A tradition of drama, satire, and Columbia spirit.
The Varsity Show, founded in 1894, is one of the oldest traditions at Columbia University, and certainly its oldest performing arts tradition. Its long list of alumni include such distinguished names as Oscar Hammerstein II ’16, Lorenz Hart ’18, Richard Rodgers ’23, and I.A.L. Diamond ’41. Each year, the Varsity Show attracts some of Columbia and Barnard College’s finest actors and creative talents.
Founded as fundraiser for Columbia athletics, the Varsity Show now draws together the entire Columbia undergraduate community for a series of sold-out performances every April/May.
Dedicated to producing a unique full-length show that skews and satirizes many dubious aspects of life at Columbia, the Varsity Show is often written and inspired by a long list of contributors, including the cast, production and creative teams.
For a detailed and anecdotal history of the Varsity Show, be sure to read Thomas J. Vinciguerra’s (Columbia College ’85, Journalism ’86, GSAS ’90) "Sing a Song of Morningside," originally written for Columbia College Today.
Credit: Columbia University Archives
Sing a Song of Morningside
By Thomas J. Vinciguerra C'85, J'86, GSAS '90
8:04 P.M. THE LIGHTS DIM. A rustle of murmurs and programs.
Darkness . . . a few moments of suspended reality.
Overture. Up curtain. Up music.
Lights! Noise! Dancing figures who, even as the eyes try to take in the spectacle, proclaim their presence:
The lines are long at the registrar's,
The pub café and at campus bars;
We live with lasting mental scars
From lectures packed like subway cars!
We are the caped crusaders of the campus scene,
The monkey wrench of the bureaucratic machine;
And if you think that we're not too polite,
Or that we're picking a fight,
Well, you're probably right!
The words date from the recent past. But the spirit is timeless. It is the Columbia Varsity Show, all 123 years of it.
Calling the Varsity Show an undergraduate musical comedy and leaving it at that is like calling the Bill of Rights a list, or saying that Socrates talked a lot. The Varsity Show is an institution of Ivy-entwined heritage, as much a part of Columbia as the Light Blue, Van Am, and Hamilton Hall. It is a chronicle of lives and times on both sides of the 116th Street gates, and its thespian clutches have traditionally ensnared the College's most lyrical talents.
Over the course of a dozen decades, the Varsity Show has constituted a virtual palimpsest of Columbia. Simultaneously celebratory and derisive, the show reveals in skit and song the student zeitgeist. Everything is up for grabs: pompous classmates, the winds of war, the mayhem that is New York, (un)requited love, the core curriculum, the President of the University and of the U.S.—in short, the sum total of what is on the minds of Columbia's typically intelligent, witty, frightened, jaded, hormone-driven 17-to-21-year-olds.
Along with a few other activities—Spectator, WKCR, Philolexian—the Varsity Show has long occupied a prominent place in the constellation of undergraduate endeavors. In his autobiography, Musical Stages, Richard Rodgers C’23 acknowledged that the sole reason he attended Columbia was to write the show. He also wrote of the role it played in his development as one of the shapers of the modern musical:
Beyond doubt, the Triangle Show at Princeton and the Hasty Pudding Show at Harvard were classier ventures, because Princeton and Harvard were classier schools. But the Varsity Show at Columbia offered a boy like me something no other school in the country could supply: an almost professional production. There were experienced directors, a beautifully equipped stage with good lighting situated in the heart of the Broadway theatre district, and best of all, professional musicians in the pit. Here, certainly, were near-ideal working conditions; here, possibly, was an opportunity that could be of incalculable help in furthering my career.
Everyone, of course, knows about Rodgers; they also know that Oscar Hammerstein II C1916 and Lorenz Hart C1918 were Varsity Show alumni as well.
But consider the others who have written, performed, directed, "teched," or otherwise been in on the show:
• William de Mille C1900, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences;
• the prolific playwright George Middleton C1902, president of the Dramatists Guild;
• Raphael Kuhner Wupperman C1904, who as "Ralph Morgan" would co-found Actors Equity and the Screen Actors Guild, serving as first president of the latter;
• Frank Fackenthal C1906, later Secretary and Acting President of the University;
• the movie scenarist and director Ken Webb C1906;
• his brother Roy Webb C1910, writer of scores for Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Notorious, Marty, and some 300 other films;
• Dixon Ryan Fox C1911, president of Union College;
• the noted lyricist Howard ("Dancing in the Dark") Dietz C1917, who as head of publicity for MGM created its famed "Leo the Lion" trademark;
• the screenwriters Albert Maltz C'30 (Destination: Tokyo and one of the "Hollywood Ten") and William Ludwig C'32 (Oscar co-winner for Interrupted Melody);
• the minimalist poet Robert Lax C'38;
• the Emmy-winning teleplaywright Ernest (Roots) Kinoy C'46 . . .
