NU Declassified: When SURG meets showtunes

Lucia Barnum, Reporter

This summer, three Northwestern Communication students used grant funding to write a musical, “Home for the Summer.” The show is based off of their experiences as queer students from small towns and the culture shock they had when they left. 

[Start “Who Am I” music] 

LUCIA BARNUM: Is that theatre music I hear? 

[“Who Am I” music plays under]

LUCIA BARNUM: Probably not what you were expecting from a research podcast. 

[“Who Am I” music continues]

LUCIA BARNUM: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Lucia Barnum. This is Trial and Error: a series from NU Declassified exploring research projects at Northwestern. Today, we’re going in a bit of a different direction. Buckle up, theatre geeks. We’re talking about a musical. 

BRANDON ACOSTA (sung): Welcome to our lovely town, home to 807. Us two gals will show you around our own small slice of heaven.

LUCIA BARNUM: That’s one of the Communication seniors behind the musical “Home for the Summer.” The composer, 

BRANDON ACOSTA: Hi, I’m Brandon Acosta —

LUCIA BARNUM: He, along with Communication senior and book writer,

JULIET HUNEKE: Hi, I’m Juliet Huneke —

LUCIA BARNUM: And Communication senior and lyricist,

BENNETT PETERSEN: And my name is Bennett Petersen.

LUCIA BARNUM: Spent this summer — well, the last few years, really — writing and researching a musical through NU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Grant. It’s changed a lot since they started. But, at its core, it’s about queer kids in the rural, fictional town of Cedar Lake, Iowa.

BRANDON ACOSTA (sung): The 500th smallest town in Iowa. Cedar Lake, welcome home. (end music)

LUCIA BARNUM: The story follows two cousins coming back to Cedar Lake after the culture shock of their freshman year of college.

BRANDON ACOSTA: Noah is our — one of our — main characters. He is gay and he always felt stifled by the small town.

LUCIA BARNUM: Noah feels like no one understands him at home. He thinks everything will get better when he moves to California to attend a fancy liberal college and starts living outside of the closet. But —

BRANDON ACOSTA: He finds that it’s not quite that easy.

LUCIA BARNUM: Alex, Noah’s cousin, is bisexual, and she’s returning to Cedar Lake completely out of the closet. 

JULIET HUNEKE: We’re envisioning, like, she, like, has completely changed her appearance, like, she’s expressing herself really fully.

LUCIA BARNUM: She doesn’t care about what other people have to say anymore. She’s come into her own. She’s embracing her new self.

JULIET HUNEKE: She has yet to kiss a girl. And so her goal for the summer is to kiss a girl and finally, like, self-actualize and like, reach this, like, person that she wants to become.

LUCIA BARNUM: The musical follows Alex and Noah as they deal with secret crushes, closeted lovers — you know, normal teenage stuff. Brandon is from rural Pennsylvania and  Bennett is from rural Minnesota. As they like to put it, the middle of nowhere.

BENNETT PETERSEN: Just like corn, as far as the eye can see in every direction. 

LUCIA BARNUM: And much of the musical is based on the creators’ own experiences growing up queer and leaving for college in a big city — or at least near one. As part of their research, they reached out to people from their hometowns. A lot of people. Some were queer, others straight, some had left home for big cities, others had stayed home after high school. 

BENNETT PETERSEN: When you’re representing a specific theme or issue in a story of any kind, but especially a musical like this, you kind of need to tackle that issue from every single direction, from every single, like, point of view on it in order to, like, reflect it in the most realistic light.

LUCIA BARNUM: So, how did students get funding to write a musical? At NU, it isn’t that uncommon. Everyone who researches through SURG gets sorted into a peer group. There were STEM kids doing lab work, obviously—

BRANDON ACOSTA: I’m not even going to try to pretend like I know what it was.

LUCIA BARNUM: But Brandon said their group was filled with other theatre kids. 

BRANDON ACOSTA: Something that I just found so impressive about the program is how much they do value these artistic projects. It was very validating just to be like, “This is also research. This is also, like, valid usage of our time.” 

LUCIA BARNUM: Unlike some of the other students in SURG, Brandon, Bennett and Juliet might not have used test tubes or worn lab coats. But interviewing all these people from their hometowns, writing and composing and rewriting some more is its own kind of science. And Juliet said this summer taught her a lot. 

JULIET HUNEKE: And I think it’s been really interesting to, like, hear about how different it is to grow up somewhere where there’s just, like, simply, like, less people.

LUCIA BARNUM: “Home for the Summer” all started in their sophomore year, when Bennett asked Brandon if he wanted to write a musical. Juliet joined during the grant writing process. Two years and a pandemic later, they’re hoping to start casting in the next couple of weeks. The first reading of the show should be towards the end of Winter Quarter. 

BENNETT PETERSEN: And from there, kind of, who knows?

LUCIA BARNUM: The team said they might submit it to new work festivals and hopefully have a chance to polish it more. And they have some advice for students who want to write a musical, too. 

BRANDON ACOSTA: You just have to embrace the mess of it. Don’t get married to any ideas and don’t ever think that it’s bad because it has to be bad before it’s good, and it’ll get there if you put in the time and put in the critical thought. But just yeah, the mess, the mess is worth it in the end. 

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LUCIA BARNUM: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Lucia Barnum. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Jordan Mangi, the digital managing editors are Alex Chun and Sammi Boas, and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @luciabarnum_

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