Melissa Junkin Shaw was a child of many contradictions. She loved to read and made good grades in school but was a “frequent flyer in detention” due to her talkative nature and class-clown tendencies. She was girly, but not a tomboy, “digging for worms in a sequined Lisa Frank ensemble and purple Reebok pumps.” Although she was taller than all the boys in school and seemed “destined for a future in athletics,” she lacked the required coordination and love of sports (“My first C in school was in gym class, but I was cheerleading captain in 8th grade,” she recalls).
But even as a child, Shaw had dreams of the stage. “For the longest time I wanted to be a standup comedian,” she says. “My brother and I would check out comedy records from the Waynedale library and listen to them to sharpen our material.”
But standup comedy took a backseat to musical theater when, as a youngster, she saw the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre production of Annie starring Nancy Kartholl as Miss Hannigan. She knew Kartholl through a family connection.
“It was so cool knowing someone in real life who was such an awesome performer,” Shaw says. “I was kind of obsessed with her and knew I wanted to perform in plays and musicals, too.”
Her elementary school didn’t have an arts program, and cantoring at Mass seemed to lack the “cool” factor, so she honed her musical skills singing along to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey in her bedroom.
The summer before her freshman year at Bishop Luers was a turning point, however. She had to choose between vacationing with her cousins or trying out for volleyball – the one sport she was good at. She choose vacation. Starting her high school career without an activity to be involved in, she decided to try out for show choir (singing “Tomorrow” from Annie) but didn’t make it. Instead, she got involved backstage. She watched her new friends rehearse and perform that year, learning all the songs and choreography from the sidelines. She auditioned again the following year and made it. She was also in all the plays and musicals the Luers theater program had to offer.
It wasn’t until she volunteered to sing the National Anthem at a school football game that she revealed her hidden musical talent to her parents. Impressed with their daughter’s vocal chops, they immediately agreed to let her take voice lessons.
“I wasn’t stuck in my room singing along to Whitney anymore,” she says.
During her sophomore year she was encouraged by her drama director, Karlene Krouse, and her choreographer, Kirby Volz, to audition for her first community production, Hello Dolly! for IPFW’s summer theater program.
“I was so terrified to be auditioning outside of high school in the ‘real theatre,’” she says.
With only two high school musicals under her belt (playing chorus roles in South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof), she gathered the courage to audition. “I sang ‘Happy Talk’ from South Pacific, which was a terrible choice,” she says, “but I was cast. My character didn’t have a name, but there’s a lyric about a girl who’s over six-foot-three, and I must have been the closet one to that height because they used me.”
While in the green room at IPFW during the run of Hello, Dolly!, she was approached by Brad Beauchamp, whose wife Leslie was also in the show. “He had just held auditions for Of Thee I Sing at Arena Dinner Theatre and was looking for someone to play Miss Benson, a small role,” she says. After her parents gave their permission, she agreed. “I played opposite Mark Dunn, and we sang ‘Love Is Sweeping the Country.’ It was my first role with a solo, actual lines and a character name.”
After graduation she became a music major at IPFW. There, she met Curtis Shaw, an actor/singer whose performances she had long admired. “We found ourselves in all the same classes, choirs, and shows,” she says, “but we were just friends for years.” After nine years of friendship, they finally realized they were meant to be more. They got engaged and were married a few years later, two days after his 30th birthday.
“He makes me laugh every day, we share the same love of performing arts, and now we’re embracing our new roles as parents,” she says. “I love our little family together.”
In a way, she has her high school choir director, Amy Ross, to thank for this eventual turn of events. Ross had encouraged her to pursue a music degree. Coming full circle, Ross’ daughter, Olivia, whom Melissa had babysat in the 90s, is now appearing onstage with her and Curtis, in the Arena Dinner Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.
Shaw plays Sara Jane Moore, who in 1975 tried unsuccessfully to shoot Gerald Ford.
“Sara Jane is characterized as a scatterbrain and a ditz,” she says. “She provides some comic relief in a show that covers a very serious topic. But it’s not a political show or a documentary. It’s about nine people who have one thing in common: they each killed or attempted to kill a U.S. president.”
Fort Wayne hasn’t produced Assassins since 1999, when John Hermes directed it at IPFW. “It had an absolute all-star cast,” Shaw says. “It was life-changing. I saw it three times. The book, the music, the story, the way the characters are woven together are genius.”
The Arena production boasts a stellar cast as well, she says, including Jim Nelson who was also in the IPFW production.
Shaw has kept the various Assassins cast recordings on her playlist for the past 18 years but has found that learning the music is an unexpectedly difficult challenge. “Sondheim is really deceptive,” she says. “It’s easy to sing along to in the car, but to really honor the notes, rhythms and lyrics as written isn’t easy. It’s very complicated, and every musical motif has a meaning.”
Besides the brilliance of Assassins itself, Shaw was excited for the opportunity to work again with director Christopher J. Murphy.
“I trust him completely,” she says. “He is so thorough and organized. He’s an effective communicator and attends to every detail without boxing you in as an artist. He knows exactly what he wants and pushes you to get there.”
She notes that one of Murphy’s quirks as a director is that he tends to give his actors notes right up until closing night. As frustrating as that can be, Shaw says, “it’s always with the intention of giving the audience the best show possible. You can’t ever settle. You have to keep growing and getting better and you can learn so much from your audience night after night.”
Performing in a show with her husband has been another challenge, albeit one she came prepared for. The Shaws have worked together countless times before, but never as parents. Their last production together was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, also at Arena, six years ago. Melissa was pregnant with her first child, Maddox, at the time. They had a daughter two years later, and they’ve both taken a long break from performing until now.
“Murphy has gone out of his way to accommodate our parental duties as we piece the show together,” she says. “There have been times when my three- and five-year-olds have had to be at the theater during rehearsals. Murphy even blocked a scene between Todd Frymier and me while graciously holding my daughter Macy.”
With two longtime performers as parents (Curtis is also the drama and choir director at Homestead High School), Maddox and Macy are at home on and around the stage. “They’re definitely both natural-born performers,” Shaw says. “Macy did her first show at seven weeks old. She was the party baby in the Fort Wayne Ballet’s Nutcracker and takes classes there now. Maddox has taken classes at Youtheatre for the past two years. I try not to be too ‘Mama Rose,’ pushing them into what I love to do, but it’s hard.”
After Assassins closes she’s not sure the next show she’ll audition for, or if she’ll take a break to focus on her kids again. In the meantime, she maintains close ties with various arts groups in Fort Wayne. She has been on the board of the Fort Wayne Ballet and has performed with her former employer, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, for the past eight years in their well-attended Holiday Pops concerts. In her current job as marketing communication manager at 3Rivers Credit Union, she gets to partner with non-profit organizations in the community, including arts and cultural organizations.
For now, she’s enjoying being back onstage again and sharing the experience with her husband. But she admits to looking forward to the day when she can bring the kids onstage with her as well. “That would be a dream come true.”