Imagine an American playwright directing a Russian play for a German-speaking audience…and if that wasn’t enough, setting it in Czechoslovakia! This is where I found myself just a few years ago at Theater Konstanz, the oldest working theater in Germany (nestled in the South near Switzerland on beautiful Lake Konstanz).
I had worked several times with the artistic director there, a wonderful man named Christoph Nix, along with his fantastic in-house repertory troupe of actors, and I was returning to direct a play on the main stage for the first time. Without hesitation I chose UNCLE VANYA.
It was an immersive dream to create with a company of actors in that way, men and women who work together year round and season after season–it was like coming to live with a family during the holidays with all the ups and downs that you can imagine could come with such an experience. Every actor had been in multiple productions with each other and knew all the tricks and tics of their contemporaries; I was the one play- ing catchup but luckily we were given a generous six weeks in which to discover the heart of the play.
We worked each day in harmony (mostly), pouring over my own adaptation of the play, along with a German translation and a copy of the text in the original Russian (thanks to having an interpreter available to the production throughout). Even after working on my own version for several months, many new and wonderful questions about the play cropped up from the eager actors and myself as we slowly worked our way from one end of the play to the other.
Our production was placed in a very specific time period–the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia, 1968, just before Soviet tanks rolled through the streets–and it was a great pleasure to watch the colorful design take shape under the guidance of the hugely talented Regina Fraas. Period furnishings, details and costumes augmented a soundtrack of vintage Beatles music.
All in all, I spent a wonderful two months in the beautiful lake-side town (a marvel of Medieval architecture) and had an intensive, engrossing and fulfilling experience with a group of actors and technicians who didn’t share a common language but shared something far deeper, a profound and endless love for the history and craft of the theater.
Our VANYA ended like no other production I’ve ever heard of or seen but I believe we really did seize upon the spirit of Chekhov’s play and ran with it…I’ve never had a greater or more satisfying stage experience in my entire career.
Neil LaBute is one of our most illustrious playwrights, whose body of work includes Reason to Be Pretty (Tony nomination for Play), Bash: Latter-Day Plays, The Mercy Seat, The Distance From Here, Autobahn (a collection of five of his one- act plays), Fat Pig and Some Girls. His motion picture output is equally impressive, as writer and director, including: In the Company of Men (New York Critics’ Circle Award for Best First Feature and the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival), Your Friends and Neighbors, Possession, and The Wicker Man.
Please tune in beginning Thursday, November 19th at 8pm through Monday, November 23rd to see Neil LaBute’s World Premiere adaptation of Anton Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA. Tony Award winner Alan Cumming takes on the titular role joined by Constance Wu, Emmy Award winner Samira Wiley, K. Todd Freeman, Anson Mount, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi and Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn. Gabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings in an evening directed by Danya Taymor (Heroes of the Fourth Turning). Tickets from $5 and are available only on TodayTix. Proceeds go to benefit The Actor’s Fund.
In one way or another, being the American president means having a relationship with the American theatre. That might mean being a regular attendee (like Bill Clinton) or a one-time Broadway producer (like Donald Trump). It might mean meeting the future First Lady while starring with her in a community theatre production (like Richard Nixon), or it might mean, of course, losing your life at Ford’s Theatre.
But more than anything, being the president means having the symbolic power of your office — and very often the specifics of your own administration — embodied on stage. As we approach another election, it’s a good time to survey how dramatists have imagined the Commander-in-Chief, because no matter who wins in November, he’ll likely find himself in a play soon enough.
Broadway has been delivering shows about presidents for almost as long as it has existed. Take Benjamin Chapin’s drama Lincoln, which premiered in 1906 and was revived in 1909. it launched a decades-long trend of serious-minded plays that depict real-life presidents as heroes. This includes Maxwell Anderson’s 1934 drama Valley Forge, which lionizes George Washington; Charles Nirdlinger’s 1911 play First Lady in the Land, which celebrates both James and Dolly Madison; and In Time To Come, a tribute to Wilson’s creation of the League of Nations that was written in late 1941 by Howard Koch and the legendary filmmaker John Huston as a direct response to World War II.
