Dominic Missimi is retired — officially, unquestionably retired — from Northwestern University, where he spent 30-plus years as a theater professor. Beloved by his students (many of whom went on to Broadway), the founder of the honored as Donald Robertson Endowed Chair in Music Theatre, and the skipper of some 80 university productions, Missimi hung up this hat a year ago.
But at 69, Missimi is active to the point of putting men a third his age to shame. He spoke to Fra Noi between frantic paces in Brunswick, Maine, where he was directing a production of “Gypsy.” “Lots of my former students from Northwestern are here, so it’s nice to have a little reunion,” he says. “This is the fourth ‘Gypsy’ I’ve done; I just love it. It’s a great American classic.”
To call Missimi an Italian-American classic hardly counts as exaggeration. Yet his remarkable academic career surprises him, given that his parents came from Italy with little education. “My mom went to the third grade and my dad never attended school at all. They were peasants.” His mother’s family is from the Bari area; his father’s clan hails from Sant’agata di Militello in Sicily, near Messina.
“Italian was the first language in our house,” he recalls. “My parents spoke it; my grandparents lived with us and they spoke it. I’d love to be able to speak Italian to my relatives before I die.”
One measure of Missimi’s teaching greatness comes via the world-class actors who’ve attended his classes, such as Heather Headley, who has won a Tony Award (for “Aida”), a Grammy Award, and a Drama Desk Award. “I was there when she gave her very first audition at Northwestern,” Missimi says. He adds this next comment in the present tense, a sign of his unconventional retirement: “They come to us with a great deal of talent, and we try to mold them into great professionals.”
Missimi might still be at Northwestern, had he not decided to step back after a cancer diagnosis five years ago. As it turns out, Missimi represents a textbook example of thriving post-illness. But as he puts it: “It’s time for me to move on. I directed three or four shows a year at Northwestern and they were so kind to me, so very, very kind. They’ve asked me to do other things, but it’s time to cut the apron strings. I’m still very, very connected to Northwestern and I hope I will be, because I love them.”
Meanwhile, Missimi may pop up at the Marriott Theatre, where he’s directed some three dozen shows–and wants to take a turn as a student for a change.
“I’m trying to develop my skills with writing,” he says. “I have a screenplay I’m trying to peddle. And for the past 21 years, I haven’t done much traveling. Before that, I ran around a lot directing operas. So I’d love to go back to directing opera: I’m very good at directing operas with big choruses.”