—Originally published May 23, 2016—
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 the 85th Waa-Mu Show, “Another Way West.” Let’s hear what they had to say on their way back from the theater…
As the final strains of “To The Memories” drifted through the air inside Cahn Auditorium, the house lights slowly rose.
“I always like hearing that at the end of the show,” Eleanor said, as they began to grab their coats and programs. “Reminds me how long the Waa-Mu Show has been going on for, that it’s part of something bigger.”
“Well, they do mention it in the logo,” Dania added.
“Sure,” Eleanor agreed. “But you’re not seeing the logo during the performance, obviously.”
Surrounded by Wirtz Center subscribers, the Girls were among the first to make it out of their seats and into the lobby. Before they moved down to the ground floor, Eleanor stopped them.
“Hold on a minute, I want to look at these.”
She motioned to the walls of the lobby, which were lined with posters, programs, and record sleeves from the Waa-Mu Shows of the past. Are We There Yet?, Sign Me Up!, Promise Not To Tell, High Time, It Goes To Show…Eleanor wandered the walls, her eyes drawn to the titles as much as to the years. 1995, 1984, 1973, 1962…
As the rest of the audience sauntered out of the theatre, Gwen and Dania stood by the top of the stairs and waited for Eleanor to finish paging through history. Gwen held the program in one hand and flipped through pages with the other, counting names.
“That one was really good!” Dania continued, as Gwen listened. “I think they just keep getting better each year.”
“Makes sense. They keep getting better at writing book musicals,” Gwen said, dryly.
“The music was different than before. A little bit more country-like, you know? With the guitars and the accordion and all. It fit the show, I guess.”
“I did enjoy how they had some more abstract visuals in the show, like the river at the end of Act I?”
“Right! The river! Yes, that was really cool. Loved that part. It’s such a great way of showing something like that on stage, without using, like, a big cloth, or something.”
Dania waved her arms in front of her, showing Gwen the motion of the big cloth. Gwen smiled, turning her head back to the program.”
“Oh, and I liked that one bit where they were packing to leave,” Dania continued, “and the old people and the new people are packing at the same time on the same covered wagon. That was great!”
“I was slightly worried that it would be difficult to keep switching between the time periods on stage,” Gwen admitted. “But they seemed cleanly divided on stage. I always knew when the scene took place.”
“Well, obviously, Kate and the kids aren’t going to show up in the Oregon Trail times.”
“Although he did have that one interaction with the dead twin character. Finn?”
“You mean after the Chris Flaim character almost drowns and he sees the Eric Peters character with the journal and the tree with the spike?”
“…yes. I will assume those are the right names.”
“Yeah, so they were together then. But I guess the tall one was, like, a ghost or something. So that doesn’t really count.”
“So, you liked it?” Dania asked.
After a moment, Gwen responded, “Wait until I’m 100 yards from the theatre to ask me that.”
Dania rolled her eyes.
“But I liked it all right,” Gwen added.
“Hm,” Dania mumbled. “I know you’re not always the biggest fan of Waa-Mu, but…”
“I thought GOLD was all right, last year.”
“You went on a tirade about the number of writers.”
“Okay, yes, I have some issues with the way that Waa-Mu is written, with the process that creates it, but the show is…”
She stopped herself. “100 yards,” she reiterated.
“100 yards,” echoed Dania.
The crowd in the lobby was beginning to thin out. Gwen could see Eleanor across the way, staring intently at the purple-and-gold accented program for To The Memories. Eleanor wondered silently if the song of the same name, now a Waa-Mu tradition, predated the show or arose as a result.
“Eleanor! Are we leaving?” Gwen asked, across the lobby.
“Yeah, one second,” came the response. After a final cursory glance over the other programs on that wall she hadn’t looked at more closely, Eleanor joined the others and began to exit the theatre.
“So, Gwen,” Eleanor asked, baitingly. “What are your thoughts on Another Way West?”
“100 yards,” Dania repeated.
“Wait until we’re a little further away,” Gwen clarified.
“Ah, yes,” Eleanor said, nodding her head with approval. “Wouldn’t want to have the performers hearing you bashing it.”
“I’m not going to bash it,” Gwen said. “I liked it a lot, actually.”
“Good to hear,” Eleanor said. “I thought it was really quite well put together. The characters were interesting, the plot made sense, there weren’t that many songs that really went nowhere.”