Chapin, meanwhile, was just the first of many playwrights to respectfully depict Honest Abe. John Drinkwater had a smash hit in 1919 when his play Abraham Lincoln ran on Broadway for almost six months, and The Rivalry, Norman Corwin’s 1959 dramatization of the Lincoln-Douglas debates had a starry L.A. revival as recently as 2008, with David Strathairn as Lincoln and Paul Giamatti as Douglas. And Robert Sherwood nearly outshone them all with Abe Lincoln In Illinois, which focuses on the future president’s rise to political prominence. It opened to raves in 1938, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and ran for over 470 performances.
However, it’s hard to imagine a show like Abe Lincoln in Illinois being embraced today. As historian Bruce Altschuler says in his book Acting Presidents, “Which presidents are portrayed and in what ways [tells] us quite a bit about how Americans have perceived their leaders,” and since the late 1960s, the theatre has reflected the nation’s political strife, disillusionment, and ambivalence. While the occasional play like Give ’em Hell Harry (about Truman) or musical like 1776 still depicts the nation’s leaders as the undeniable good guys, the president is now more likely to represent conflict, confusion, or downright villainy.
Just look at what happened to Lincoln: He appears in the musical Hair, which is synonymous with the counterculture rebellion, after a character’s acid trip leads to historical hallucinations. In both 1993’s The America Play and 2001’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks probes the country’s fraught racial history by depicting a Black character who performs as a Lincoln impersonator.
These more subversive productions are part of a lineage that arguably starts with MacBird!, a 1967 satire that reimagines MacBeth as the story of Lyndon Johnson’s rise to power, complete with the murder of a king who resembles JFK. At the time, this was considered so scandalous that Walter Kerr called the play “tasteless and irresponsible”, and according to Altschuler’s research, there were cries of treason at a backer’s audition. While there had certainly been shows that mocked the foolishness of American politics (including the Gershwin’s musicals Of Thee I Sing! and Let ‘Em Eat Cake), MacBird! marked the first time a major production took specific, vitriolic aim at a sitting president.
Audiences didn’t mind. The show ran for 386 performances Off Broadway and earned Stacey Keach an Obie for his lead performance. Soon enough, both sitting presidents and living ex-presidents were considered fair game.
Gore Vidal is another key figure in this evolution. His 1960 play The Best Man is arguably one of the best American dramas ever written about politics, and though it draws inspiration from real-life figures like Truman and Kennedy, it uses fictional characters to probe the American political system.
Meanwhile, in 1972 Vidal wrote An Evening With Richard Nixon and…, using the then-current president’s own words in a play that sees him judged by the ghosts of presidents past. Similarly, George W. Bush was still in office when David Hare dissected his administration in the play Stuff Happens, and shortly after he left the White House in 2009, he was lampooned by Will Ferrell in the Tony Award-nominated solo show You’re Welcome America. More recently, Lucas Hnath’s play Hillary and Clinton, which came to Broadway in 2019, imagined the fateful night in 2008 when Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama.
With its poetic look at the Clintons’ inner lives, Hnath’s play belongs to a 21st-century tradition of presidential plays and musicals that seek to challenge our conventional understanding of a political narrative. In Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which premiered on Broadway in 2010, the controversial president is reimagined as an emo rock star whose volatile emotions help him gain the public’s ardor. Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon shows us Richard Nixon after his resignation, when he’s lost his influence and is desperately trying to rehabilitate his reputation. And Hamilton, of course,is famous for casting the Founding Fathers with actors of color, which among other things underscores that every American deserves to take ownership of the ideals pursued by presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
And not unlike MacBird!, Robert Schenkkan’s plays All the Way and The Great Society give LBJ’s presidency a Shakespearean tinge. Instead of satire, however, Schenkkan opts for the sweep of a history play and the emotional punch of a tragedy. All The Way, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2014, charts one of Johnson’s greatest victories — the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — but this climax becomes painfully bittersweet when it’s considered alongside The Great Society, whichdepicts the Johnson administration’s disastrous descent into the Vietnam War.
