During its short theatrical run each April, Columbia's Varsity Show accomplishes the feat of inspiring pride in members of the campus community while reminding them not to take themselves too seriously.
Some have even called the annual musical satire—a Light Blue institution older than Low Library, Baker's Field and Alma Mater herself—the most spirit-inducing Columbia event of the year.
This spring's show, the 107th, spared no one—faculty, students, dining hall employees, President George Rupp and former visiting professor Al Gore—from the flurry of gags and one-liners that rolled on for more than two hours. The writers placed the inescapable subject of reality-based TV at the story's center, imagining a Morningside campus besieged by thousands of cameras recording everyone's every move for an anxious MTV audience.
But the show holds a greater significance than to merely offer a few quips about bad food and pretentious roommates. Although Director Will Graham, CC'02, did want the audience to "laugh themselves silly," he believes the Varsity Show—attended by about a third of the school's undergraduate population—can also connect people to the common experiences of being a Columbian.
"I wanted to use the physical spaces of Columbia to tell a great adventure story," said Graham, who hoped that the musical—written, directed, performed and designed entirely by students—would enhance the audience's appreciation of an environment many may take for granted.
Kate Cortesi, CC'01, a member of the production's writing team, noted that the myriad jokes in the show always managed to maintain a warm tone. "Comedy can be really delightful or really destructive," she said. "The intimacy [viewers have] with the material is what makes it work. There's a lot of love for what you're laughing at."
Creative preparation for the production began back in January when writers would watch the actors perform improvised sketches, observing the strengths and dynamics that materialized.
Cast member Lang Fisher, CC'02, conceived of her main character, a 14-year-old "super-genius" named Annie Lou, while watching a FOX television special on gifted children. Unlike most productions, where the script and characters are already set, Varsity Show cast members work with writers to help mold the story and the parts they will play. "It's an extremely personal process," said Fisher of the closeness she developed with her character.
The show's composer, Rick Hip-Flores, CC'02, paid special attention to the plot and characters that evolved. "I had to write for the cast that I know," said Hip-Flores. "When you have a strong cast, it makes your job that much easier."
Hip-Flores was well aware of the musical footsteps he was following in when he sat down to compose the score—"Oklahoma" and "South Pacific" writers Oscar Hammerstein II, CC'16, and Richard Rodgers, CC'23, are among the show's most notable alumni. But Hip-Flores did not let thoughts of his predecessors inhibit his creative style. "Musical theatre has changed a lot through the years," said Hip-Flores, who includes Jonathan Larson's "Rent" and The Who's "Tommy" among his favorite recent productions. Writer Susanna Fogel, CC'02, noted that the creative team hoped to offer Hip-Flores a strong story to work with. "We wanted to do justice to his potential and talent," she said.
Constructing the show, Cortesi said, was akin to taming a monster, involving constant re-writes and disposal of scenes. "You don't have the luxury of getting too attached to your material," she said. "The actual performance is just the tip of the Varsity iceberg. There's so much that doesn't make it into the show."
The creative process was a uniquely group-oriented effort. "The show comes from everybody realizing their own potentials," said Fogel, who added that the experience was successful because Graham possessed an "amazing sense of how to make people come together so they feel like they're contributing as much as they want to."
Graham, who performed in the show as a first-year and sophomore, knew first-hand the importance of keeping the focus on the cast. "I wanted to give the kids involved the experience of feeling integral to the process," he said. He was also intent on moving the show away from appearing as an assortment of sketch comedy skits, as it has in past years, and closer to its musical narrative roots. Graham believed he had a strong enough team with which to create a framework that devoted more time to the story and characters.
The Varsity Show premiered in 1894 (although the name wasn't used until 1900) as a fundraising event for the Columbia College Athletic Union. The show would grow into such an anticipated production that it was eventually performed at Carnegie Hall and in the ballrooms of the old Astor Hotel and Waldorf-Astoria. For many years, the production was even taken on the road to cities like Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.
The distinguished roster of Columbians who have participated in the Varsity Show includes a who's who of show business talent and achievement. Through the years, the production has boasted participation from Herman Mankiewicz, CC'17, who wrote "Citizen Kane" with Orson Welles; Lorenz Hart, CC'18, who was the lyricist for dozens of Broadway shows and films including "Babes in Arms;" Herman Wouk, CC'34, who would write "The Caine Mutiney;" Terrence McNally, CC'60, who authored "Love! Valor! Compassion!," and Hall of Fame Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman, CC'39, to name just a few.
Modern purveyors of the show do not ignore its heritage. Each year, about a month before the curtain goes up, the cast solicits the help of Varsity Show alumni who are invited to attend "Turkey Day," where a rough version of the show—this year's presentation lasted more than four hours—is performed for alumni to critique scene by scene. Nearly 20 alums attended this year's preview.
"The alumni change the course of the show," said Fisher, who noted that the feedback is considered invaluable by cast and crew. "The [institution of] Varsity Show is like one big family. You want to show them you're carrying on the tradition."
Five stipulations comprise the Varsity Show's creed. The last one states simply: "The Varsity Show must go on forever." Like all traditions at Columbia, one can only hope.