Joel Waggoner’s journey from UNI School of Music to “Only Murders in the Building”

Joel Waggoner’s journey from UNI School of Music to “Only Murders in the Building”

Anna Flanders /
Joel Waggoner and Meryl Streep in "Only Murders in the Building"
Patrick Harbron / ©Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection

Not many Iowa natives can say they’ve gotten the chance to share the big screen with multi-Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep — but UNI alum Joel Waggoner can. Waggoner appeared as the pianist in the Emmy-nominated Hulu show “Only Murders in the Building” alongside Streep and other A-list celebrities.

“I got to conduct her for a day in the show, and that was surreal,” said Waggoner. “She’s a pro. All those people — Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Martin Short — are lovely and hardworking and kind. I learned that you don’t have to be those things, but it really helps. Seeing people who are at the top of their game being that gracious and patient and kind makes you want to be a better person. You could tell they felt lucky to be there.”

The offer to play this role came at just the right time for Waggoner. He had been living in Iowa for a few years after moving back from New York when the pandemic hit and was about to give up on entertaining. 

“I had depleted any opportunity ideas that I thought I'd had,” he said. “The well had run dry. Then ‘Only Murders in the Building’ happened, and it really changed the trajectory of my life and year. So I realized how important it is to stay steady, and things will happen. You really do have to stick it out for a while.”

Waggoner says the role was helpful for his career because it made him more recognizable to people in the industry and gave him an important TV credit on his resume that can help him get more high-caliber entertainment opportunities. It also allowed him to forge and solidify professional relationships.

Waggoner grew up in Waterloo. He learned how to play the piano at an early age, followed by the violin and the oboe. He was also heavily involved in community theater, which he credits for giving him confidence and a strong work ethic.

By the time Waggoner graduated high school, he was convinced he wanted to pursue musical theater. Initially, he did not want to go to UNI where his father Mike was a faculty member. He wanted a change.

At first, the plan was to stick it out at UNI for a semester. But one semester turned into 10.

“I went and made lifelong friends and then just didn't leave for five years!” he said. 

Waggoner started out majoring in music education but quickly realized it wasn’t a good fit. He switched to music performance for vocal music and violin. 

“It's one of the best music schools in the country,” said Waggoner of the UNI School of Music. “It was rigorous. It was difficult because I learned a lot. A lot was required of us. I felt really challenged, which was really important to me. I knew when I ended up going to UNI that I could always learn acting later. I knew for a fact that I wanted to be a really good musician, and I knew UNI could make me that.”

While at UNI, Waggoner continued to be very engaged with theater. Looking back, he knows how special his level of involvement is.

“There were just so many different opportunities for me to go do whatever I wanted to,” he said. “I loved that. I felt valued. And I just really loved the actual value. I think I just liked being able to have access to all that stuff that you wouldn't in a bigger school potentially.”

Waggoner recalls being in a chorus line in “Sweeney Todd,” music directing a Best of Broadway review and performing in a Best of Broadway review. When he later taught undergraduate students in New York, he realized that many of his students would be lucky if they played an ensemble role on a mainstage show once during their four-year program. It made him appreciate UNI’s smaller size allowing him so many cool opportunities.

After graduating from UNI in 2008, Waggoner moved out to New York to get his master’s degree. He ended up living there for more than a decade. During that time, he wrote songs, taught voice lessons, played piano for auditions and music directed. He even performed in two Broadway shows, “School of Rock” and “Be Chill.”

Even with these accomplishments, Waggoner is no stranger to imposter syndrome. He’s had to learn to believe others when they tell him he’s done well. 

A major turning point in his mindset came very recently when he performed at the Gallagher Bluedorn alongside the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony for a musical New Year’s Eve party. Although Waggoner had performed at the Gallagher both as a student and an alum, it was his first time performing as himself. 

WCF Symphony New Year's Eve with Joel Waggoner

Joel Waggoner performing at Gallagher Bluedorn in front of piano

Photo Courtesy of Winding Media

“I did that in front of my hometown,” he said. “Every teacher I've ever had was there. I was very myself, warts and all. Was it perfect? No. But was it me? Yes.”

As far as future projects are concerned, Waggoner believes that slump he was experiencing right before “Only Murders in the Building” is over, as he has plentiful ideas. He wants to write and perform a one-man show, write a musical that goes to Broadway, record numerous albums and finish developing a book and TV series for children.