Often, the most enduring shows about presidents — either real or fictional — stay with us because they seem to understand our current moment. For instance, David Mamet’s play November, about a fictional (and morally dubious) chief executive named Charles “Chucky” Smith, premiered on Broadway in 2008. One of Smith’s final lines (“I always felt I’d do something memorable — I just assumed it’d be getting impeached”) was funny at the time, but it feels shockingly prescient in the Trump era. Likewise, unless politicians suddenly change, the mudslinging campaign tactics in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man are guaranteed to be freshly relevant every four years.
And with this year’s presidential election feeling especially fraught, there’s no doubt it will inspire another crop of plays to keep the president on stage for years to come.
Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.
You might not think you can draw a line from Andrew Jackson to the sensual allure of the musical Moulin Rouge!, or that Herbert Hoover has anything to do with the anarchic fun of Broadway’s Beetlejuice. Alex Timbers, however, has proven the connection. Long before he directed those productions, he injected a similar, raucous spirit into three different musicals about American presidents.
In Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, the 2010 Broadway show he created with Michael Friedman, he turned the Commander-in-Chief into a swaggering emo rock star. In 2015’s Here’s Hoover!, he let Hoover take the stage and argue, via rock songs, that he deserved a better reputation. And back in 2003, he directed Kyle Jarrow’s insouciant show President Harding is a Rock Star, which put a wild new slant on Teapot Dome and other scandals.
These projects not only helped Timbers develop the aesthetic style he’s carried over to his current Broadway hits, but also let him explore his particular fascination with the American presidency. The office has enticed countless theatre artists, since it offers so many angles for investigating America’s identity, history, and possible future.
Timbers is especially interested in subverting our common notion of the role. “There is something fun about taking presidents, whom one thinks of as very staid and buttoned-up, and ripping open that shirt collar,” he says. “Without being wildly rigorous with the depiction of these people, you can still capture their spirits and the way they catalyzed moments in history.”
Take the antihero of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson: “We depict him as a frustrated teenager in the suburbs who feels overlooked by his parents, and even if that’s not literally true, it does get at something real about who Jackson was,” Timbers says. “He felt disenfranchised, and he felt that the frontiersman wasn’t being represented by the government.”
Timbers is also intrigued by the brevity of the president’s power, which only lasts a maximum of two terms. “I’ve always been interested in legacy,” Timbers says. “With kings, you die without knowing your legacy, but with presidents, you can live half your life after you’re out of office. You can see your legacy taking shape in front of you.”
It makes sense that he would compare a president and a king. According to cultural critic Isaac Butler, “If you’re doing a drama about the president, it allows you to engage in the same things that are so pleasurable about Greek tragedies or about Shakespeare’s history plays. You can tell the story of big social transformations and the nature of politics itself through the actions of one complicated individual.”
That epic sense of narrative certainly informed Robert Schenkkan, who wrote a two-play history cycle about Lyndon B. Johnson: In All the Way, which won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play, we see Johnson on the ascendant, pushing to pass the Civil Rights Act and learning how to wield his office on behalf of his ideals. In The Great Society, which premiered on Broadway last fall, we see his plan for the titular social reform get swallowed by the quagmire of the Vietnam War.
“I was very much thinking about Shakespeare when I wrote, and the sense of the wheel of fortune rising and falling,” Schenkkan says. “There’s a rise and fall of kings, and LBJ was the king. All plays are, to varying degrees, about the acquisition, distribution, and use of power, and nothing is more clear in that regard than the narrative of how one becomes president and then how one governs as president.”
Americans deeply understand that story. No matter how long one has lived in the country, the president’s power — and that power’s ability to impact our lives — is impossible to overlook.
