Northwestern University: Students hold fast to the Waa Mu Show mission despite pandemic restrictions

Northwestern University has a long tradition of Pulitzer, Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony Award winning alumni lighting up stage and screen. One likely reason is the Waa Mu Show, Northwestern’s oldest theatrical tradition.

This year Waa Mu presents its 90th production, “The Secret of Camp Elliott,” which the writing team has conceived as a supernatural mystery musical that follows three friends at summer camp in 1977. Presented by the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts at Northwestern, the production is directed by Amanda Tanguay will be filmed for streaming June 9–20.

Each year, a team of more than 100 undergraduates writes, composes, choreographs and performs a full-length musical described as “the greatest college show in America” by the Associated Press.

A sampling of Waa Mu’s notable alumni includes critic Walter Kerr (’37, ’38 MA), songwriter Lloyd Norlin (Mu ’41, GMu ’42), Cloris Leachman (’48, ’14H), lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Mu ’49), composer Larry Grossman (’60), director and professor emeritus Frank Galati (’65, 67’ MA/MS, ’71 PhD), Ana Gasteyer (’89), Brian D’Arcy James (’90), Heather Headley (’97) and Kate Shindle (’99).

“Waa Mu is an incredible educational experience for the students,” said Northwestern professor emeritus Dominic Missimi who served as Waa Mu’s show director for 19 years.

“One of the things I was always thrilled to tell the cast is, you are creating this song, this character for the first time. That’s a big responsibility and a lot of students took it to heart and would come up with wonderful ideas for their character or their song. That level of collaboration makes the process much more exciting,” said Missimi. Watch a video of Missimi’s favorite Waa Mu Show moments.

Producing during the pandemic took the students’ collaborating efforts to the next level.

Social distancing requirement forced them to innovate new ways of working on the show. For “The Secret of Camp Elliott,” the Waa Mu team, led by its three co-chairs, found a middle ground between film and theatre which they describe as the first ever “Waa Movie,” with scenes filmed on location in dorm rooms, around a campfire and along the lakefront, which could be edited and streamed online.

The inspiration for the supernatural mystery musical arose from the challenges of the previous year.

Co-chair Annie Beaubien (’21) said, “We wanted to make a show that had a lot of fun and light-hearted energy. This year has been hard for a lot of people and because it can be streamed from anywhere in the world, we hope people will watch and enjoy with their families.

“Our writing team and our music team have outdone themselves this year and created such fun songs that really emulate the experience of going to camp as a teenager,” said Beaubien.

Throughout the process, the team also sought to hold fast to the traditions that have connected students, alumni and Waa Mu theatergoers over the decades.

“This year’s show called for innovation, but it has also been a reminder of the mission of the organization,” said co-chair Jessica Nekritz (’21). “Even if we can’t be together at Cahn Auditorium, creating a musical is still something really special.”

“To me one of the best Waa Mu traditions is ‘To the Memories’ because it lyrically and sonically connects everyone,” said co-chair Pallas Gutierrez (’21). If you start singing ‘To the Memories’ to any Waa Mu alum, they know exactly what you’re talking about and you can connect just on that one song.”

The Waa Mu Show began in 1929 with an original book musical called “Good Morning Glory,” presented by the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) and the Men’s Union (MU), shortened to Waa-Mu. The student run theatrical production was produced annually ever since except for a suspension 1943 to 1945 during World War II.

Missimi is a treasured source of Northwestern theatre lore. Past director of the music theatre program at Northwestern, he oversaw Waa Mu’s transformation from a revue back to its original roots as a book musical and stewarded the show’s move to Cahn Auditorium.

To mark Waa Mu’s 75th year, Missimi came up with the idea for the Waa Mu Wall of Fame.

This year, the organization has dedicated the 12th star on the Waa Mu Wall of Fame to conductor Ryan T. Nelson, a music theatre lecturer at Northwestern.

Theatre Department Chair Rives Collins said that Nelson has been “at the very heart and soul of the Waa-Mu show for decades.”

“It is the consistent track record of students who leave the program and work in regional and commercial theaters where Nelson’s true legacy and impact is felt,” said Wirtz Center Managing Director Al Heartley. Read the tribute to Ryan T. Nelson here.

Previous inductees to the Wall of Fame include Harnick, Grossman, Missimi and Norlin who wrote “To the Memories’ for the 1951 Waa Mu Show while a student.

The 90th Waa-Mu Show, “The Secret of Camp Elliott,” will stream June 9-20. Tickets to access the pre-recorded production are $20 general admission and $10 for non-Northwestern students.

Admission is free to Northwestern students with a valid NU email address who complete the required registration form.

Tickets can be purchased through the Wirtz Center website. For more information, call the Wirtz Center box office at 847-491-7282 or visit The Waa-Mu Show website. The Wirtz Center Box Office is currently closed for in-person service. Box office phone hours are Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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