The 88th annual Waa-Mu Show, For the Record, had its world premiere on May 3, at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium. The original book, music and lyrics for the show were developed by a team of 27 students led by writing coordinators Lauren Katz (’21) and Carly Mazer (’20). The show’s final performance for this run is on May 12.
The musical was inspired by The New York Times’ “Overlooked” series of obituaries for ‘historically significant women’ whose accomplishments were not acknowledged at the time of their deaths. The Overlooked series was created by Amisha “Amy” Padnani, a Times editor on the Obituaries desk, who will be attending the May 9 performance and meeting with the cast.
The Director’s Note in the show program describes the show as sitting at “the intersection of theatre, journalism, and history.” The story focuses on an ambitious and young reporter, Andi, who is trying to make a name for herself at the fictional paper, The Chicago Offering. Andi is one of only two female reporters in the newsroom, although most of the unpaid interns are female. She feels her ideas are not sufficiently recognized, and resents that ideas she pitches for news stories are assigned to more senior reporters.
Andi is assigned to write a story about honorary street names and ventures to the paper’s Obituary department to do some research, where she soon realizes that many notable women, despite their impressive accomplishments, were never recognized publicly at the times of their deaths. She vows to correct this inequity and enlists some of her co-workers to help her with the research so she can write[MOU1] this wrong. We ‘meet’ several of these women from different periods in history as the story shifts back and forth from present day Chicago to 1890s Memphis, 1940s Virginia, and 1700s France.
In tandem with the pressure to prove herself at the office, Andi is also grappling with an overprotective, professionally unsupportive mother. The show combines the dynamics of a complex mother-daughter relationship with some typical struggles many young women experience at their first ‘real’ job: how to speak up and advocate for yourself, how to negotiate for what you want with those in power, how to deal with self-doubt and the feeling of being ‘replaceable.’ The show asks the audience to consider, “How can we learn from our past to create a more enlightened future?”
The show is entirely written and orchestrated by students, and this year, the initial idea for the show came from students as well. Ms. Mazer and Ms. Katz pitched the idea and story theme to a panel of theatre faculty, which included the Director, Stephen Schellhardt, and the Associate Director / Choreographer Mentor, Amanda Tanguay. The four student Co-Chairs/Producers, Ziare Paul-Emile (’19), Gabriella Green (’19), Lindsay Whisler (’19), and Alex Rothfield (’19), were also present during the pitch.
Once selected, the two women started working on the outline and building their team, eventually leading a team of 27 student writers who created the script, developed the characters, and wrote the songs. Ms. Mazer said that anyone working on Waa-Mu knows “to leave your ego at the door.” Ms. Katz kept track of the script using the software Final Draft and estimates she went through “at least” 30 different versions. The entire process was extremely collaborative and fluid, with script changes taking place until opening night.
The four female leads – Marielle Issa (’19) as Andi, Amira Danan (’19) as Ida B. Wells, Holly Hinchliffe (’20) as Gene Grabeel, and Lydia Weir (’21) as Julie d’Aubigny – embody their characters with confidence, and in Ms. Weir’s case, humor and swagger. Morgan Mastrangelo (’20) is hilarious as Andi’s co-worker and friend, Sam. The songs are terrific and include nuances from appropriate time periods along with robust musical accompaniment from the orchestra. The hard-working set is spare, nimbly comparting the audience to a different century in seconds. The show cleverly includes social media within the set to help establish a mood. There is even choreographed swordplay.
Ms. Mazer and Ms. Katz were candid about how much they’ve learned as a result of being the writing coordinators. Each agreed that it’s a definitely a two-person job – there is just too much to do. They emphasized how collaborative and supportive the entire process has been, how much each person associated with the show has contributed, and how close everyone in the show has become over the past few months. Taking into account the creative side and the business side of the show, there are more than 100 students involved in some aspect of Waa-Mu.
The women feel the experience has strengthened their leadership abilities, and are grateful for the wonderful mentors and advisors they’ve worked with over the past year. They invested a lot of time and energy to communicate clearly, listen attentively, and ask for feedback constantly from everyone on the team. They tried to create a sense of community and instill the Waa-Mu spirit throughout the creative process.
They also feel this experience has improved their scriptwriting and songwriting abilities. They have a better understanding of how dialogue flows, how to set up jokes, and how sometimes dialogue needs to adapt to the actor rather than to remain static on the page. Ms. Katz has been writing songs for years, but with some encouragement, Ms. Mazer tried writing songs for the first time. Six of their songs, written together and with others, are among the 18 original songs included in the show.
Another new area of insight was to experience the casting process from the production side rather than as actors trying out for a role. They found the process fascinating, even if they were primarily observers and not decision-makers for the roles in this show.
Ms. Katz commented, “The narrative arc of this show goes from the extraordinary to the ordinary, but then makes the ordinary extraordinary.” This sentiment hit home during the show’s final scene. The audience watched as another series of women with significant but largely unknown accomplishments were recognized through photos, actors’ portrayals, and typeset summaries. The diverse breadth of individuals, linked because of their gender and historical invisibility, stood as an affirming conclusion that we have the power to correct some mistakes as well as break the pattern of how we respond going forward. For the Record shows we are not condemned to repeat our pasts.