In fact, long before he wrote about him, Robert Schenkkan had a first-hand encounter with LBJ’s influence. The future writer was only three or four years old at the time, visiting the then-senator’s Texas ranch after his father (a major player in public broadcasting) got an invitation. And while Schenkkan doesn’t remember much about the trip, he has asked his older brother for details.
“My brother told me, ‘I don’t remember LBJ specifically, but what I remember is how incredibly respectful our father became around this strange man,'” Schenkkan says. “And what’s interesting about that to me is the child’s perception of his father’s response to the presence of power. That’s what stuck with him. I think that’s a really illuminating anecdote.”
That’s the kind of story, in fact, that could become the basis of a play.
Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.
For decades, Original Broadway Cast Albums were beloved companions to the theatergoing experience. You could enjoy the music and lyrics to a Broadway show before you ever saw it, or you could relive the memories of the show long after the curtain went down. It was both merchandise and a marketing tool—a memory and an experience in and of itself. A cast recording could help fuel the run of a Broadway show and ensure its popularity in touring, licensing, and beyond for years to come. But new technologies and the ability to share and engage with Broadway scores easier than ever through streaming and social networks are making it possible for cast recordings to be something they’ve rarely been before: the engine that drives a show to the Broadway stage.
As early as the 1930s, there were attempts to record the scores to Broadway shows. But technology made distributing those recordings in any reasonable way something of a challenge. And although there were cast recordings in the early ‘40s, like many things in musical theatre, it was Oklahoma! that really pushed cast albums in a new direction and introduced the format we are used to today—much, if not all, of the score recorded by the original cast as it was performed on stage.
The next decade made that format the industry standard. Theatre historian and Broadway producer Jennifer Tepper said, “In this decade, a small handful of shows were recorded in the manner we understand today. This lent a permanence to the musical theatre as an art form, and changed the way the public viewed shows.” And that continues today. As theatre historian Laurence Maslon writes in the introduction to his wonderful book on Broadway cast albums “Broadway to Main Street”, “Hamilton can be seen by only 1,319 people a night on Broadway—which is about 10,000 people a week; the week the cast album was released digitally, it was downloaded by 50,000 people. More than a million people (and counting) have now listened to Hamilton in a private space. For enthusiasts of show music, the living room, to paraphrase one of Miranda’s lyrics, that’s the room where it happens.”
But what if a cast album isn’t the beginning of a theatergoer’s experience or a reminder of a show they’ve already seen? What if the cast album is the very engine of what gets a show to Broadway in the first place? This is precisely what happened with the Broadway run of the Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz musical Be More Chill.
Be More Chill is a musical based on the Ned Vizzini book of the same name. It made its world premiere at Two River Theatre in New Jersey in June of 2015. Iconis remembers the days following that production well. “When the show closed at Two River, it was dead. We got a dismissive Times review and I couldn’t get any producer or theater (non-profit, regional, whatever) interested in the show.” But the head of the board of Two River Theatre, Bob Rechnitz, refused to let that be the end of the show. He teamed with the theatre and Ghostlight Records to make a cast album of the show. Ghostlight Founder, Kurt Deutsch, recalls the journey of album.
Iconis noticed something was happening as well, “It literally just happened. I think it was a perfect storm of things—Spotify algorithms and timing (musical theater really came to the forefront of the culture in 2017 in a way it just wasn’t years earlier) but more than anything, it was just people (young people, specifically) connecting to the score. The algorithms wouldn’t have worked in our favor had people not listened to and got into the show.”
And suddenly, the show was back alive. “The viral popularity is what got Jerry Goehring to pull the trigger and take a chance on doing the show in a commercial summer run. And that summer run was such a wild box office success that we got to go to Broadway,” said Iconis.
And Be More Chill continues to find success in productions across the globe. “We have conversations about the show in international markets that feel like conversations you’d have for a show that ran on Broadway for years and won a million Tonys,” said Iconis. “Because Be More Chill‘s popularity really exploded online, it still feels very present, very contemporary, very active.”
