I had the honor and privilege of joining more than 2,600 of my fellow alums and friends of the School of Communication at Northwestern University for an unforgettable evening on April 21st as the first ever CommFest culminated with “A Starry Night,” a variety show emceed by “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert ’86, ’11 H. This show celebrated alumni working in film, television and the stage, performing alongside faculty artists and current students. There was a spirit of warmth, camaraderie and pride.
I happened to see workers placing the large purple letter that identify The Ryan Fieldhouse on the building only days before it was inaugurated, not by a sports team, but by “A Starry Night.” I was seated next to Andy Madorsky, Assistant Vice President, Chief Creative Officer, Global Marketing and Communications, and also an NU alum,( Medill School of Journalism) who pointed out that our seats were on the fifty yard line.
The event was impressive in the way it involved current students in planning and executing this special evening, paying tribute in music and comedy to the school’s storied past, and challenging the next generation of students to carry on the tradition. Comments, both live and in video clips offered reminiscences about the legendary professors who helped launch countless careers in theater, television and film — and about the students who joined the celebrities both on stage and behind the scenes. More than 300 students helped bring the show to life, including performers, producers, stagehands and others.
Student performers take selfie with Stephanie D’Abruzzo (C93) and Ana Gasteyer (C89)
After a video with Seth Myers the real Colbert began the evening. Colbert, who normally uses the opening monologue on his TV show to skewer President Donald Trump, told the crowd he only wanted to talk about one president – Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, who was seated near the stage.
“Everyone loves Morty,” Colbert said during his opening remarks. “Morty wears purple. Morty breathes purple. Morty is purple.”
“Morty’s done so much for this University,” Colbert continued. “He took something great and made it better. He’s like the guy who put cheese in a pizza crust.”
As the evening progressed, Colbert pointed out that the School of Communication is one hundred and fifty years old. He also credited the school with the renaissance of theater in Chicago pointing out that alumni of this program established and populate most of the major theaters in the city. The performances were first rate and the stage, which looked very permanent (though it isn’t), was glamorous and glitzy. I loved the lighting – the changing colors the bright lights sweeping the room, and the energy. Not surprisingly there were many references to the “The annual extravaganza that Associated Press calls the “greatest college show in America” mines the origins of musical theater when the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts at Northwestern University co-presents the latest edition of the Waa-Mu Show, a musical entirely written by students.” Many of the performers mentioned experiences trying out for and performing in either Waa-Mu or Mee-Ow shows.
Adam Kantor (C08)
The variety show included a rousing duet, “Comin’ Together,” with alums Ana Gasteyer ’89 and Stephanie D’Abruzzo ’93, and a powerful medley by three of Broadway’s leading men: Gregg Edelman ’80 singing “Double Talk” from “City of Angels;” Brian d’Arcy James ’90, singing “You’ll Be Back” from the hit musical “Hamilton;” and Kind singing “I Wan’na Be Like You,” from “The Jungle Book.” Edelman and James joined Kind at the end of his number for a spirited finale by the trio.
The show stopper was a performance by Tony and Grammy Award winner Heather Headley ’97 whose rendition of “Home” from “The Wiz” brought the crowd to its feet.
“Offering the new Ryan Fieldhouse for the show was an amazing gift that President Schapiro gave us. This was an incredible opportunity for those students,” said School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe. “All of them said this is going to launch us like nothing else because we’ll have in our portfolio an amazing design for a performance space, unlike anything that has ever been done before in an MFA program.”
“Tonight is a demonstration of the capability of our community — and the love everybody has for Northwestern to make it happen,” O’Keefe said.
In his remarks, President Schapiro underscored the importance of both science and the humanities in making Northwestern a great university. “The magic happens in the labs. The teaching that happens in those labs changes the world,” the President said. “But without art, without literature, a person isn’t a full human being.” He paid tribute to the School of Communication’s past and present, and he saluted the school for what he said will be an even “more brilliant future.”
The CommFest production team was headed by Don Weiner ’79, producer of the new “Showtime at the Apollo” and “So You Think You Can Dance?” and co-producers Dave Harding ’79 and RAC Clark ’78. The creative team included head writer Shelly Goldstein ’79, music director Doug Peck ’03 and stage director Peter Flynn ’87.
“It was a show that will reverberate throughout our history.”
Alumni performers and presenters included Sharif Atkins ’97, Paul Barrosse ’80, Craig Bierko ’86, Stephen Colbert ’86, ’11 H, Stephanie D’Abruzzo ’93, Dancy Dussault ’57, Greg Edelman ’80, Daniele Gaither ’93, Frank Galati ’65, ’67 MA/MS, ’71 PhD, Ana Gasteyer ’89, Kathryn Hahn ’95, Heather Headley ’97, Kyle Heffner ’79, Marg Helgenberger ’82, Laura Innes ’79, Brian d’Arcy James ’90, Adam Kantor ’08, Richard Kind ’78, Gary Kroeger ’81, Harry Lennix ’86, J.P. Manoux ’91, Stephanie March ’96, Dermot Mulroney ’85, Dana Olsen ’80, Tony Roberts ’61 and Kimberly Williams-Paisley ’93 with a video appearance by Seth Meyers ’96, ’16 H.
Leading the CommFest 2018 steering committee are David Lefkowitz ’78, chair of the School’s alumni advisory board, and event co-chairs Elizabeth Clark Zoia ’89 and Amanda Silverman ’93. Zoia and Silverman both have professional backgrounds in television and communications; Lefkowitz’s career was in law. Keebler Straz and Madeleine Kelly, student members of the Dean’s Advisory Council, are serving as CommFest student co-chairs.
I, for one, will be watching for student performer, Lucy Godinez (C18). What a talent! I thought it was a remarkable evening, but wondered what a non- alum of the School of Communication thought- “it was a spectacular event because it told the story of so much talent and achievement coming out of the NU School of Communications over many decades. Of course we knew the outlines of this history, but the breadth and depth became clear as much from the video interviews as from the on-stage entertainment. Steven Colbert was the big name, but the extent of the program went far beyond his humor to paint an amazing picture of many students building the foundations for their careers at Northwestern.
We’ve attended some Waa-Mu shows and were impressed with the talent but usually missed the inside jokes. But the vignettes from Waa-Mu and Mee-Ow Show last night were thoughtfully chosen for their clarity and salience. The “Philosophy OD” sketch will stick with me in the classroom for some time to come,” shared Joseph L. Schofer, Professor of Civil Engineering & Transportation and Associate Dean, Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Northwestern University
*Photo credit: Jim Prisching