Student composer Benson awaits premiere of “Hope/Who’s Waldo

David Rubin

When Lawrence University Musical Production presents “Hope/Who’s Waldo” this Friday April 15 and Saturday April 16, it will be, for senior composition major Nikko Benson, the culmination of over a year of work.
Ever since his junior year of high school, Benson, who hails from Minneapolis, Minn., has directed his creative energies toward musical theater.
He started playing piano at age ten, but from the beginning, he was more interested in composition than performance. From the early years of his study, Benson amused himself by writing short piano pieces. In high school, a friend of Benson’s purportedly said, “hey, let’s write a musical,” and thus, a new passion was born.
Benson explained his interest in musical theater: “For all of the stigma that comes with it, I feel that it is potentially one of the most powerful mediums that we have because it combines theater and song, lights and sound. It’s just got a little bit of everything… it potentially has a lot of power.”
Benson’s creative process is not rigidly structured. He usually works at the piano, experimenting until he finds sounds that appeal to him. Sometimes, ideas come to him when he is away from the instrument. In any case, he aims for consistency and thematic unity – a difficult task in a medium as gargantuan as musical theater – often building compositions in layers.
Benson’s high school production was entitled “Small World,” and was later revised during his sophomore year at Lawrence as “Going Up.” Last year, he worked with Charlotte King ’09 to create an English adaptation of Marie-Celine Lachaud’s “When the War is Done.”
LUMP’s current project – Benson’s “Hope/Who’s Waldo” – is in fact a collection of two one-act shows of entirely different subjects.
Benson describes Hope as a drama. He notes that many traditional stage productions end darkly, but very few musical productions end without a hopeful afterthought. Why do composers of musical theater productions feel obligated to give us, the audience, something hopeful to hold on to?
Through this work – concerned with the struggles of a group of timeless and placeless refugees attempting an escape from their oppressive government – Benson raises the question, “What is the value of hope? At what point is it useful and at what point is it foolish?”
“Who’s Waldo,” on the other hand, is a comedy. Yes, dear reader, you guessed correctly, this work’s subject is the protagonist of those famed puzzle books.
Waldo is an interesting cultural artifact, says Benson, because “He doesn’t really have a personality. He’s an object. Why are you finding him?”
In this production, the audience is supposed to keep those questions in mind as they follow Waldo on a “journey of self-discovery,” accompanied by a musical narrator and a host of other familiar characters – hint: “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” – although, take note, these characters have been re-imagined and placed in entirely unexpected contexts.
Because of time constraints, “Hope” will be fully staged, but “Who’s Waldo” will be presented as a staged reading.
LUMP will present “Hope/Who’s Waldo” Friday April 15 at 8 p.m., and Saturday April 16 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.