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The Waa-Mu Show will take you away

Now in its 93rd year, Northwestern’s student-run musical continues to evolve
One woman leans toward another as she sings
This year, rather than one musical, Waa-Mu is now three shorter musicals. “Taken Away: A Musical Trilogy” opens tonight at Cahn Auditorium. Photo by Justin Barbin

In its 93 years of existence, Northwestern’s Waa-Mu Show has evolved continuously. What began as the University’s Women’s Athletic Association and Men’s Union joining forces for a musical revue eventually morphed into a full-length, original musical penned by students.

This year, the show once again forays into uncharted territory with a change: Rather than one musical, it is now three shorter musicals. “Taken Away: A Musical Trilogy” opens Friday, April 26, at Cahn Auditorium.

The show begins with “The Art of the Heist,” a supernatural tale that follows an artist who must steal back the last portrait of her late lover, followed by “Stolen Thunder,” a reimagining of Greek myth portraying the struggle for power between Zeus and Athena. It closes with “A Bird’s Song,” which centers on a whimsical forest-surrounded town outside reality, where melodies have transformational consequences.

With their varied settings, plots and musical styles, the works offer a glimpse of the many forms musicals can take. However, as the show’s title suggests, they are united by the common theme of something being taken away, with additional smaller motifs throughout the works in the form of details like set pieces and musical themes. The same cast members also act in all three shows.

Buttressing the change to the structure of the show are changes to the creative process behind it. This year, students began work on the show sooner, pitching and workshopping ideas in the fall so they could begin refining and revising in the winter, beginning spring rehearsals from a strong foundation.

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It’s really what theater should be, which is experimental, fun, moving and shocking.”

Ryan T. Nelson
Waa-Mu music supervisor

Alongside the schedule change, faculty mentorship has been integral to every stage of this year’s show-writing process. At the center of these efforts are Tommy Rapley, the show’s director and an assistant professor of instruction in the School of Communication’s theatre program, and Ryan T. Nelson, a long-time Waa-Mu music supervisor and an associate professor of instruction in the same department. The new approach allows students to engage more deeply with the work and each other, Nelson said.

“It's about connecting the classroom and the practical performance of theater and engaging students and faculty,” he said.

Anand Choudhary, a second-year psychology major in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences who is in the show’s cast for the second year, said this year’s process has placed a new emphasis on the educational aspect of The Waa-Mu Show.

“I've learned so much of how to become a better actor, how to connect with the script, how to connect with my character and how to have fun doing it, too,” Choudhary said.

For Sadie Fridley, the Waa-Mu Show has always been a chance to experience the magic of watching ideas and “what-ifs” transform into a full production on the stage in Cahn. The third-year student in the School of Communication’s theatre program has been part of the show’s cast and music team every year since she arrived at Northwestern. This year, she said, students have been able to dig deep into the emotional hearts of their shows.

“I think that we've pushed a lot of boundaries this year, in staging, in set, in music, in story, and I'm really excited for the audience to feel things that they've never felt at a Waa-Mu show before,” Fridley said.

Emerson Steady, who pitched what became “The Art of the Heist” and is a writer and co-script supervisor for the piece, said the change to the format is also a chance to embrace a spirit of experimentation that is dominant in the professional musical theater world.

“I really am excited for the audience to come in with an open mind and get a glimpse of what musical theater can be, all the potential,” Steady said.

The third-year student in the School of Communication’s theatre program was also a writer for last year’s production, and they’re eager to see how subsequent Waa-Mu Shows develop.

“I hope it continues to evolve,” they said. “I hope that it never gets nailed down to be one particular thing.”

Whatever the future holds, the Waa-Mu cast and crew are looking forward to when the curtain rises on the latest iteration of the show this weekend, and they hope the audience is, too.

“It's going to be a wild ride,” Nelson said. “I think it's going to be quite historic. It's really what theater should be, which is experimental, fun, moving and shocking.”