Nearly One Hundred: The Hanslick Girls on “The Waa-Mu Show: Beyond Belief”
By Zach Barr
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw “Beyond Belief,” the 86th Waa-Mu Show, and the fourth seen by all three girls. Let’s hear what they had to say the following day, after seeing the show…
Eleanor slumped down into the couch in the living room, glancing at her phone. It was a dull Monday evening, and she was procrastinating on midterms — as one did at that time, two weeks out from Dillo Day. The anxiety over her impending graduation was beginning to hit harder, and she was attempting to distract herself from the terror of the situation. She closed her phone, tossing her eyes to the ceiling, and around the room.
Through the door, she could just see into the next room. Gwen was hunched over her desk, poking at something with a pen and occasionally writing down something short.
Eleanor stood up and wandered over to the doorway. Even before Gwen looked up, Eleanor realized that she was looking at the program for the Waa-Mu Show. The girls had seen the closing night performance the previous day — their fourth and final time experiencing the student-written, department-produced musical. Gwen had always come at Waa-Mu with mixed feelings, and despite this, they hadn’t discussed the production in detail the previous day. With Gwen having to run off to an audition, she had left Eleanor and Dania to discuss the show on their own.
Neither had strong opinions on the show this year, a high-school-set superhero narrative. Dania had mentioned that it was the most fun production out of the four they had seen, save for perhaps the freshman year Double Feature. But discussions hadn’t expanded beyond a simple, ‘s’all right.’
Gwen’s program was turned to the songlist, and she was circling the names of composers. Eleanor stopped in the doorway just as Gwen was placing a fifth check mark under Alec Steinhorn’s name.
“Counting writers again?” Eleanor asked.
“Like I do,” Gwen said, rolling her eyes.
“How’s the count this year?” Eleanor said.
“There are 76 names listed on the title page for writing credits,” Gwen reported. “And the total number of names that appear in the songlist is…” She double-checked her counting. “…twenty-four.”
“But of those twenty-four, only thirteen appear more than once,” Gwen continued. “And it’s actually interesting. I was going to say something about how the head writers are the ones with the most writing credits in the final show, but upon counting it up, they’re only second.”
“Yeah,” Gwen said, pointing to the middle of Act II. “These two freshmen, Jordan Knitzer and Alec Steinhorn, swooped in and wrote three songs in a row. The head writers only show up five times each in here; Steinhorn and Knitzer are there five and six times, respectively.”
“Wow,” Eleanor said.
“Wow indeed,” Gwen said. “Still, 13 out of 76 — even 24 out of 76 — isn’t great representation. But at least freshmen writers got prominent songs in this year.”
“But is that ever different?” Eleanor asked. “Like, last year the count was similar, right?”
“Yeah,” Gwen admitted. “I don’t blame them for putting the best songs in, sure, and there are going to be better writers in the group. But it’s the advertising, ‘written by hundreds of Northwestern students’ and everything.”
“Well, it’s got bookwriters too, right?”
“It does. Fair.” Gwen closed the program. “But I don’t know if it took 52 people to write the plot of Sky High again.”
“It wasn’t exactly Sky High,” Eleanor said.
“No, not at all,” Gwen countered. “Sky High was all about superheroes, rather than a high school that just happened to contain a few superheroes in a few scenes.”
“They were prominent,” Eleanor defended. “The friends were superheroes too, by the end of it.” She walked in and sat on Gwen’s bed, preparing for the conversation to come.
“I suppose,” Gwen said. “Although that was never really addressed, was it? The super powers?”
“What do you mean?”
“At the end of Act I, they’re revealed to have super powers, like the characters based on them. And then Act II is about them dealing with having those powers, and then…what next? How did they get them? Were they just imagining them?”
“Right, right,” Eleanor said. “Well, I figured they were all just coincidences, you know? Like, the Rattlers have their little scene at the front of the stage, talking about messing up the school dance or whatever, and they said –”
“‘Another way, Wes!” Gwen interjected.
“The guy sitting down?” Gwen explained. “He was named Wes. And the guy talking about the plan literally said, ‘another way’ to him during that scene. I was sure they were going to throw an ‘another way, Wes!’ joke into there.”
“Oh, like Another Way West?” Eleanor said. “It’s close enough.”
“Well, there was…” Gwen began to explain, but decided not to push it.
“Anyway,” Eleanor continued, “I figured the stuff that happened because of the powers — the electricity, the sprinklers, the super speed — I thought that was all just by chance, like it was faking them into thinking they had powers or something.”
