Archival Collections
Columbia University Archives

Varsity Show Records, 1894- 

Creator: 
Varsity Show (Columbia University)
Phys. Desc: 
30.32 linear feet (12 document boxes, 18 flat boxes, 1 DVD box, 1 phonograph record storage box)
Call Number: 
UA#0106
Location: 
Columbia University Archives
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Online information

Biographical Note

Initially conceived as a fundraiser for the University's Athletics team, The Varsity Show has grown into Columbia University's oldest performing arts tradition, an annual extravaganza that has launched many students on their paths to careers in the arts and elicited cheers and blushes from those in the Columbia community who find themselves subject of its satire. The first Varsity Show, Joan of Arc by Guy Wetmore Caryl, CC' 95, was conceived as a fundraiser for Columbia's fiscally struggling athletics team, with all funds benefiting the Columbia College Athletic Union. The original musical extravaganza was developed by The Columbia College Musical Society and featured many of the staples of early Varsity Shows: an exotic location, a far-fetched plot and humorous contemporary references (the 'All-France Football Team'). As Columbia lacked a suitable theatre for the performance, Joan of Arc was performed in The Manhattan Athletic Club Theatre. It proved a financial and artistic success, drawing praise from the press and funds from its audience. Subsequent varsity shows followed a similar pattern: game Columbia students bewigged themselves as Egyptians, swashbuckled and time-traveled in a variety of gently ludicrous situations which helped earn funds for their athletics team. With modern musical comedy not yet developed, melodramatic operettas dominated the New York stage and these provided ample material for Columbia students to lampoon. As the costumes and settings became increasingly elaborate, the Varsity Show (a moniker first adopted for 1900's The Governer's Vrouw ) moved further from its role as fiscal cheerleader for the varsity team and justified its existence in its own right. The Columbia University Players was established between 1904 and 1906 so that the Varsity Show could be performed as an annual spectacle whose raison d'etre was its own pomp rather than generating sports revenue. Varsity Shows continued in this vein up to the 1950s, quickly becoming an important Columbia institution, though they continued to be performed off-campus, in impressive locations such as The Hotel Astor or the Waldolf-Astoria. These spaces helped to draw in the Broadway theatre crowd who might not have made it uptown and offered an invaluable opportunity for students to strut and sing on a professional stage, with a professional orchestra accompanying them. Though Varsity alums stepped in to help direct and produce, shows continued to be written, performed and composed entirely by students, many of whom used The Varsity Show as a springboard towards professional careers in the arts. Although the Varsity Show moved beyond its original mandate as a fundraiser for Columbia athletics, many members of the varsity team participated in the show as part of its infamous pony ballet. With women not admitted into Columbia until the 1980s, the Varsity Show featured Columbia students in drag for its female roles. While some of these men made very striking leading "ladies," the pony ballet sought out burly athletes to participate in its parade of dancing girls. This ballet became one of the most beloved features of the early Varsity Show and attempts to introduce Barnard and Teachers College female students in the 1930s were met with protest. It was not until the 1950s that women were allowed a space on the Varsity Show stage and since then female students have played an active role in performing, producing, authoring and composing subsequent Varsity Shows. The mid-century heralded further changes for the Varsity Show. World War II necessitated a reduction in scale and 1944's On the Double performed in Columbia campus' Brander Matthews Theater. The move became permanent, with subsequent Varsity Shows performed uptown at Columbia instead of in the midst of the Broadway theatre district. Though the shows continued to be extravagant, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the enterprise as the twentieth century continued and despite successes such as 1954's bicentennial The Sky's The Limit, which featured contributions from Varsity alumni Herman Wouk and I.A.L. Diamond, and 1960s' A Little Bit Different by Terrence McNally, the Varsity Show struggled to find adequate funding for its spectacular stagings and ceased productions for over a decade after 1967's Feathertop. Though there were intermittent attempts at resurrecting the Varsity Show, such as 1978's The Great Columbia Riot of '78 it wasn't until 1982's Columbia Graffiti, a musical revue staged by enterprising sophomores, that the Varsity Show re-emerged as the biggest annual event in Columbia's performing arts calendar. Productions from the 1980s on focused their attentions on satirizing Columbia's administration and lampooning the personal anxieties and bureaucratic battles that Columbia students face. Many aspects of student life, from relationships with Professors to concern over Columbia's expansion into Manhattanville, have been turned into a song and dance number and 1994's Varsity Show even recruited several celebrities (including former Vice Presidential Nominee Geraldine Ferraro and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins) to cameo as God in Angels at Columbia. The Varsity Show boasts many successful alumni. Oscar Hammerstein II (CC'16) and Richard Rodgers (CC'23), who would later collaborate on many celebrated musicals as lyricist and composer (including Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music ), were involved in separate Varsity productions. Hammerstein donned blackface to portray "Washington Snow" in 1916's The Peace Pirates while Rodgers provided music for 1923's Half Moon Inn and collaborated with Lorenz Hart (CC'18) for 1920's Fly with Me. This partnership proved prolific outside Columbia's gates and Hart went on to write lyrics for Pal Joey and The Boys from Syracuse. I.A.L. Diamond (CC '41), who won an Oscar for co-writing 1960s The Apartment with Billy Wilder, flexed his writing muscles on the Varsity Show before he moved to Hollywood. Diamond is the only writer who was responsible for four consecutive Varsity Shows, devoting much of his time at Columbia to creating pithy scripts during World War II, including penning parts for Hitler and Mussolini in 1938's You've Got Something There. Other notable Varsity alumni include Herman Wouk (CC' 34) who wrote The Caine Mutiny, Ed Kleban (CC' 60) who wrote the lyrics for A Chorus Line and Terrence McNally (CC' 60) who wrote Love!Valour!Compassion!

Scope and Contents

The Varsity Show Records document the history of Columbia University's Varsity Show, an annual student written and produced musical that lampoons Columbia life. The records contain programs, scores, scripts, photographs, posters and other memorabilia from past productions. Notable Varsity Show alumni include Richard Rodgers (CC' 23), Oscar Hammerstein II (CC' 16), Lorenz Hart (CC '18), Herman Wouk (CC '34) and I.A.L. Diamond (CC '41). The Varsity Show Records document productions of Columbia University's annual Varsity Show. Materials for each production include original programs, scripts, scores, press clippings, photographs and correspondence or promotional materials relating to the show. The collection includes scripts by the Oscar winning writer I.A.L. Diamond, who wrote the book for four Varsity shows.