Andy Park has felt the burden of responsibility for an entire calendar year.
Fortunately for the Nebraska Repertory Theater’s artistic director, those pangs of accountability he’s been experiencing since last January, when he began planning for Friday’s Music and Milestones program — an artistic tribute to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s first 150 years — has been a labor of love.
“Everyone is really excited,” said Park, who along with Bill Shomos, UNL’s director of opera, is co-directing the program. “It’s our rituals and our celebrations that sort of mark and signify these great moments that only come around on rare occasions. It’s our responsibility. We’re the people that are here right now to make sure that we honor this moment in time, this 150th anniversary.
“It’s a big deal.”
The world will see the results of Park’s ultra-busy year on Friday when the long-awaited Music and Milestones showcase finds the Lied Center stage. The 90-minute program will feature 300 current and former performing arts students, including a handful who have gone on to become stars of the stage, movie screen and in television.
“When you think that this show can’t get any bigger, this show keeps getting bigger,” Park said.
But as of Wednesday night, no one knew for sure whether bigger is necessarily better. Each act — from the university’s choral and opera singers to its dancers of all disciplines to its orchestra and marching band, which, we’re told, will enter the Lied Center from all directions to close out the festivities — has been rehearsed individually.
It wasn’t until Thursday evening that they were scheduled to be brought together onto the same stage for the first time for a formal dress rehearsal.
“I’ve had a chance to watch some of the videos from the rehearsals that have been put together and it really is inspiring,” said Bill Stephan, the executive director of the Lied Center. “What this process has shown is the impact the university has had on so many people.”
'A genesis moment'
The university began modestly, but over 150 years, has grown to world-class credentials in academics, athletics and, yes, the cultural arts. More important, it has become a great source of identity and a universal rallying point for an entire state.
Perhaps that impact is epitomized by the opening moments of Friday’s showcase, when the UNL orchestra will begin playing the first section of composer Richard Wagner’s The Ring, which, not coincidentally, was written in 1869.
“It’s a genesis moment,” Stephan said.
Indeed it was because while Wagner was in Germany composing his musical piece, which is subtitled “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla," a half-world away seeds were taking root in Nebraska.
“There was this feeling of creation, this passage of something grand,” Park said. “It’s remarkable that this piece was written and all the way on the other side of the globe in the Great Plains, there was another idea that was taking shape.
“That was this university. … And this piece of music captures this larger-than-life-experience.”
Few could have envisioned 150 years ago how recognizable the brand would become or how students would arrive from every corner of the globe to be part of the UNL experience.
And every once in a while, someone arrived that would become a difference maker.
Voices of feminism
Willa Cather enrolled in the late 1800s with aspirations of studying to become a doctor.
The university would serve as a springboard to Cather’s true calling. Fittingly, the legendary writer would find her way to the English department, from where she would earn a bachelor’s degree in 1894.
Cather, who died in 1947, was an active voice of feminism during her newsroom roles with Home Monthly and the Ladies Home Journal.
Park compares her impact on feminism with that of another UNL graduate, Roxanne Gay, who has been a contemporary voice for women of all ages. In 2017, Gay released her highly anticipated memoir, “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,” as well as a collection of short stories titled “Difficult Women.”
“Both of them have really spoken out,” Park said. “In their writing, you see a real feminist edge. We have both writers focused. Seeing that parallel and seeing how both of those women have made such a huge mark as novelists and literary heads.”
After a storied career in journalism, Cather expanded her megaphone to author.
Marg Helgenberger, will read a passage from Cather’s “O Pioneers!” written in 1913 as the first novel of her trilogy of the Great Plains.
Helgenberger, who grew up in North Bend, actually attended the University of Nebraska-Kearney, but her award-winning acting career that includes countless movies and television roles dating back to the 1980s made her a good choice to be on the Lied stage Friday.
In addition, two new musical compositions, including one by UNL teacher and guest lecturer Garrett Hope, will debut on Friday.
Large LED screens will seamlessly integrate multimedia and projection technology, thus allowing for the transmission of historic photos and video clips of past decades of campus life -- highlighted by dramatic lighting and music -- to the stage.
And the night will end outside the Lied Center with a large fireworks display.
Jeff Zeleny, a CNN senior Washington correspondent and UNL graduate, will serve as the master of ceremony for the program.
“I can’t think of anything in the state more worthy of celebrating than the University of Nebraska,” he said, via email. “What an incredible and storied history. I’m excited to come home and help pay tribute to the past 150 years and learn about what’s ahead in the next chapter.”
The future won’t be ignored on Friday. That’s where UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green comes in. He will issue a toast and, while paying homage to the first 150 years, will set the table for what the future holds for Nebraska’s flagship university.
“Looking back is one thing,” Park said. “But at the end of the day, what really matters is how we’re looking ahead — what we hope the university is going to mean to the state moving forward and the priorities that we want to focus on as we move forward.”