That's a partial listing. Many more to come.
Veteran director Stefan Rudnicki C'66, a 1999 Grammy winner for The Children’s Shakespeare, once reflected on why the show has meant so much to so many alumni:
It allowed me to bite off more than I could chew, and keep chewing—and keep chewing and keep chewing! At the same time, it was a tremendous collaborative opportunity. The Varsity Show really pointed me in the direction of understanding the collaborative process, and then loving it and passing it on to others. It's a life experience—something without which we are the poorer.
* * *
The Varsity Show began life at the end of the 19th century as a fund-raiser for the College's fledgling athletic teams. At the time, money for athletics was scarce, coming almost entirely from student and alumni pockets. It seems the Trustees had the odd notion that Columbia would soon become a world-class university and could probably dispense with its unruly undergraduates altogether. Sport was hardly a top priority.
To fill the coffers, the Columbia College Dramatic Club (the "Strollers") was established in 1886, with the proceeds from their first performance being donated to the varsity crew. For several years afterward, profits from Strollers shows, with titles like Narcissa, William Penn and Lafayette, were also slated for various sports clubs. At that time, there was no burning desire for theatricals for their own sake. Indeed, athletic financing was thought so important that Spectator wrote in 1893, "This, it would seem to any clear-headed and reasonable person, should be the first aim of a dramatic club."
But an odious process soon took hold: the Strollers began keeping for themselves the money they raised. Worse, they filled their ranks with professional actors and other non-student types. Loyal College men, already suspicious of the possible demise of their school, smelled treachery and denounced the Dramatic Club's use of "Columbia" in its name. Spectator sounded a clarion call:
The present moment is ripe for a movement to establish a student dramatic organization. . . . [W]e have among us several men who, individually or collectively, are capable of writing an original burlesque. Harvard produces one every year. If Columbia men would only give this subject consideration; if they would get together and do a little talking and planning and acting, they could easily form a nucleus from which might develop a strong and powerful dramatic organization, to serve the ends we have spoken of. The question is, WILL THEY DO IT?
The answer, it turned out, was yes. In the fall of 1893, widespread approval greeted the announcement that a new group, the Columbia College Musical Society, would present an original musical extravaganza, written and performed exclusively by students, to benefit the Columbia College Athletic Union. "The mis en scene [sic] will leave nothing to be desired," they assured.
The show, Joan of Arc, or The Monarch, The Maid, The Minister, and The Magician, by Guy Wetmore Carryl C1895 and Kenneth M. Murchison (Architecture 1894), debuted on April 2, 1894. Surviving accounts indicate a huge success. "The Columbia College Musical Society covered itself with glory as with a garment at the Academy last night by its brilliant performance," wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. This description gives some sense of the riotous proceedings:
[A]ll sorts of things are burlesqued, from Mark Antony's address to the Romans . . . to the midway plaisance at [the] Chicago [World's Fair] and a football game at Manhattan field. The skirt dancers who have invaded the modern stage are more than burlesqued; they are imitated and even rivaled by the exceeding lightness and grace of the dance. . . . The Columbia Joan of Arc has precious little in common with the warlike maid of French history. He is 6 feet 3 in his stockings, for one thing. . . . Charles VII loses his throne in this burlesque by the characteristically Columbia device of pitching pennies for it with his son, Louis the Dauphin.
As far as the undergraduates were concerned, though, what mattered was not so much what appeared on stage as what it represented. As the Columbia Literary Monthly editorialized,
Coming at the present time, when our alma mater is just about entering on the broader life and the wider fields of activity which the future undoubtedly holds in store for her, this departure from old methods is most gratifying . . . [I]n the Musical Society, which is henceforth to represent us in the field of dramatics, we have a body of men who are not only capable, but loyal to the college of their choice.
* * *
Given all the hype, one might have expected that the Varsity Show would immediately establish itself as a Columbia fixture, irrevocable and immutable.
Sad to say, such was not the case. When Carryl and Murchison reunited in 1895 for the follow-up show, The Buccaneer, the Musical Society's board of directors voted to stage it at the Manhattan Athletic Club. The authors were bitterly opposed, arguing that they would be "cramped" by the venue's "disadvantages." The result was an impasse—and no Varsity Show for 1895. It didn't help that the two leads, Alvan Payne C1893 and Henry Shrady C1894, adamantly refused to appear at the Athletic Club. The Varsity Show had, it seemed, already spawned its first prima donnas.
Nonetheless, with fits, starts, and frequent revivals of its first few entries—including The Buccaneer, which was ultimately staged in 1896—the Varsity Show entered the 20th century. Only in 1900, though, with The Governer's Vrouw (whose authors included the poet Melville Cane C1900 and his classmate, Core Curriculum pioneer John Erskine) was it formally identified as "The Varsity Show," in tribute to the varsity teams it benefited.
