Every college student has experience with writing essays for class. Throughout your Northwestern career, you may have even taken an English class that required you to write a poem or short story. But did you ever write a full-length musical? Every year, the Waa-Mu Show, one of Northwestern’s oldest traditions, gives students the opportunity to learn about writing for musical theatre through hands-on experience. By the time the process is complete, over 150 students will have been involved in the creation of this entirely student written show, whether by joining the cast, the writing team, or the executive board.
Started in 1912 as a collaboration between the Woman’s Athletic Association and the Men’s Union, the Waa-Mu Show spent most of its history as a musical revue, a style of performance which combines song and dance numbers with short sketches. However, this changed in 2013 when current artistic director David Bell decided to have the students write a full-length musical that followed a single, cohesive story. While the new style of the show presents some challenges for the writing team, it also allows for more collaboration and creativity.
In the last couple of years, Waa-Mu shows have centered around the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, the Oregon Trail, superheroes, and everything in between. This year’s musical, Manhattan Miracle, is set in late 19th century New York and tells the story of a Parisian ballet troupe and a group of actors who combine their talents to create the first American musical. This idea was selected by the co-chairs, the head writers, and Bell based on suggestions from members of the creative team.
During fall quarter, students across campus applied to join the show’s writing team. The accepted students then enrolled in Theatre 330, Writing for Musical Theatre, a class taught by Bell himself. In total, the students write the show in about 10 weeks – a remarkably short amount of time given that Lin Manuel Miranda spent one year writing a single song in Hamilton.
The program’s mission statement explains that “the Waa-Mu Show aims to share stories that engage the hearts and minds of Northwestern’s campus as well as that of the greater community” and to “give students an unparalleled experience that prepares them to lead and advance the world of musical theatre.” The dual goals of positively impacting both the students involved with creating the show and the community members who enjoy it is what defines the Waa-Mu Show and sets it apart from other theatrical experiences.
After a great opening weekend, the show returns on Thursday, May 10 for five more performances. Full-time students can get tickets for $10, while faculty and staff can buy them for $20 either online or at the Wirtz Center box office. Come to Cahn Auditorium and see for yourself why this Northwestern tradition has prevailed for 87 years!