And it’s not the only show to see its cast album fundamentally alter the course of its Broadway journey. The musical Beetlejuice opened in April of 2019. But it struggled to find the toehold necessary to becoming a bonafide Broadway success story.
But as the run progressed, something started to happen. Deutsch recalls seeing fans reacting to the show in a real way on social media channels. “You saw tons of tiktok engagement with Beetlejuice. You saw people recording themselves singing ‘Dead Mom’ and ‘Say My Name’. And all of these fans from all over the world who weren’t able to see the Broadway show were living vicariously through the cast album and then found each other.”
Yes, they were finding each other on new social media platforms, but crucially they were engaging with each other in a tradition that’s as old as Broadway itself—singing the songs from the show together. And as this community of people found each other they did something even more crucial—bought tickets. And Beetlejuice found its footing as a Broadway staple.
The musical Six was a runaway hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 2017—a power pop musical about the six wives of Henry VIII. It was such a success that professional producers came on board to launch a UK tour and eventually a West End run. In between the tour and the West End debut, the writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss had an idea of what to do in the subsequent months. “Essentially, if Six is the live Beyoncé concert,” said Marlow, “we wanted to make the Beyoncé album that she’s touring. So we think of it less as a cast recording of the musical, but more as a part of the whole conceptual package.”
And the success of that album fueled the West End run, and got the show heard around the globe. By the time Six debuted in Chicago, people were flocking to the production—already deeply familiar with its score, despite its lack of a Broadway production. Marlow remembers the fan fervor, “People were flying in from across the country in homemade costumes and singing along to all the words and stuff, which was completely wild! From that point the producers were like, ‘Yep, this show could work in New York’”. And on February 13, Six debuted on Broadway with throngs of existing fans from around the world already in thrall—all before ever playing a single performance on Broadway.
So what’s next for the Broadway cast album and its potential to fuel Broadway runs? Will a pre-Broadway cast recording become standard practice?
Despite some successes in developing this new model, Tepper has doubts. “I don’t think it will become the norm for shows that didn’t have major New York runs to create albums that go viral, leading to a major New York run within five years. But it’s certainly more of a possibility in the world we live in now than it was in the world where music wasn’t distributed online immediately.”
And whether or not the cast album comes long before a Broadway run or is released after the show debuts, the power of the cast album is undeniable. “At the end of the day, it’s your calling card,” says Deutsch. “It’s your marketing tool. It’s what makes a musical a musical. It’s what makes it sing. And it’s what’s gonna live on forever once your show is done.”
Ryan Cunningham is a Jonathan Larson Award winner and a Drama Desk and Mac Award-nominated lyricist, bookwriter and playwright. His Off-Broadway musical written with Joshua Salzman, I Love You Because, has played both nationally and internationally in five different languages. Also with Salzman, he has written the musicals Next Thing You Know, The Legend of New York, and Michael Collins. He is a Creative Director at the Broadway advertising agency AKA and teaches at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.
Nostalgia has always been a powerful force in the theater – and right now, it’s stronger than ever.
With shows on Broadway and around the country unlikely to resume until the current pandemic’s final phases of reopening, fans and professionals alike find themselves missing almost everything about going to the theater. The sound of a live orchestra tuning up for an overture. The feeling of an audience-wide belly laugh. The hush that falls over a crowd at a dramatic moment. Pretty soon fans might start to miss the bathroom lines at intermission.
Nostalgia is evident, too, in the ad hoc streaming offerings that theater people have produced during the current lockdown. Original casts have reconvened online for readings of shows like “Significant Other,” while Seth Rudetsky’s ongoing variety show “Stars in the House” regularly hosts reunions of TV and film actors. Even playwright Richard Nelson’s just-written “What Do We Need to Talk About?” was performed over Zoom in conversation with the past, bringing together a familiar cast of actors reprising characters they’d portrayed in the four previous shows that comprise Nelson’s Apple Family Play.
