Northwestern alum wins Jeff Award for music direction

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Northwestern alum wins Jeff Award for music direction

Michael Mahler performs at a concert. The communication alum recently won a Jeff Award for music directing “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.”

Michael Mahler performs at a concert. The communication alum recently won a Jeff Award for music directing “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.”

(Source: Amy Boyle)

Michael Mahler performs at a concert. The communication alum recently won a Jeff Award for music directing “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.”

(Source: Amy Boyle)

(Source: Amy Boyle)

Michael Mahler performs at a concert. The communication alum recently won a Jeff Award for music directing “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.”

Wilson Chapman, Web Editor

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When Michael Mahler (Communication ’04) was a co-chair of the Waa-Mu Show his senior year at Northwestern, the show featured an actor playing his own instrument as a storytelling device. As a music director for “Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story,” Mahler repeats this same technique, and has found success in the process.

“I like the bare bones nature of it, of seeing the theater happen around you,” Mahler said. “It allows the audience to experience the music in a different way. Especially nowadays when orchestras tend to be removed or invisible, you don’t get the same feeling of being in the room with the music around you.”

On October 22, Mahler won his first Joseph Jefferson Award, more commonly known as the “Jeff Awards,” for best music direction in this production of “Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story” at the American Blues Theater. As a longtime member of the Chicago theater community, Mahler has been nominated for a Jeff Award three times and has also acted in many professional productions, most recently as the lead in “Holiday Inn” at the Marriott Theatre, which opened last Wednesday.

Mahler’s career as a composer and lyricist began at Northwestern as a member of the Waa-Mu Show. He joined the writing team for Waa-Mu as a freshman, and worked his way up to become the writing co-chair his junior year and one of the Waa-Mu co-chairs his senior year.

Mahler described writing for Waa-Mu as a stressful but rewarding experience, and said he learned a great deal about songwriting from the process of creating a full-length show over the course of a single school year.

“It was the best songwriting education training you could get as an undergrad, in terms of the experience of writing songs for a show, having people sing them, having an incredible orchestra play them,” Mahler said. “I’ll never forget the first time I heard the Waa-Mu orchestra play one of my songs. It was exhilarating.”

Mahler also said Waa-Mu helped him form connections that lead to opportunities over the course of his career. He remained friends with another co-chair, Alan Schmuckler, and the two collaborated on their first post-college job as writers for a children’s musical at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which reached out to them because of their Waa-Mu experience. The duo would join forces on a number of different shows, including “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?”

In addition to Waa-Mu, Mahler said NU offered him the opportunity to excel in a variety of roles. Even today, he credits his education for helping him lead the varied career he has enjoyed.

“There’s a lot of great theater schools in the country that are conservatories, where you sort of really focus in on just the one aspect,” Mahler said. “I was so grateful to be able to try my hand at a number of different things when I was (at NU).”

Communication Prof. David H. Bell has had a long working relationship with Mahler. Bell directed Mahler in a Wirtz Center show when Mahler was an undergraduate. Mahler was a music director for “Hot Mikado,” a show Bell directed, and the two co-wrote a Wirtz Center show, “Something in the Game: An All-American Musical” over the summer.

Bell said Mahler is one of the most talented people he has worked with, and has stood out since he was a student. Bell said while he has worked with Mahler in a number of different capacities, the shows they have worked on have always become stronger because of his involvement.

“Michael is an ultimate collaborator,” Bell said. “I find in talking to him and working with him, he often brings to mind things I was not even aware of. So he is a revelation as an artist. He is a master of everything musical.”

Communication Prof. Ryan T. Nelson, who works as the music director of “Holiday Inn,” said Mahler is adept as a composer, lyricist and music director, specifically pointing to his skills in writing “catchy harmonies” and songs for the dramatic context.

More than that, Nelson said one of the reasons he loves working with Mahler is because of how genuinely kind he is as a person, and how much of pleasure he is during the artistic process. One of Mahler’s greatest traits is how self-sufficient he is, Nelson said, as he is always completely invested in the work he does.

“I think he’s one of Chicago’s treasures,” Nelson said.

Email: wilsonchapman2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @wilsonchapman10

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