Dialogue Winter 2017

Waa-Mu’s Reimagined Direction

For 86 years the Waa-Mu Show has been regarded as a defining Northwestern experience. Yet recently School of Communication leaders embraced a progressive vision for the student-written revue, revamping it as a new-work incubator that is changing the professional musical theatre landscape. Through training, industry connections, international partnerships, and undergraduates’ innovative spirit, Waa-Mu is all new. “The greatest college show in America” has managed to become even greater.

David H. Bell (at left above) is fond of a quote attributed to Stephen Sondheim—one that he’s found eminently true, both at Northwestern and in professional theatre: “The only way to learn how to write a musical is to write one.”

“It’s the single hardest thing I can imagine doing,” says Bell. “I don’t know what can prepare you for it.”

After traveling the world as a freelance theatre director and writer, Bell took on his most challenging assignment yet: as Northwestern’s Donald G. Robertson Director of Music Theatre and the man behind the educational force that is the Waa-Mu Show.

This beloved University tradition began in 1929 when the Women’s Athletic Association and Men’s Union student groups banded together to put on a variety show. Their first revue triggered a sensation in student theatre, and Waa-Mu became an annual event, with undergraduates taking the reins of all production elements. The revue format lasted for nearly 80 years —until Bell’s first Waa-Mu in 2011.

“I realized we had kind of a problem,” says Bell. “The style of entertainment was not represented in any analogous form in the professional world.”

The lavish, vaudeville style of Waa-Mu was more Ed Sullivan than Lin-Manuel Miranda, and today’s actors, musicians, and writers were in need of a different skill set. Learning to create a new work of theatre, and having a hand in every twist and turn, was decidedly current—and practical.

With the assistance of faculty—including longtime Waa-Mu director and professor emeritus Dominic Missimi and lecturer Ryan T. Nelson, music director of the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts—Bell began the arduous work of converting a revue into an original book musical. Facing this daunting task, given the timing and undergraduates’ level of experience, Bell fell back on Sondheim’s apt observation. And they simply did it.

“I would not have thought this possible six years ago,” says Bell, “and each year we set the bar a little higher.”

Bell now begins each Waa-Mu experience with a weeklong summer trip abroad with the four assigned cochairs to settle on a theme for the coming year’s show. Bell and his team came up with the idea for 2015’s Gold, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, their first day in Paris. Last year’s Another Way West, about a graduate student’s retracing of the Oregon Trail, required more discussion in Barcelona. This spring’s show, Beyond Belief: A Superhero Story, came together quickly in Buenos Aires, allowing the remainder of the trip to be devoted to specifics.

Back on campus, the machine revs up. The cochairs and designated head writers spend the fall quarter mapping out plot points, creating marketing strategies, coordinating with the first-year ambassador Waa-2 program, organizing workshops with industry leaders, and collaborating with the team at the Wirtz Center, Waa-Mu’s production partner. In the winter quarter Bell teaches the 70-student Creating the Musical class as well as its advanced counterpart, in which the writers and their selected teams hammer away at individual scenes. Between early January and late April—through these courses and demanding out-of-class obligations, and with faculty assistance—an original work is written, cast, orchestrated, designed, staged, choreographed, rehearsed, and performed by roughly 200 students. No other undergraduate music theatre program comes close to what Waa-Mu does, says Bell; even most graduate programs fall short.

Waa-Mu’s close collaboration with the Bienen School of Music, where students are recruited especially for this style of music theatre, has led to the development of classes such as Theatre Orchestration, offered in winter quarter. Ryan Nelson recalls that the 37 songs and other musical cues in Another Way West were orchestrated by nine first-time and five second-year orchestrators—a challenge best met when in- and out-of-class goals dovetail. “Many of them go on to make this very specific type of work part of their professional careers,” says Nelson. “All Northwestern Music Theatre Program productions use student instrumentalists,” he adds. “This is not the norm anywhere in the country.”

Alan Schmuckler (C05), an actor and writer-composer for major theatrical productions, is a prime example of how the show can launch a career (see sidebar) “Waa-Mu was the absolute center of my Northwestern existence,” he says. “There’s a long and storied tradition of writing for Waa-Mu, and students have made lives and careers out of it.”

This quality is evident in the final product. Shows often sell out Northwestern’s thousand-seat Cahn Auditorium. Audience members who have been attending the show for decades jump to their feet at the curtain call. Through ingenuity, tirelessness, and collaboration, a new work is born.

