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Curtain Call

After 17 years, director Dominic Missimi stages his final Waa-Mu Show

April 30, 2010 | by Matt Paolelli
Video produced by Matt Paolelli

EVANSTON, Ill. --- It's 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, and Cahn Auditorium is a theatrical mess.

The seats are littered with laptops, sheet music, backpacks and dance shoes. The auditorium anxiously buzzes with the sound of students singing snippets of songs, going over dance routines, practicing their lines and rearranging set pieces on the stage.

The noise quiets as Dominic Missimi arrives. It's time for rehearsal to begin.

For the past 17 years, Missimi has carefully controlled this chaos to stage the Waa-Mu Show -- the longest-running student-written musical revue in the country. This year's 79th edition of the traditional campus production is particularly special for Missimi, as it marks his final year at the show's helm.

Since joining the Northwestern faculty in 1980, Missimi, now professor emeritus in service and a recipient of the Donald Robertson Endowed Chair in Music Theatre, has staged more than 80 University productions. In 1991, he inaugurated a new certificate program in music theatre. Missimi also serves as executive director of the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern, where he will remain on board for at least another year. He also has directed a variety of professional productions for theaters across the country, including the 36 musicals he has staged for the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, receiving many Joseph Jefferson ("Jeff") Awards and dozens of nominations for his work.

Missimi took a break from rehearsal to share his Waa-Mu memories and reflect on the show's legacy.

The Waa-Mu Show has a long tradition at Northwestern. Why do you think it has developed such a loyal following?

A big part of the following is the people who were actually in the Waa-Mu Show. Back in the day, there were Waa-Mu shows often with casts of more than 100. Also, before the music theatre department was created, it was much more of an all-campus show. There's not much I can do about that once you have a program with all these talented singers and dancers -- they're going to get the roles. But there was a time when there was a much greater involvement with the Greek society and other organizations. Those are the people who more than ever have gotten jobs in Chicago and annually come back and bring their children and grandchildren. So it's a nice tradition to support the students and their creativity.

How has the production of the Waa-Mu Show evolved over 17 years?

We continue to produce Waa-Mu as a very unique show in America. There are a lot of colleges that put on an all-student campus show, but they're usually send-ups, lots of campiness, lots of guys in drag, lots of pie-in-your-face kind of humor. We try to be more serious. We have kids who are really serious about music theatre. They'd like to write Broadway musicals, and so in my time with Waa-Mu, I've tried to let them write about whatever they want to. It doesn't have to be in a kind of old-fashioned musical comedy Waa-Mu tradition. That's all fine, but if you want to write about more pertinent subject matter, more rock ballads, I'm fine with all of that. If you want to write about it, we'll find a way to make it fit in.

Has it been gratifying for you to see your Waa-Mu students and recent alumni move on to successful careers after graduation?

That's one of the thrills. I think back to the days when Miss America Kate Shindle was one of the Waa-Mu co-chairs -- about her performing on stage and how good she was. For three years I had Heather Headley in the Waa-Mu Show. As you may know, Heather went on to win a Tony Award for her performance in "Aida," and she was Nala in "The Lion King" on Broadway.

There have been many who have gone on in the field of writing for musical theater. Most recently, Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler are finding they're on the edge of nice careers as composers and lyricists. One of my favorite rituals when I go to New York is going to all of the theaters and reading the casts in the lobby so I can do a big count of all of my Waa-Mu alums and see how many of them are on Broadway. It's usually an impressive number.

What can audiences expect from this year's Waa-Mu Show?

We're using the theme of "Keeping Time" in the most obvious way, playing off all of the things when we use the word time. In a song called "Killing Time With You," we discover that the boy is in Vietnam and probably going to die, so the "killing time" has another meaning. In addition to those clock images that we use, we're also thinking about time as a way of recording history, so the show will look at many events throughout history. There's a very fun song called "Conqueror's Lament," in which Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan and Napoleon tell the audience that what they always wanted was to be a Bob Fosse dancer. So the number ends with a big chorus line and these three kicking up their heels in a very Fosse-like routine. That's typical Waa-Mu stuff.

I wanted to make sure that we had enough dance in the show, because we danced a lot last year, and everyone loved it. We are going to do a tribute to Michael Jackson, and we're going to take two or three of his biggest tunes and have about 30 students working on some of those numbers. We're going to do a tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, hearkening back a bit to those wonderful black-and-white movie days. There's always the sort of light rock that's our signature in the past dozen years, but a lot of it will be musical razzle-dazzle numbers.

What will you miss most about the Waa-Mu experience?

I always love the process of this show. The very fact of starting out with a paragraph of something and then all of a sudden watching how it develops and watching how the student turns it into something better. Something that started out kind of like a weak little voice suddenly turns into a giant that's filling the stage, and I don't think there's anything quite like that excitement. That's as close to making a Broadway show as you can get.

We are very fortunate to have such amazing students here who are so smart. Not only do they have great abilities in terms of singing, dancing and acting, but they're also really smart kids who know how to get things done. They are extraordinarily creative, so the process of working with them has always been a joy. My greatest memories will always be the performances in which I'm standing there with tears in my eyes being so proud of what the students have accomplished.

Performances of the Waa-Mu show will take place at 8 p.m. Friday, April 30; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 1; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 2; 8 p.m. Thursday, May 6; 8 p.m. Friday, May 7; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 8; and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 9, at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., on the University's Evanston campus.

"Starry Starry Night," a benefit concert featuring Northwestern students, faculty, alumni and theatre professionals from across the country, will pay tribute to Missimi's 30 years of service at 8 p.m. Monday, May 24, at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., on the University's Evanston campus. The star-studded benefit performance also launches the University's new Dominic Missimi Fund for Music Theatre. The event is open to the public for a minimum $100 donation to the Missimi Fund. For more information, visit http://www.communication.northwestern.edu/missimi/.

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