You don’t have to look very far to find a Wildcat on Broadway. Playbill consistently ranks Northwestern in the top 10 of colleges and universities with the most alumni performing on New York’s biggest stages.
Northwestern’s New York Showcase — an annual event for theatre students to present their acting and singing talents before an invited audience of producers, directors and casting agents — happens every March through June as hundreds of theatre students from colleges and universities across the country flock to New York. This year, a reimagined Showcase could help keep the road from Evanston to Broadway painted purple.
On Monday, March 20, fourth-year and graduate students from the School of Communication’s department of theatre will take the stage at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre in New York. First up is an acting showcase featuring undergraduate actors and the MFA acting cohort. Then, a new addition to the program — undergraduate students in the music theatre (MT) program will present an original performance of what’s being described as a “Broadway musical extravaganza.”
“Historically for Northwestern, ‘Showcase’ has always been smaller in scale,” said KO, associate professor, director of musical theatre and co-producer of the Undergraduate Music Theatre Showcase event. “I call it an ‘extravaganza’ just for the sheer number of bodies — 28 — making music on stage.”
KO, a Tony Award winner widely known for their acting work spanning 25 years on Broadway and TV, is joined by Broadway colleague Alexander Gemignani, the artistic director of the American Music Theatre Project, in leading the MT portion of the showcase. Together, they reimagined this year’s event by having music theatre students perform as an ensemble instead of taking the stage one at a time.
“Of all the work that I’ve done throughout my career, the work that has sailed has been in an ensemble,” KO said. “We wanted to make showcase a little more holistic. This fourth-year group has spent a lot of their time dealing with COVID-19 [restrictions] and missing out on building community. If we send students into the commercial field and we don’t give them that opportunity, then we’re actually setting them up for failure.”
“As a dancer who thrives in an ensemble, I see ensemble work, world-building and supporting others on stage to be among the most important elements of theatre.”
– Theatre major Elyse Yun
Gemignani added, “It is important in moments like this for performers to understand that they have agency in their work. One of the ways to do that and establish a sense of community is to have people going through a similar experience at the same time so they know others have their back.”
Elyse Yun, an undergraduate theater major, says ensemble work is often overlooked. She says it forces the music theatre students to find a balance between respecting the group and advocating for themselves.
“The process has become much more inclusive than it ever was,” Yun said. “As a dancer who thrives in an ensemble, I see ensemble work, world-building and supporting others on stage to be among the most important elements of theatre.”
“These students are all different kinds of artists,” KO said. “Some are musicians and composers. Others are choreographers or directors. We’ve pushed open the model of what the showcase could offer them. Now, they’re getting to showcase the breadth of what they do as opposed to this sort of narrow thing.”
While some students may feel the pressure to meet or exceed a high bar set by big Broadway names and Northwestern graduates like Katrina Lenk (“Company”) or Zachary Noah Piser (“Dear Evan Hansen”), KO and Gemignani say they hope to change that mindset by challenging students to redefine the meaning of personal success.
“I think there’s a lot of weight put on Showcase in terms of ‘this is how you start’ or ‘this is the thing that will pave your way’ and I don’t necessarily believe that is true,” KO said. “These students are really leaping and showcasing themselves in ways that no one before them has done in Northwestern history and they should be so proud of the work they’ve achieved.”
Gemignani adds, “I’m having to remind myself to give them grace at times. We’re asking them to do something that’s traditionally not done in showcases and not in musical theatre undergrad. I tell them to trust the process and to trust themselves.”