The Waa-Mu Show is back. Opening night 2022 is Friday, April 29, at the Cahn Auditorium as “A Peculiar Inheritance” will be entered into the canon as the 91st student-run production of Northwestern’s oldest theatrical tradition.
Theatergoers in the know and those who’ve seen Waa-Mu productions in the past already have their tickets and are counting the days until showtime.
After two years of producing a show virtually, rather than in person, the excitement among students is palpable. The show they’ve written and created is fun and appropriate for the entire family. And it clocks in at less than two hours, including the intermission.
Except for working with a professional director (this year it’s Johanna McKenzie Miller), the musical is created and brought to life by students.
At last count, there were 178 students contributing their talents as producers, writers, composers, actors, choreographers, set and prop designers, costumer designers, lighting designers and sound technicians, to name just a few of the roles. Leadership opportunities abound for those willing to get involved, work hard and embrace the process. Many students take on multiple tasks. It is a Herculean undertaking and planning for a show begins almost as soon as the preceding year’s show closes.
Waa-Mu, which derives its name from the abbreviations for its original sponsors, the Women’s Athletic Association and Men’s Union, started out as “student-written variety musical theatre revues,” according to the group’s website. It was only in 2013 that the show transitioned to a full-length, completely original musical production.
The Associated Press has called it “the greatest college show in America,” but for those who have seen one of these productions, that description may not be superlative enough.
A meeting with three student leaders and the director less than two weeks before opening night included apt phrases like “daunting,” “organized chaos,” and “a masterclass in collaboration.” The students were quick to point out there are opportunities for anyone interested in participating in the show – even freshmen who are not theater majors.
For this year’s show, the process got underway at the start of summer 2021 when 18 new writers were selected (after auditions) to be part of the writing board. Anyone in the room could pitch a concept for the show.
According to Madeline Oberle (’23), one of this year’s Co-Producers, they started with eight concepts and by the end of summer, those eight had been winnowed down to three. The show that became “A Peculiar Inheritance” was selected in early October at the start of fall quarter 2021.
By that point there were probably 35 to 40 people working on writing the show and running the business side of things (finding sponsors, fundraising, marketing, external engagement), Oberle said. In addition to the writing board, there is a business team, a music team and an executive board, each of them student-run.
Wes D’Alelio (’23) juggles roles as Waa-Mu’s musical historian, assistant music director and a member of the cast. He also contributed writing to the show. (No surprise, he spent his spring break working with another writer-musician composing songs.)
He recognizes the unique opportunities that radiate from Waa-Mu, especially for those who want to pursue a life in the performing arts professionally.
D’Alelio observed, “It’s also great for performers to have a credit on your résumé before you leave college that you originated a role and helped develop a new piece of musical theater in a workshop setting.”
How does it feel when your peers are revising and critiquing your work? Sam Perlman (’22) is one of the show’s musical directors and one of the few who have worked on Waa-Mu all four years at Northwestern.
“I personally love it,” he said. “A lot of my role as an arranger on the show is working with musical numbers and the writing team to figure out the kernels of what is really working and then draw it into the world of our show. We shape and mold it over the course of months to make it one cohesive thing. It’s really a collaborative mindset.”
The students who work on these productions are dedicated and focused, but they also make every effort to treat one another with respect and kindness. It can’t be easy auditioning in front of your peers or suggesting an idea that may or may not be accepted.
“At the end of the day, we’re casting and evaluating our friends,” D’Alelio said. “We are then teaching and coaching our friends, we are adjusting material in our show based on the performances we see done by our friends and having honest conversations with them about what they feel comfortable doing in a performative setting. And later that same year or the next year the roles could be flipped, where that person will be tasked with casting and coaching us because we’re auditioning for them. That’s just part of the beauty of having student-run, super-organized performances and organizations in a B.A. program like this.”
Tickets are available online and in person at the Wirtz Center Box Office, which is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Prices range between $10 and $30 before service charges (for online or telephone orders). Masks and a proof of vaccination status or a negative COVID test within the past 48 hours are required.
The Wirtz Center Box Office is in the Barber Theater lobby at 30 Arts Circle Drive on Northwestern’s campus.