngo, it was an experience that aligned with the lifestyle of a professional music director.

“Oberlin Summer Theater Festival pushed me outside of the school-year sphere—working with artists from all over the country and performing in rep, as opposed to just one or two weekends,” he says. “Most of all, keeping three show’s worth of music fresh for each cast built up my stamina.”

Chris Flaharty, an associate professor of theater and lead costumer for Oberlin theater and operas, mentored Ngo through the summer festival series and the Theater Department’s production of Cabaret—the first production staged in Oberlin’s new Wurtzel Theater—among other projects and courses.

“These creative projects were the Oberlin culmination of Alex’s deep and ever-developing interest in music and song as dramatic art, and I can't wait to see where he goes with his talents and interest!” Flaharty says. “He has a versatile knowledge of theatrical musical forms, and his experiences here have afforded him a strong sense of professionalism, a personal standard of high quality, and a respect for collaboration and self-initiated exploration.”

Building on his Oberlin experience, Ngo has accompanied musical theater classes and auditions at Wayne State University, and he currently teaches piano lessons at Next Step Broadway. He plans to train as a musical theater composer-lyricist at either NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing program or the Broadway Music, Inc. Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.

“He is unique in personality but not unusual in the drive that many Obies have to practice his art and craft at a high level,” says Flaharty. “I'm sorry that he had to go and graduate, because he's really missed by me and this department!”

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