“We’re all streaming content that is based in reminding us what it was like to go to the theater,” says Elizabeth Wollman, the Baruch College theater professor whose books include “The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From ‘Hair’ to ‘Hedwig.’” “One of the reasons that I thought the new Apple Family play worked so beautifully is because it did exactly what those plays do in the theater.”
All of this is just the latest evolution of the way in which nostalgia has always had a presence theater. It’s baked into the form itself. “Theater is defined by legend, because each performance is once in a lifetime,” says Laurence Maslon, the New York University Tisch School of the Arts professor and the author of “Broadway: The American Musical.” Either you were in the house at “Gypsy” the night that Patti LuPone snatched a cell phone out of an audience member’s hand, or you weren’t.
The memory of a night at theater is more than just the show itself. It’s where you were, who you were with, what you did before and after the performance, and all the sense memories associated with those things. “It’s coming out of the subway and smelling the salty pretzels and getting a drink at Joe Allen,” Maslon says of the Broadway experience.
It’s no accident, then, that theater has always celebrated its history — its groundbreaking productions and talents — more than TV or film: The impulse rises from the effort to preserve what we can of an impermanent form, and it’s part of why we return so often to classic plays and musicals.
“People want musical art to be timeless, and it isn’t,” notes Raymond Knapp, the UCLA musicology professor whose books include “The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity.” “The impulse to revive is very, very strong. It’s partly based on nostalgia, and it’s also based on the notion that music transcends time.”
Revivals and even new works can draw on nostalgia on both a national level and a personal one. “The idea of doing a revival of ‘The King and I’ or ‘My Fair Lady,’ those tap into a national, theatrical, Broadway-musical sense of nostalgia,” notes Stacy Wolf, the Princeton University professor and author of the book “Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.” “Broadway can be nostalgic in wanting to revive classics like those that have this aura of Americana, or sometimes, like ‘Jersey Boys,’ a show can speak to individual theatergoers or generations of fans and to their personal feelings of nostalgia for the music they grew up with.”
For some critics and scholars, nostalgia raises red flags. Commercial producers and nonprofit theaters alike sometimes ignore new work to return again and again to established sellers like “The Sound of Music” and “Death of a Salesman,” and many new musicals draw on popular song catalogs – The Four Seasons (“Jersey Boys”), ABBA (“Mamma Mia!”), Tina Turner (“Tina”) – rather than original scores. “I get nervous about the word nostalgia, because executives often lean too heavily on it, or it’s their own personal nostalgia that clouds their decision making,” says Ashley Lee, the theater reporter at the Los Angeles Times.
But don’t dismiss nostalgia entirely, warns Chris Jones, the longtime theater critic at the Chicago Tribune. “Nostalgia is a powerful force in why people go to the theater, and some of my most glorious moments in the theater have been really driven by nostalgia either for me or the people around me,” he explains. “I remember being at the opening night of ‘Mamma Mia!’ in London, and the audience on this wave of joy remembering their youths. Or when I was at a press performance of ‘Jersey Boys’ on Broadway where I would say, of all the tens of thousands of shows I’ve seen in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience so excited.”
Right now, looking to the past can also provide clues to what Broadway and the theater business will look like in the coming months, when they finally reopen. Many point to the post-9/11 popularity of good-time shows like “Mamma Mia!” and “The Producers” as an indicator that in the wake of the coronavirus, audiences and producers will similarly gravitate to escapist fare.
But looking further back suggests that the future might not be all frivolity. Maslon notes that during the Depression, Broadway was a place not just for crowd-pleasing baubles like “Anything Goes” but also for socially consciousness works like “The Cradle Will Rock.” “There was this bifurcation where Broadway was either escapist or very engaged,” he says. “It actually forced theatermakers to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to be very much in vogue and at the forefront.”
Gordon Cox is a theater journalist and the host of Variety’s Stagecraft podcast.