“Oh, I guess,” Gwen said, but immediately continued, “but the levitation…”
“Exactly!” Eleanor said. “I remembered there was levitation in this show! Like, how did that happen? So they had real super powers, but then lost them, but lost them when Skylar was awake, I think?”
“Also what happened to the Rattler team member that Dan Leahy just thrust through the roof?” Gwen asked.
“Real question, though,” Gwen said. “Could the $6,000 spent on the fly rig have possibly been allocated somewhere else?”
“Six thousand dollars?” Eleanor gasped.
“It’s a string!”
“It’s a series of cables,” Gwen said. “I only know the number because it was a point of contention back in the Fall.”
“What do you mean?” Eleanor asked.
“There was this article that came out about Waa-Mu trying to be more diverse,” Gwen explained. “Not just in who’s on stage, mind, but in who’s writing the show, whose stories are being told, all that good microagressive stuff.”
“There was a quote in the article where someone suggested hiring a casting director, rather than having David Bell cast the show, so the students aren’t worried that speaking up will affect their casting in the final production. And he made some comment that hiring a casting director would be, “a very expensive proposition,” or something like that.”
“Oh, and then they raised $6,000 for a fly rig?” Eleanor asked.
“It was less than a week later,” Gwen said. “And they raised, like, $10,000.”
“Yep,” Gwen said. “There was a lot of bitterness.”
“Yeah, and looking at the show this year,” Eleanor said. “There were, like, three people of color with named roles?”
“Well, Lucía, for one,” Gwen said. “And she’s a fantastic performer. Both singing and acting, she carried a lot of the show.”
“The friend with the glasses in the friend group,” Eleanor continued. “And her equivalent in the superhero group.”
“Mariah and Ziare, right,” Gwen said. “And I know that one of the other superheroes was Drew Tanabe, although you couldn’t see his face.”
“And one of the three Heathers, right?” Eleanor grabbed the program from Gwen.
“The Heathers?” Gwen said, before suddenly understanding. “Oh, yes, Chamaya. So five.”
“Six,” Eleanor said, pointing to the list. “Eddie Sánchez.”
“Oh, right!” Gwen said. “How could I forget Eddie. Easily the best part of the show for me.”
Eleanor laughed. “Really?”
“Okay, maybe not the single best part,” Gwen said. “But he was one of the few not taking the show so seriously. Like, the final moment? With the spoon.”
“Yeah, he knows what show he’s in.”
“So that’s six people of color in speaking roles, out of…” Eleanor quickly counted the cast list.
“Twenty-six speaking roles.”
“Named roles,” Gwen clarified. “I don’t know if all the superheroes spoke.”
“Fine,” Eleanor said. “Still, I don’t know how much more they could do, it’s still Northwestern demographics.”
Gwen smirked. “They could still do better.”
The two heard the door to their apartment open and shut in the opposite room.
“Hey Dania!” Gwen called out.
“But you liked the show fine?” Eleanor said, turning back to Gwen.
“Oh, yes,” Gwen said, smiling. “I think it’s certainly the most enjoyable out of the four years we’ve been here.”
“Really?” Eleanor said. “This one?”
“Because it’s not trying to be so serious with itself,” Gwen said. “Look at Eddie.”
Dania walked into the doorway.
“What’s up?” she said, before glancing down at the program in Eleanor’s hand.
“Oh,” she moaned. “I’m not here for this evisceration,” she added, walking out.
“Dania, come back!” Gwen said. “I want to know what you thought!”
“I thought the opposite of you, Gwen,” Dania said. “This is the Waa-Mu way.”
“No, Emerson Street is Waa-Mu Way,” Gwen said. “And besides, Dania, I didn’t dislike the show this year.”
“Okay,” Dania said. “But you have thoughts?”
“I always have thoughts, I’m an artist,” Gwen retorted.
Dania reappeared in the doorway. “Okay, but are those thoughts always spoken in such a snobbish tone?”
“It’s not snobbish.”
“It really is.”
“It is, sometimes,” Eleanor added.
“Okay,” Gwen said, looking down at the desk. “I’m trying to work on it.”
“For the record,” Dania said, “I thought this was the best Waa-Mu since freshman year. So…”
“I literally just told Eleanor the same thing,” Gwen said.
“Yeah,” Eleanor confirmed.
“Okay, but was it preceded by three minutes of complaining that there were too many ensemble members or that the music was too ‘modern’ or something?”
“Well, I didn’t mention either of those specific things,” Gwen said.
“But the same idea.”
