Three School of Communication alumni who’ve successfully navigated careers in musical theatre held a lively discussion October 6 about the ins and outs of life on Broadway in the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for Performing Arts.
Tony Award winner Heather Headley (C97), actress Catherine Brunell (C97), and company manager Randy Meyer (C97) sat on a panel moderated by theatre professor emeritus Dominic Missimi, and senior lecturer of theatre Melissa Foster. The discussion coincided with Northwestern’s annual reunion weekend.
Left to right: Catherine Brunell, Heather Headley, Dominic Missimi, Melissa Foster, Randy Meyer
Topics ranged from the mechanics of taking care of a singing voice to the brutal ups and downs of landing, and losing, lead roles in major productions.
Headley, who left her studies at Northwestern in 1996 to join the cast of Ragtime, said she’d already been cast in a Chicago Christmas production and wasn’t even sure she’d do the audition for the touring musical, especially since she had a date that night with her then-boyfriend, now-husband, a Northwestern football player. But, on the advice of her agent, she decided to go for it, despite not having a whole lot of time to prep.
“Dominic always told us that you have to have a song that, if I wake you up at three in the morning, you can sing that song and that’s what I did,” she says. She was then cast in the touring production, and six months later, was offered the role of Nala in Lion King. She wasn’t sure it was the right career move, so she reached out to her mentor, Missimi.
“I’ll never forget a phone call I got,” Missimi says. “She said, ‘Dominic, I’ve been asked to play Nala in Lion King, but I’m going to have to wear a mask, and I don’t even know if anyone will know it’s me. Ragtime is going to Broadway, too, so what should I do? I said, ‘You go with Disney.’”
After the laughter died down, Headley said she was grateful for the advice.
“I have always enjoyed being able to call Dominic and say, ‘what do you think?’” says Headley, who would eventually win a Tony for her lead role in Aida, as well as a Grammy and a Drama Desk award. “I seriously did not know. I thought The Lion King was going to be a complete bust.”
Brunell was also cast in a major national touring company while still an undergraduate at Northwestern. She auditioned, and won, a role in the touring company of Les Miserables, and eventually got to play her dream role of Epinone. She also went on to understudy and star in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Mary Poppins. She talked about the amazing highs of winning a lead role in a major performance, but also the lowest lows of losing a role she’d crafted and worked on for years to a good friend.
“For this business, you’ve got to be tough and have a strong support system and something in your life other than theatre,” she tells students, adding that she was grateful to have a spouse with a steady job—and health benefits—that allowed her to choose roles carefully.
Meyer, who worked as a company manager for a number of major productions including Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, On the Record, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, and Mary Poppins, to name a few, said he attributed his career success to his connections to Northwestern alumni.
“I really do owe a lot of where I’ve gone in my career to my Northwestern connections,” Meyer says. “The alumni network and my fellow students. Northwestern really has been that catalyst for me. Everywhere you go, someone, somewhere is from Northwestern.”
Brunell agreed, saying that when she performed in Mary Poppins, nine people in the performance, including the conductor, went to Northwestern. She warned students to be nice to their fellow students and professors, since they never know when those people might show up again.
“So, you’ll see people you didn’t think you’d ever see again down the road,” she says. “Just remember that kindness goes a long way.”
Headley encouraged students to see their talents as loans, rather than gifts.
“When God gifts you a gift, or anybody gives you a gift, they don’t really care how you use that gift,” Headley says. “When you have a loan, there’s stewardship involved in that loan, because they could come and take back that loan at any time. So, I look at my throat as a loan that I must steward properly.”
That included, she joked, singing scales rather than screaming on a roller coaster ride, which she happened to take with other cast members the night before an Aida performance.
Rachel Guth, a senior theatre major in the music theatre certificate, said she loved hearing all the stories from Broadway.
“I really thought it was amazing to hear how much they’ve achieved,” she says. “It’s truly wonderful to see that you can have so much success, but you can still be a human being, too. That’s really the strength of Northwestern, I think, because the University strives to create real individuality. I want to be on stage, but I also want to be me, and listening to these performers, I know I can do that.”
– Cara Lockwood