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They’re lifting the curtain on the Waa-Mu Show

Co-chairs Madeline Oberle and Mitchell Huntley share stories about this year’s production and the unique opportunities it provides
Waa-Mu Show co-chairs Mitchell Huntley and Madeline Oberle (left and right at center) discuss a scene during rehearsal. Photo by Stephen Lewis

Established in 1929, Northwestern’s Waa-Mu Show is the pinnacle of collegiate musical theater, a nationally recognized production that offers students the unique opportunity to own and operate the show from inception to opening night.

This year’s show, “Romance en Route,” opens tonight at Cahn Auditorium and runs through May 7. It follows six romantics on a journey through love, loss, heartbreak and self-discovery in Paris.

School of Communication students Madeline Oberle and Mitchell Huntley are two of the four Waa-Mu co-chairs this year (Frances Brenner and Daniel Maton are the other two). And, while they’ll be watching as the magic unfolds, the duo won’t actually be on stage. Instead, they are responsible for doing much of the work that the audience doesn’t see — work that makes the show possible.

From crafting the actors’ lines to finalizing the budget, they have had their hands full with all things “Romance en Route,” while also juggling the demands of being seniors in college.

Northwestern Now sat down with Oberle and Huntley to learn more about this year’s production, the impact of being involved and how they played a central role in making the show possible.

How would you describe your roles in this year’s show?

Oberle: Co-chair is a fancy word for a combination between a producer, a theatrical producer and then also a student liaison. The Waa-Mu show is co-produced through us and the Wirtz Center, and we could not put on this show without their help. But we also do a lot more of the nitty gritty things like being in the rehearsal room and getting students involved and ready for the show.

We have so many more people that work on the show than just the actors. We manage our designers, and we have a giant business team, we have a writing team... all of that comes through us, and we manage most of that with the guidance and oversight from the Wirtz Center.

Huntley: Along with being a co-chair, my background is being a writer. Waa-Mu is one of the reasons I came to Northwestern. There isn't any other college in the U.S. where you can really do something as insane as writing and producing a show in one year.

What does being involved in a student-led production mean to you?

Oberle: After I graduate, I want to go into basically doing exactly what I do for the show, which is artistic producing, specifically focusing on casting. So, this is clearly a wonderful resume and pre-professional help that I’m so happy to have the opportunity to get through Northwestern.

I worked at the Lyric Opera in Chicago this fall, and all the time they would ask me about this show because they were so curious because it's so unique. Many of my skills that I was expected to know there I already knew because of the Waa-Mu show.

And I just think it's so great to be in an environment where we have so many friends who have now gone into the industry where in a job interview people see Waa-Mu and they’re like “Oh my gosh, talk to us about it!” And that becomes their whole interview.

Huntley: For me, it’s all about having the skills of collaborating, especially with a large room full of writers. Those skills are going to be useful to me going into being a writer in the industry. The fact that this is like one of the few places that you can put 30 people together in a room and figure it out is so cool. We have to figure out how we are going to do the impossible and write one cohesive story together and get that done.

That’s the magic of Waa-Mu — that we go every year from nothing to having a show in, I would say a year. But really, it’s like nine months. It’s just kind of mind boggling in the way we can get that all done. It seems impossible. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Somehow. And that’s just the magic of it, I think.

Describe the sense of community for students involved in the show?

Huntley: Most of my friends I met through Waa-Mu. It’s a community where I think you bond through the creation of the show. It was weird, obviously, being on Zoom in the first two years of our time with Waa-Mu because of the pandemic, sure. But I think the way everyone can come together when making the show is something that I think is really special. 

What is your favorite memory from this year’s production cycle?

Oberle: My favorite memory started with getting all six leads in a room on the Monday after we cast them so that we had enough time to edit and create a poster. And it was a logistical nightmare ... we were not even close to being done with the costume process. But now looking back, it’s obvious that we judged our characters correctly when we cast them. Seeing them all interact in the poses or hyping each other on for their solo shots was just so exciting.

I remember immediately thinking, “Oh, this show is going to be so cool because these people are leading it.” Being able to see them interact with each other rather than just being in their roles in an artificial environment like a callback room was so exciting. It was just so silly.

Huntley: I think one of my light bulb moments was hearing the words I’d written be performed for the first time in the callback room. Just hearing a lot of the words out loud from people reading the different scenes inside that room was an incredible moment for myself and all of the other writers. I don’t remember the line or which scene, but there was one actor that when they read the line it was like, “Oh my god, this is like lightning in a bottle right here.” We were all on the edge of our seats.