“This is truly an invaluable experience that will prepare me for the ‘real world,’” says junior Kaja Burke-Williams, a theatre and economics double major and a development director for the Waa-Mu executive board. In professional theatre “more and more material is going through a workshop period where things are being cut and added on the fly, just like Waa-Mu,” she says. “Being a part of it has been life changing.”

Waa-Mu is where writing partnerships often begin, where the give-and-take of working collaborations is lived, and where postcollege ambitions are hatched. It’s a big takeaway for students and Bell alike.

“If in four years of university they have defined themselves as creators of music theatre, that’s something that Waa-Mu gives them, and it’s extraordinary,” says Bell. “As long as Waa-Mu continues, it’s going to be the single biggest force contributing to the American musical.”

Where Careers are Born

The value of the Waa-Mu experience becomes more apparent after graduation when writers and actors achieve professional success—sometimes very quickly. “I met incredible people when I was at Northwestern,” says composer-lyricist Alan Schmuckler (C05). “They turned into lifelong friends and lifelong collaborators.” Schmuckler cowrote music and lyrics with Michael Mahler (C04) for last spring’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid at Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company, among other high-profile shows. Dave Holstein (C05), currently coexecutive producer for two original Showtime series and a writer for stage and screen, says, “I owe my entire musical theatre writing career to Waa-Mu.”

Last summer alone, Daniel Green (BSM08) reconnected with David Bell on their show Museum of Broken Relationships at Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill National Music Theatre Conference, where it was named one of the top three new musicals, and Dream Ticket by Ryan Bernsten (C14) was seen at the New York Fringe Festival. Myrna Conn (C16), Charlie Oh (C16), and Chris Anselmo (C16) were selected to take part in the exclusive BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, former stomping grounds of Ben Diskant (BSM/WCAS07), Laura Winter (C14), and Jack Mitchell (C13). Celebrated Waa-Mu alumni also include lyricist Sheldon Harnick (BSM49), director-producers Jason Moore (C93) and the late Garry Marshall (J56), and performers Bryan d’Arcy James (C93), Kate Shindle (C99), Heather Headley (C97), Cloris Leachman (C48, H14), and Warren Beatty (C59), among scores of others.


Waa-Mu 2016, Another Way West


Waa-Mu 2014, Double Feature at Hollywood and Vine

Opening Doors

To experience the Waa-Mu Show as a student is singularly life changing—but there can be a sizable intimidation factor. This year the innovative Student Outreach Committee of the 86th annual Waa-Mu Show is opening the doors wide and inviting all to come in.

“What a crazy thing we do, putting 70 students in a room and asking them to write a musical,” says senior theatre major and Waa-Mu cochair Charlotte Morris. “But I’d rather have 100 voices in the room.”

The committee has enlisted the help of Waa-2, the first-year ambassador program, in organizing a series of biweekly workshops, lectures, and events to educate the wider community about the process—specifically, that it is more inclusive than is generally perceived.

Prominent industry professionals such as Michael Mahler (C04), Ian Weinberger (BSM09), Cheryl Coons, Ryan Cunningham, and Craig Carnelia will speak about topics ranging from storyboarding to songwriting; groups from the student-run theatre collective StuCo will cosponsor workshops. To keep minds open and casting fair, inclusivity panel discussions with students and faculty (including lecturer Melissa Foster) have addressed pressing issues such as diversity and casting students of color in nonstereotypical roles.

“We want to provide an opportunity for students to want to create for the theatre,” adds Morris. “And the first step is making sure all feel welcome.”

Theatrical Innovation Near and Far

The Waa-Mu Show is scarcely the School of Communication’s only new-work incubator. Student writers benefit from curricular and cocurricular programs on campus and even a cooperative program with an institution abroad.

From Evanston to Edinburgh The Waa-Mu model crosses the pond

In an exciting development, the innovative Waa-Mu model has attracted international attention—and a promising partnership has been forged.

This summer, 10 Northwestern students and Waa-Mu director David H. Bell will travel to the United Kingdom to premiere an original work of musical theatre at the Edinburgh International Festival in collaboration with the prestigious Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This is intended as the first of many multicultural exchanges to advance the practice of student-created musical theatre works.

“The Edinburgh Festival is probably the premier emerging artist platform in the world,” Bell says, “and to have our program represented as a major international collaborator on such a platform is going to be a game changer for us.”