Gwen’s brow furrowed. She thought over the show.
“You’re right,” she said, after a moment. “There really weren’t.”
“Nope,” Eleanor continued. “There was a lot going on, too. With the love triangle and the thesis plotline and the bits with Steve and the kids losing their…”
“Steve!” Dania repeated, with a giggle. “Steve was hilarious. Love that guy. Literally me.”
“Which one was Steve?” Gwen asked.
“The British one.”
“Oh,” Gwen said, before following with another “Oh.” of a different tone.
“Wait, wait, before you criticize him…” Eleanor said, bracing herself.
“I won’t, we’ve got another fifty yards.”
“I don’t think we were supposed to take him seriously,” Eleanor explained. “He’s supposed to be a little obnoxious and not fit in and kinda be a thorn in the side of the trip. So don’t get all, ‘not a believable character’ on me.”
“Sure,” Gwen said, thinking through the show again. Silently, she counted steps from the theatre. Three feet to a yard, with wide steps…
“I think we’re far enough away,” Eleanor added, after a moment.”
Gwen took a breath.
“But that doesn’t mean he’s still not annoying to listen to,” she began.
“Well, duh,” Dania added. “You’re not supposed to like him.”
“But you’re supposed to find him funny, right?” Gwen asked.
“Sure. Did you not?”
“After a bit, not really.”
“Well, humor is subjective,” Eleanor said, turning the conversation. “I didn’t really think the ‘Fit As A Fiddle’ scene was that funny.”
“Oh, me neither,” Gwen agreed.
“Why not?” asked Dania.
“Her leg is broken!” the other two answered in unison.
“It’s a kinda unintended dark humor,” Eleanor added.
“Well, sure, but…” Dania said. “I don’t know, I liked it.”
“I liked that song, though,” Gwen said. “It was cute and clever and everything. Obviously one written without the actual plot scenario in mind, just a sort of ‘write a song about getting over something bad happening on the trail’ prompt, or something like that.”
“Probably,” Eleanor suggested. “I think they do come up with the plot before they write the material now. But it’s all in flux.”
“There was a larger list of people on the “writing team” this year,” Gwen continued. “The plot was a bit more complicated and didn’t just feel like a vessel for all the songs to inhabit. They were helping to tell the story.”
“What did you think of the two-time period story, Eleanor?” Dania asked. “We talked about it when you were in the lobby, and we thought it worked out well.”
“Generally, yeah,” Eleanor said. “There might have been a few moments when it was a little confusing, like that one song where they’re packing both covered wagons at the same time…”
Gwen and Dania shared a look.
“…But overall it was balanced. I mean, it was mostly the modern day story, with the scenes in Dublin at the beginning and end.”
“That I found a little difficult to understand,” Gwen added. “The construction of the world for Kate’s character. She’s in school in Dublin, but her sister is in Chicago with her kids, but there are other Americans at Dublin with her, except the two who aren’t from America but still go with her on the trip…”
“The Russian guy does ask to go, he wasn’t going to go initially,” Dania explained.
Gwen continued barreling through. “…but they were together as kids but then drifted apart when the mom died, or the dad died – or both, I guess? – but then when she goes back to Dublin, the kids and Glenn just know where they are…”
“Wait, who’s Glenn?”
“What?” Gwen asked, before catching her mistake. “Shep! Shep, sorry. Glenn was Fergus Inder in Waa-Mu last year. Just had the name stuck in my head.”
“But anyway,” Eleanor said, taking back control of the conversation. “The middle, like, 70 percent was on the trail. The rest was in Dublin, or the rest stop bathroom, or wherever.”
“70 percent is still a lot,” Dania pointed out.
“Well, yeah, but the show’s climax doesn’t happen on the trail. It’s in Dublin.”
“It’s still centered on the trip, though,” Gwen suggested. “Even if it’s the modern story of the trail, it’s on the trail. There are plenty of those little montage scenes of things happening on the trail, with all the characters.”
“Right,” Dania said.
“Even if there are way too many people in Kate’s party, who didn’t all need to be there.”
“Not all of them,” Eleanor said, being fair. “Sipros and Shep and that one lead kid and a few of the guides are fairly significant.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t suggest cutting them all and having it just be Kate and Shep,” Gwen explained. “But once the kids joined the trip, there were fifteen people in that party. I think the O’Reilly family party was only seven people – six after Act I.”