“Actually, the six friends were way more necessary than last year’s Scooby Gang of people following Meghan McCandless.”
“She mentioned that she liked how it didn’t take itself as seriously this year,” Eleanor explained to Dania.
“Although some of those friends were in the Scooby Gang last year…” Gwen said to herself.
“I’ll agree with that,” Dania said. “The show was really funny this year. With the teacher who’s just day-drinking the entire time –”
“Grace Bobber is a national treasure,” Gwen agreed.
“To the fact that the students are taking the SAT on a clipboard while standing up, what on earth was that about?” Dania continued.
“Or the Jock that just has the character of Big Jock Guy?” Eleanor said. “Self-five.”
“And everyone noticed the homoerotic tension between that guy and the mascot guy, right?” Dania asked. “That wasn’t just me?”
“Oh, I was definitely reading that final scene as them going to Prom together,” Eleanor admitted. “Was that not the intent?”
“Maybe in the minds of the writers,” Gwen said, “but not made overt.”
“Oh, and the dad,” Dania said, recollecting Justin Tepper’s endearing performance. “The dad was very good.”
“I really liked Justin Tepper here,” Gwen agreed. “Usually I’m so trepidacious about Co-Chairs writing themselves into the show, but he was really perfect for the role.”
“Were the other Co-Chairs in the show as well?” Dania asked.
“All four,” Gwen said. “Skylar, and Eddie, and the leading Heather.”
“Heather?” Dania said, before suddenly understanding. “Oh, yes.”
“But, you know, most of them are in supporting roles, not leads,” Gwen continued. “It doesn’t feel like they intentionally wrote themselves starring roles — and even for Skylar, Jessie Jennison passes the Elizabeth Romero Test.”
“What’s the Elizabeth Romero Test?” Eleanor asked.
“Being a good enough performer that it doesn’t feel like she got the lead because she was a Co-Chair.”
“Does that happen, though?” Dania asked. “I mean, the Co-Chairs are going to naturally be the performers who have worked with the director the most, if they keep doing Waa-Mu each year. I guess they’d earn it.”
“They typically do,” Gwen said. “Don’t get me wrong. But I really appreciated that in GOLD two years ago, only one of the three Co-Chairs was performance-focused. I wonder what would happen if they picked Co-Chairs who were interested in the other side of the table, rather than just performance.”
“Think that could happen next year?” Dania said.
“Maybe,” Gwen said. “They could throw a writer or a producer in there, it could happen.”
“Actually, I had a question about the dad,” Eleanor added. “Was he at the game against the Rattlers?”
“No, he wasn’t,” Gwen said, at the same time that Dania responded “I think so.” The two looked at each other with confusion.
“But they have the entire song about how he needs to listen to his son,” Gwen said.
“But wasn’t there a line at the beginning where he promised to be there for the game?” Dania said. “And I think the son sang about how his dad was there during the Act II opening number. Right?”
“Did he?” Gwen asked. She tried to remember the lyrics through the haze of synthesizer in her memories. “I had trouble hearing the lyrics some of the time, it was all moving so fast.”
“I get that,” Eleanor said. “You know, it reminded me of Hamilton at times.”
Dania threw a hand across her mouth, snickering.
“What.” she finally said.
“What?” Eleanor asked. “Not in, like, quality, but in style, you know?”
“How?” Dania said. “Honestly, how?”
“You know, it’s a lot of very rapid patter songs, almost rap-like,” Eleanor explained. “Like the song that math dude sings, in the lab, it sounds like some stuff from Hamilton. The song at the end of Act I, where it’s all minimal and rap, and then jumps into the really pretty chorus.”
“I see what you mean,” Gwen said. “Many of the songs are more rhythmic and modern, rather than the classic ‘Broadway’ style Waa-Mu usually goes for. I actually thought it was a welcome change, and certainly made it sound different than the other three years.”
“Well, certainly different than last year’s Mumford and Sons cover band,” Dania said, chuckling.
“Sure,” Gwen said. “Except for those two at the beginning of Act II. The SAT songs?”
“Oh, yes,” Eleanor said, recollecting the numbers. “I really liked those. At least the second one, the big ensemble number that turned into an Emote-a-thon.”
“I don’t believe we needed the SAT scene at all, truly,” Gwen said. “But the songs were nice, I’ll give it that.”