Talks began after Bell learned from alumnus Tom Casserly (C11) that the Conservatoire was moving in the direction of Northwestern’s own American Music Theatre Project (see next column). Bell met Andrew Panton, the artistic director of musical theatre at the Conservatoire, and soon they created a plan in which two teams of alumni—one from each institution— would each pen a one-act musical. Bell tapped accomplished up-and-comers Desiree Staples (C14), Ryan Bernsten (C14), and Chris Anselmo (C16) as the Northwestern team. In July, with original book, music, and lyrics in hand, Bell and yet-tobe-named Northwestern student performers will join Panton and 20 Conservatoire students in Glasgow to workshop and rehearse the two one-acts. Then the international Waa-Mu– inspired team will perform the double bill at the monthlong Edinburgh Festival in August. Bell will act as mentor of both processes, as he does for Waa-Mu, and he is thrilled about the partnership’s possibilities.

“We will have a wonderful blending of both school philosophies in a production,” he says. “The authors have brilliant ideas of how to relate the two of them.”

American Music Theatre Project

As a valuable adjunct to Northwestern’s innovative and ever-growing Music Theatre Program, the School of Communication’s new-musical development initiative—the American Music Theatre Project—brings leading professional writers to the Northwestern community.

“It’s a beautiful marriage,” says Brannon Bowers (C15), AMTP’s producing director. “Writers have their works read aloud, maybe for the first time, and in exchange we can get our students in the room working with professionals, also maybe for the first time, with new work. It demonstrates the level of professional education that we have here.”

Each workshop ends with a free on-campus staged reading. Student performers, often working alongside Equity actors, are eyewitnesses to everything that goes into honing book, lyrics, music, and direction in the development process. The writers make changes on the go, and the actors nimbly adjust. Last fall AMTP presented Rockne: There’s Something in the Game, about the famed Notre Dame football coach. Producers John Girardi and Greg Schaffert worked with book writer Buddy Farmer, composer-lyricist Michael Mahler (C04), and director-lyricist David H. Bell to bring the story to Northwestern’s campus as well as to South Bend, Indiana, where it was applauded on Knute Rockne’s home turf.

In fall 2015 at Chicago’s Thalia Hall, AMTP presented a rollicking reading of La Révolution Française by the writing team behind Les Misérables. In 2017 students will have the chance to work on Michael Collins by Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Saltzman and Proxy Marriage by Adam Gwon and Michele Lowe. The process underscores the school’s commitment to experiential learning and its strong ties to the professional world.

Launching new playwrights

The School of Communication’s innovative playwriting module, which marries in-class studies with out-of-class work and professional networking, gives promising students an entrée into postcollege writing success—and so does the annual Agnes Nixon Playwriting Festival. Selina Fillinger (C16) is an outstanding recent example of how these programs launch our students.


Selina Fillinger (left) with the late Agnes Nixon

The playwriting module culminates with students pairing up with local professional theaters to workshop new plays. During the process, mentored by module coordinator and senior lecturer Laura Schellhardt, each theater gives its assigned student a prompt, which that student uses to craft two new play pitches. The theater selects one pitch, and the student writes a script that is then workshopped and given a staged reading by Northwestern actors.

Schellhardt paired Fillinger with Skokie-based Northlight Theatre, where artistic director B. J. Jones gave Fillinger the prompt “ISIS in America.” Jones was so taken with one of her pitches, about a teenage girl on trial for conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, that he chose to include the resulting play— Faceless—in Northlight’s 2016–17 season. And as a result, one senior earned a major professional credit. “I don’t think I’ve worked so hard in my entire life,” says Fillinger. “It was an incredible experience.”

“The idea is strong and her storytelling is poignant,” says Jones. “Our new-plays program is very successful, so I had confidence that our collaboration would succeed.”

This was an understandably big moment for Fillinger, who initially majored in theatre as a performer, not a writer. It was an introductory playwriting class her sophomore year that changed her direction, plus the support of faculty such as Schellhardt, who quelled Fillinger’s many doubts.

“When I first talked to Laura, I thought, ‘This woman is going to change my life,’” Fillinger recalls, adding that lecturer Gail Shapiro was another influence. “They were pushing me so hard—they were pushing me because they knew I could do it.”

At Northwestern, Fillinger earned entry into two consecutive Agnes Nixon Playwriting Festivals—a launching pad for the likes of John Logan (C83), Lydia Diamond (C92), and Laura Eason (C89), among others—and won the Agnes Nixon Playwriting Award her senior year, in addition to performing in the New York senior acting showcase. She stayed in Chicago after graduating to work on Faceless, which premiered January 26 at Northlight.


For tickets and more information, visit The 2017 Waa-Mu Show, Beyond Belief: A Superhero Story.