Since 1929, there has been a student-written musical performed at Northwestern University under the title of The Waa-Mu Show. Its consecutive run has only ever been interrupted by World War Two. And this year was no different—until students were sent home because of the worldwide spread of the coronavirus. And while the fate of a university musical in the face of a global pandemic might not be of the most urgent concern, what happened on the evening of Friday, May 1, 2020, was a glimmering light in dark times.
The Waa-Mu Show is a musical written, performed, arranged, orchestrated, and produced by students at Northwestern University every May (full disclosure: I am an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern and serve as a songwriting mentor for The Waa-Mu Show).
This herculean task of building and producing an entirely original book musical in under a year begins the previous June. It goes something like this.
At the end of the academic year, a group of student co-chairs are selected to lead the process of creating The Waa-Mu Show. Before the students break for the summer, they hear pitches from students on what the next year’s musical could be. An idea is selected and writing coordinators are chosen to lead the writing process—which will ultimately include up to fifty writers. In the fall, the student leaders begin to outline the story and slowly accumulate other participants. By winter, the outline is loosely nailed down, the set designs are approved, and casting begins—often without the existence of a single note of a song or a word of dialogue. Throughout the top of the year and into the spring, the show is concurrently written, built, rehearsed, arranged, orchestrated, promoted, choreographed, directed, and ultimately put on—culminating in a fully-produced original musical with over 160 student participants. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is—it’s a small miracle from the gods of theatre when the show debuts every May.
And this year, things began in a very similar fashion with every indication that the show would continue its venerated tradition. A story was pitched by student Matthew Threadgill, telling the tale of the futuristic city of Dalesworth—a metropolis vying to become a future capital while grappling with the issues of its past. Outlines were created. Characters were invented. Songs were written. However, just as the team was gearing up for its last developmental reading presentation in mid-March, the news of a spreading pandemic began to roll in. Of course, the students had concerns other than their show. “The gravity of the moment didn’t immediately draw my attention to Waa-Mu,” said writing coordinator Ruchir Khazanchi. But eventually, his thoughts turned towards the production. “Hundreds of students had been working non-stop for almost a year to make this happen. And for it to be swept into uncertainty so quickly was jarring for a lot of folks.” Writing coordinator Emmet Smith agreed, “I think the hardest part was how drawn out the process of our spring cancellation was—every day we came up with contingency plans for the best and worse case scenarios given what we knew. And every day our best-case scenario of an on-campus production grew grimmer. It would’ve been easier on our hearts if the Band-Aid was ripped right off.”
Students were sent home and the future of this year’s Waa-Mu show was thrown into question. Khazanchi feared for the worst. “Nobody knew what the next steps were, or if there were going to be next steps.” The Waa-Mu team gathered on the video conferencing tool Zoom to discuss what would happen next. Co-chair Emma Griffone knew that they had to continue. “Waa-Mu has always been a process-oriented organization, so we were primarily concerned with working through our draft.” But as discussions began, it became clear that perhaps there was something more that could be done. Music supervisor and faculty member Ryan Nelson remembers that first call fondly. “That first meeting with the co-chairs, writers, music team, and our director was really thrilling. There was so much energy and so many ideas. At the end of the call, we decided we were doing Waa-Mu. No matter what.”
But what that actually meant was still completely up in the air. And now, in the usual crush of writing and producing a new musical came the question: What does producing this musical even mean?
As rehearsals went on over Zoom, co-chair Leo Jared Scheck was impressed with how it all started to come together. “It wasn’t until rehearsals had been going for a few weeks that we started to realize, hey, this is actually turning out really well. So we decided to do a reading on May 1st, our original opening date.” Co-chair Jon Toussaint added, “And even then, it was only the week of the show where we began to open the online reading to people who weren’t on the team.”