“The second one sounded a lot like this weird call to arms about the current political situation,” Dania said. “Like, ‘listen to each other, I’m informed, don’t be afraid to speak out but also don’t be a dick…’”
“It’s funny,” Gwen said, “but I was thinking during that song that that was what Waa-Mu used to sound like. It was vignettes, songs written for individual performers, songs like that which responded directly to the world around them. The book musical trend is a smart move, and to be fair they have been getting so much better since Freshman Year of building something that feels cohesive rather than strung together with an excuse of a plot.”
“Getting snobbish,” Dania warned.
“Sorry,” Gwen said. “I just think that Waa-Mu’s strong suit has always been music over story, so picking a narrative that allows for fun songs that drive the plot was a smart choice.”
“I’d say the smartest choice was picking a story where they don’t have to accidentally talk about Nazis or Native American displacement,” Dania added.
“That too,” Gwen said.
“I mean, in the end,” Dania said, “Waa-Mu is never perfect. Like, as a musical. It’s always a little unbalanced, always pretty awkward, there are always moments of unintentional humor, or problematic moments.”
“I wonder what a real child with a fatal disease would think of a story like this,” Eleanor wondered aloud.
“What exactly was she dying of?” Dania asked.
“I don’t know,” Gwen shrugged. “Ali MacGraw’s Disease?”
“But anyway,” Dania continued, “Waa-Mu is always fun. Right? Or it should be, I wouldn’t want it to get so serious.”
“Fair,” Gwen said.
“It’s for the performers, right?” Eleanor suggested. “Or for the writers, or whoever they talk about in those emails with ‘written by nearly 100 NU students!’ in the subject line.”
“Eh, it’ll never be my thing,” Gwen admitted. “But I have enjoyed seeing them over the last four years.”
“True,” Dania said. “And it’s not like it’s stopping anytime soon.”
“Oh, there’s no way on earth they’re not making it to 2031,” Gwen said. “They’re at 86 years, they have to make it to the Waa-Mu Centennial.”
“Dang,” Eleanor said. “A hundred student written musicals.”
“That’s something,” Dania said, glancing down at the program in Eleanor’s hand. “That’s certainly something.”
Meanwhile, elsewhere on campus, nearly one hundred students were going through their Monday routines, finishing up midterms and complaining about pointless leadership meetings. Occasionally, they’d notice each other, and a smile would grow between them. Nothing voiced, nothing vocal. Just a small moment of recognition for what they did over the last nine months. Or the last four years.
AN ADDENDUM BY THE AUTHOR:
Like the Hanslick Girls, Beyond Belief is the fourth Waa-Mu Show I have seen in four years at Northwestern. Like Double Feature, GOLD, and Another Way West before it, the show is a testament to the hard work and dedication of every student who worked on the project over the last year, as well as the generations of loyal Waa-Mu artists who inspired them.
Many senior members of the community may remember my 2014 review of Double Feature, in which I was perhaps unfairly critical of the program’s second-ever attempt at a book musical. I remain embarrassed by that review’s language, if not it’s content. But after four years of reviewing these performances and watching the program grow, I must confess I feel invested in the long-standing continuation of the program.
As Dania said, no Waa-Mu Show is ever perfect. Any piece of art created by more than seventy people, no matter how small their contributions, is going to be unbalanced. But if there’s anything that writing in Dania’s voice for the last three years has proved to me, there is a necessary place in the world for imperfect, unfinished, passionate art. And Waa-Mu is nothing if not a passionate group of people. Hell, when a group has it’s own hymn, the strength of their bond is self-evident.
The Waa-Mu Show often quotes the Associated Press, which once called the show the “Greatest College Show in America.” When I first began writing this review, I was going to find another quote from that article and provide whatever context there was. But I cannot find that quote in any AP materials, no matter where I look. And besides, in my search, I found a more specific quote that I offer to Waa-Mu for future use: Life Magazine’s appellation of “the biggest and splashiest of all college musicals.”
As with the review of Heathers published in December of last year, I see Waa-Mu as having a long history of producing fun work that pleases crowds. And, like Arts Alliance has done since that review’s publication, Waa-Mu has surprised me this year with an increased commitment to accessibility, specifically for younger audience members. This year included a Relaxed Performance, ASL interpreters, and a partnership with a children’s hospital to collect donations. All of this is positive change. They can go further. Luckily, I sense that they will.
Students will continue to review The Waa-Mu Show after this year — even if those reviews remain unwritten or unpublished. David Bell’s commitment to creating new book musicals will develop over the next four years, and the four after that, until the long awaited 100th Annual. There will be successes and failures, and they should be named as such. But the truest measure of the show will be in the memories we cherish, the days gone swiftly by, and the friends we won’t forget.
With a toast to the future,