“Okay, I see that,” Eleanor said. “You could cut down the kids from five to, like, three. Ditch one of the trail guides, probably combine the friends that aren’t Sipros into one person…”
“Or just roll them into Sipros as well,” Gwen added. “Give Sipros a clearer reason to be there than ‘we need to point out the Native American perspective we’re not including.’”
“They did include it,” Dania said. “Through Sipros. Did you read that program note about One Book One Northwestern and Native American representation?”
“I did,” Gwen said. “I thought it was good that they pointed it out as a flaw of casting. And I’m all for including it, but you could work it in more deftly than the human embodiment of the ‘Native American history’ entry on Wikipedia.”
“Better than not including it at all,” Dania suggested.
“True. I admit that’s a nitpick.”
“Though their treatment of Irish culture was probably a little…” Eleanor said, trailing off into a half-wincing face.
Dania’s voice leaped up an octave. “Oh, Top-o’-the-marnin’ to ye, Guinness, leprechauns, me bonny wench, grassy rollin’ hills!”
“Yeah, a little bit,” Eleanor agreed.
“I mean…” Gwen began to defend, but stopped.
“Yeah, if ‘Luck of the Irish’ was about, like, non-white people, it might be a little different,” Eleanor said.
“Well, it can’t be. Look at the cast,” Gwen said.
“I meant if they could actually do that, if they had the audition pool to facilitate that. Like, you take a non-American culture and write an entire song about how their special power is having bad things happen to them, it wouldn’t go over well.”
“Still a good song, though,” Dania said.
The conversation halted. Dania turned through the program to find another moment to talk about.
“What did you think of the ending?”
“We are well beyond 100 yards” Dania asked, jokingly.
“She shouldn’t have gotten the grant back,” Gwen said.
“But she has to get it back,” Eleanor said. “You want her to succeed and for the trip to matter.”
“The trip does matter,” Gwen responded. “She realizes she wants to spend time with the kids instead of just studying all the time. But if you just let her off the hook on breaking the trip with her story about finding the spur and everything…”
“But then she wouldn’t have a choice to make,” Eleanor interrupted. “She has to decide to go back with the kids. If she didn’t defend her thesis, she would just go back to them by default.”
“Well…okay, fine. I get that. But she’s like, ‘not only did I defend my thesis, I now have a grant and a job and a pathway to success that I’ve worked my entire education to achieve…but whatever, I’m going to go be a guardian to kids I don’t really know.’”
“But her not knowing them is why she goes back!” Dania reminded.
“It’s just the severity of the shift that seems like it doesn’t work for me,” Gwen said. “Like, I didn’t buy her connection to the kids such that she would ditch her education path to be with them.”
“Maybe if there were fewer of them?” Eleanor suggested.
“But you do know that she’s distant from them, with the mom and all,” Dania said. “The opening scene, where they all want to talk to her and she says that she’s not coming back when she’s on the trail? That’s character building.”
“Well, more for Brigid and Kate than the kids, but sure,” Eleanor said. “The Brigid relationship I bought entirely. With the scene at the beginning and that voicemail song…”
“The voicemail song ripped my heart out,” Gwen admitted. “It was really good, and well written.”
“That was the moment I cried,” Dania said. “Briefly, but I did.”
“But yes, the kids are a little afterthought-y, as far as plot goes. You’re right, maybe cutting them down to two…”
“Well, it’s Waa-Mu, so more actors in featured roles is always a good way to go,” Gwen said.
“It’s also Waa-Mu, so no more script edits after this one,” Dania pointed out.
“True,” Eleanor said, with more emphasis. “Even if it isn’t that great in the end, it’s more about the process of writing the show than the final product being airtight and perfect. I guess.”
“Yeah,” Dania said. “And the performances are still great and the show looks really nice, so that’s a bonus. I enjoyed it a lot.”
“It’s the journey being better than the destination,” Gwen said. “And even if there were little things that took me out, I’m still glad I saw it.”
“I thought it was wonderful,” Dania added. “I can’t wait to see what they do next year.”
“It’ll be a fun one,” Eleanor said. “Messy as it is, Waa-Mu is a family, and that’s what really matters.”
“Maybe that’s why Kate goes back to hers at the end,” Dania suggested.
Gwen and Eleanor considered this silently. In Eleanor’s head, the final chords of this year’s arrangement of “To The Memories” still rang through her head. She smiled.