So there it was. This completely original musical would be produced on Zoom. But how? Co-chair Olivia Worley remembers the initial challenges. “Obviously, there are a lot of aspects of a live performance that are really hard to translate to a virtual platform, so a big part of our process was figuring out how to create collaborative relationships when we can’t all be in the same room together.” Paramount to that is, how do you sing together over Zoom? Latency issues make it impossible for more than one person to sing together at once. Enter Team Music.
“Our Team Music community is a cult of freaks of nature, and they have always thought outside of the box. So I never had a doubt in my mind that they’d be able to make it work,” said Smith. As songs neared completion, the music team—made up of music directors, arrangers, orchestrators, and copyists—would lay down a track in a program called Logic. They would then send that track to the various performers so that they could learn the song. Rehearsals would take place over Zoom alongside rehearsals with director/choreographer Amanda Tanguay. Once everything was learned, students would record their sung vocals—often on their phone—and then send them back to Team Music so that they could mix them into a final track. Now that the show was tracked, there was the question of how to come close to recreating the theatrical devices of theatre—and how to make it all as live as possible.
On the evening of Friday, May 1, around 400 people across the world gathered on a Zoom webinar to watch the live debut of The 89th Annual Waa-Mu Show, State of the Art. By reconfiguring the default settings of the software, the entire cast and crew made it so that when they turned on their video they would appear on screen, effectively making an entrance. By muting their video, their box would disappear and they would make an exit (instead of leaving a box with their name or a picture on it). Scenes with two people could grow to have three, four, or more with just the click of a button, and Zoom would reconfigure the boxes automatically. Backgrounds were used to suggest settings, and character names appeared below every performer.
When the time came for musical solos, the performers would activate a track in their own space and sing along live. And when group numbers arrived, a stage manager would play the pre-recorded group audio while the cast muted their own audio and sang along to the track. Over the next two hours, a fluid, entertaining, and moving live experience featuring actors all around the country was performed for an audience as far-flung as the Netherlands.
Songs were born. Characters sprung to life. And a new story made its theatrical debut. What began last year as a dream had without warning become a seeming impossibility—but was now emerging as a full-fledged reality. And as students’ faces took to this new stage, one after the other, it was hard not to be moved by their ingenuity, artistry, and optimism. An ensemble number made up of a grid of thirty undergrads singing their hearts out to a track written by one team and assembled by another has its own theatrical power—and is touching by the very fact of its own existence. These students were handed a uniquely challenging situation and found a way to create something truly of themselves all the same.
Writing coordinator Michael-Ellen Walden recounted the experience of watching it all come together. “An unexpected delight during the final performance was realizing that, although I couldn’t hear or see the audience, I could view the names of each of the 400-plus viewers. Scrolling through the names of Waa-Mu alumni and classmates, the parents of those who had worked on the show, and professors reminded me of not only how many people have been touched by State of the Art, but The Waa-Mu Show in years past. I hope we made everyone who has been a part of Waa-Mu proud of us continuing the tradition against the odds.”
And although director Amanda Tanguay was thrilled with the final performance, she celebrates something bigger. “We banded together, supported the creation of new art, but also supported each other during a difficult period of time. Ultimately, it is very clear to me that the final performance is not the only thing that makes Waa-Mu special. It is the people involved.”
All musical theatre fans are right to hope that the future of their beloved art form is not relegated to the confines of Zoom webinars. It’s an imperfect simulacrum of the real thing. However, it is hard to not be inspired by a group of students who refused to let their show be interrupted by a worldwide pandemic and instead joined together to create new ways of storytelling. And if that’s not the future of musical theatre, I don’t know what is. I can’t wait to see where they lead us.
Ryan Cunningham is a Jonathan Larson Award winner and a Drama Desk and Mac Award-nominated lyricist, bookwriter, and playwright. His Off-Broadway musical written with Joshua Salzman, I Love You Because, has played both nationally and internationally in five different languages. Also with Salzman, he has written the musicals Next Thing You Know, The Legend of New York, and Michael Collins. He is a Creative Director at the Broadway advertising agency AKA and teaches at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.