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Stephen Colbert and celebrity alumni spend 'A Starry Night' at Northwestern

CommFest2018 launches next generation of leaders

EVANSTON - A star-studded lineup of Northwestern University School of Communication alumni turned the newly christened Ryan Fieldhouse into a rollicking, full-throttle reunion Saturday night (April 21), paying tribute in music and comedy to the school’s storied past while challenging the next generation of students to carry on the tradition.

Emceed by “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert ’86, ’11 H, the variety show, “A Starry Night,” drew a crowd of more than 2,600, who were treated to performances by dozens of famous alumni and current Northwestern students.

Colbert, who normally uses the opening monologue on his TV show to skewer President Donald Trump, told the crowd he only wanted to talk about one president – Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, who was seated near the stage.

“Everyone loves Morty,” Colbert said during his opening remarks. “Morty wears purple. Morty breathes purple. Morty is purple.”

There was plenty of Purple Pride throughout the evening — and plenty of laughter.

“Morty’s done so much for this University,” Colbert continued. “He took something great and made it better. He’s like the guy who put cheese in a pizza crust.”

Tonight is a demonstration of the capability of our community — and the love everybody has for Northwestern to make it happen.

Barbara O'Keefe
Dean of the School of Communication

Much of the evening was spent reminiscing about the legendary professors who helped launch countless careers in theater, television and film — and about the students who joined the celebrities both on stage and behind the scenes. More than 300 students helped bring the show to life, including performers, producers, stagehands and others.

Broadway star and Drama Desk Award winner Richard Kind ’78 talked about having drinks in an Evanston bar the night before rehearsals, where he spoke with theater professor Rives Collins about what students need to survive and thrive in the world of entertainment. He said it boiled down to one word: resilience.

As he prepared to perform the song “Bounce” from the Stephen Sondheim musical “Road Show,” he turned to the students on stage with him to explain the importance of resilience – and enduring the inevitable ups and downs of their budding careers. He said that although he was facing the audience, he was really singing the song to the students.

The variety show included a rousing duet, “Comin’ Together,” with alums Ana Gasteyer 89 and Stephanie D’Abruzzo ’93, and a powerful medley by three of Broadway’s leading men: Gregg Edelman ’80 singing “Double Talk” from “City of Angels;” Brian d’Arcy James ’90, singing “You’ll Be Back” from the hit musical “Hamilton;” and Kind singing “I Wan’na Be Like You,” from “The Jungle Book.” Edelman and James joined Kind at the end of his number for a spirited finale by the trio.

headley640Heather Headley

The show stopper was a performance by Tony and Grammy Award winner Heather Headley 97 whose rendition of “Home” from “The Wiz” brought the crowd to its feet.

The show was set inside the recently opened Ryan Fieldhouse, which was transformed by the installation of a sprawling, sparkling stage that was designed by students in the MFA stage design program. The fieldhouse was bathed in purple, as lights twinkled behind the performers, mimicking a night sky.

“Offering the new Ryan Fieldhouse for the show was an amazing gift that President Schapiro gave us. This was an incredible opportunity for those students,” said School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe. “All of them said this is going to launch us like nothing else because we’ll have in our portfolio an amazing design for a performance space, unlike anything that has ever been done before in an MFA program.”

The night began with a VIP reception and dinner before the performance, at which O’Keefe thanked the guests, students, stars and University faculty and staff for their work on the show over the past year.

“Tonight is a demonstration of the capability of our community — and the love everybody has for Northwestern to make it happen,” O’Keefe said.

In his remarks, President Schapiro underscored the importance of both science and the humanities in making Northwestern a great university.

“The magic happens in the labs. The teaching that happens in those labs changes the world,” the President said. “But without art, without literature, a person isn’t a full human being.”

He paid tribute to the School of Communication’s past and present, and he saluted the school for what he said will be an even “more brilliant future.”

After the VIP dinner ended, the crowd settled in for the show, which kicked off with a pre-recorded video skit that featured Colbert and fellow alum Seth Meyers 96, ’16 H. The two sat in wingback chairs in a faux Northwestern club with a fireplace behind them, set in New York City, riffing off each other. The pair joked about what actors are really thinking when they put on a listening face on stage —  food. The two then pulled out sub sandwiches, took hefty bites and began unintelligibly singing the Northwestern fight song.

The show also paid tribute to the late Garry Marshall ’56, a lifelong supporter of Northwestern and its students — and to other Northwestern-bred actors, directors, teachers and producers who formed the backbone of Chicago theater throughout the years.

group640The entire  cast gathers for the final number.

Perhaps most poignant, the alumni performers clearly enjoyed their time on stage with one another at the University where they trained and honed their skills, and for which they continue to have great affection. Throughout the night, they made it clear their Northwestern mentors helped them forge successful careers and they were committed to paying it forward for today’s students.

The CommFest production team was headed by Don Weiner ’79, producer of the new “Showtime at the Apollo” and “So You Think You Can Dance?” and co-producers Dave Harding ’79 and RAC Clark ’78. The creative team included head writer Shelly Goldstein ’79, music director Doug Peck ’03 and stage director Peter Flynn ’87.

Complete performer and producer biographies are available in the CommFest press kit.

A celebratory weekend

The CommFest weekend was designed, in part, to showcase plans for the launch a new MFA in acting degree which will operate out of Abbott Hall, 710 N. Lakeshore Drive on the Chicago campus. The location also will be the site of a new media arts center.

“The two-day event showcased the many kinds of excellence, knowledge and creative practice we forward in this school,” said O’Keefe. “Workshops led by our faculty gave our alumni the opportunity to learn new things and see the work faculty are doing now, the evenings were devoted to community-building events — and last night we came together to enjoy a spectacular show that was written, produced and performed by alumni that have gone into the arts and entertainment.”

“It was a show that will reverberate throughout our history.”

Alumni performers and presenters included Sharif Atkins ’97, Paul Barrosse ’80, Craig Bierko ’86, Stephen Colbert ’86, ’11 H, Stephanie D’Abruzzo ’93, Nancy Dussault ’57, Greg Edelman ’80, Daniele Gaither ’93, Frank Galati ’65, ’67 MA/MS, ’71 PhD, Ana Gasteyer ’89, Kathryn Hahn ’95, Heather Headley ’97, Kyle Heffner ’79, Marg Helgenberger ’82, Laura Innes ’79, Brian d’Arcy James ’90, Adam Kantor ’08, Richard Kind ’78, Gary Kroeger ’81, Harry Lennix ’86, J.P. Manoux ’91, Stephanie March ’96, Dermot Mulroney ’85, Dana Olsen ’80, Tony Roberts ’61 and Kimberly Williams-Paisley ’93 with a video appearance by Seth Meyers ’96, ’16 H.

CommFest steering committee and donors

Leading the CommFest 2018 steering committee are David Lefkowitz ’78, chair of the School’s alumni advisory board, and event co-chairs Elizabeth Clark Zoia ’89 and Amanda Silverman ’93.  Zoia and Silverman both have professional backgrounds in television and communications; Lefkowitz’s career was in law. Keebler Straz and Madeleine Kelly, student members of the Dean’s Advisory Council, are serving as CommFest student co-chairs.

Visit the CommFest 2018 site for a list of major donors.

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