Joan of Arc set the pattern, namely, a satirical period piece laden with contemporary references, e.g. the "All-France Football Team." In short order ancient Egyptians, swashbucklers, Romans, American Indians, Arab viziers, and other colorful figures appeared to regale the audiences. Such depictions often involved stereotypes, notably blackface. Typical characters were "M. Issing Link," played by Walter E. Kelley C1907, and "Washington Snow," in reality none other than Oscar Hammerstein.
The show also ventured into outright fantasy. In The Mischief Maker (1903), the queen of the planet Venus and her entourage fall for Earthmen who have been transported there via a "magic spyaphone." Two of the writers would garner particular renown in later years: Arthur Garfield Hays C1902, for his part in the ACLU defense team at the Scopes "Monkey Trial," and Edgar Allan Woolf C1901, for co-writing the screenplay to The Wizard of Oz.
(Legend has it, incidentally, that famed architect Stanford White was watching Woolf's transplanted Varsity Show at Madison Square Garden on the night Harry Thaw shot him to death. Actually, it was Woolf's first professional effort, Mamzelle Champagne.)
It is no accident that the early shows seem quaintly ornate in retrospect. Broadway musical comedy as we understand it did not yet exist; operetta and burlesque were the staples of the New York stage. The Varsity Show exploited both to maximum comic effect by burlesquing the convoluted, melodramatic plots of operettas. Try following this excerpt from the synopsis of The Khan of Kathan(1905), which takes place before the curtain has even risen:
The plot of the play hinges on the trials and tribulations of Bintulu, the Khan of the mythical island Kathan, which is laid somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Bintulu has usurped the throne from his brother Jick-Ju twenty years before the show begins, and set Kassim, the heir to the throne, adrift on the ocean, forgetting to remove a jeweled necklace which proves who is the rightful heir. Kassim is rescued and loses the necklace, which falls into the hands of an American girl, Joy by name. Bintulu falls in love with Adella, the princess of another imaginary country, Yugga Karta, and, as he has a collection of wives, he decides to add Adella to his harem. She has meanwhile fallen in love with Kassim, and has sworn to marry only the man who brings her the jeweled necklace. Bintulu, however, gets her Prime Minister, Louis Lunatic, to bring her to his court, where he means to force her to marry him.
After years of this sort of thing, the producers spoofed their own spoofing with On Your Way (1915) by Ken and Roy Webb, the first Varsity Show that was a revue of songs and sketches, rather than a book musical. The antagonist was "Argument Story, The Plot of the Play," whom all of the characters were desperately trying to lose. He was ultimately arrested onstage.
On Your Way was also notable for the first Varsity Show appearance of Oscar Hammerstein. Describing him as a "consumptive looking poet," The New York Evening World wrote, "He danced like Al Jolson and had some original steps and faces of his own. Oscar is a comedian and as a fun-maker he was a la carte, meaning all to the mustard."
By this time, the original purpose of the show—to generate sports revenue—had been abandoned; the budget had grown to the point where the box office was lucky to break even. As early as 1898, the Mail and Express Illustrated Saturday Magazine stated, "no Columbia show of recent years has been put on for less than $5,000," with costs like $900 for costumes and $400 for the orchestra.
Therefore in 1904, wishing to break the fundraising connection once and for all, a group of 20 Varsity veterans organized the Columbia University Players and dedicated themselves to producing the show as an annual event in its own right. As one official history dryly described it,
There was a feeling among those present that an organization which specialized entirely on show matters and was composed of past members of shows could produce better results than had been obtained in the past. Every one of the twenty charter members agreed to underwrite the 1905 show to an extent of $250 per man, although it is doubtful if $2.50 in cash could have been collected at that moment among the crowd.
* * *
If the group's financing was precarious, its purpose was not. Under the guidance of the Players, production of the Varsity Show settled down to a routine that would, with minor variations, last for two generations.
Planning would start in the fall with the announcement of a competition to write the book. The results depended on the talent at hand: some years would see half a dozen entries vying for the laurels, while in others, there was a scramble to come up with anything halfway decent.
As for scenarios, the contest was an open book. The action might take place anywhere: a kingdom, a street corner, the corridors of power. Generally present was a good dose of topical humor. Herman Mankiewicz C1917, the future Oscar-winning screenwriter of Citizen Kane, lampooned Henry Ford's ill-advised World War I peace mission in The Peace Pirates (1916) by wrecking the delegates on a desert island. In the role of Mary Pickford, the show featured Lorenz Hart, who "skipped and bounced around the stage," Hammerstein later wrote, "like an electrified gnome."
As the U.S. Marines were ending their lengthy occupation of Nicaragua, Arnold Auerbach C'32 wrote How Revolting! (1932), which took place in the land of Mexicagua. It featured Sydney Kupferman C'32 as a Jewish bullfighter from Brooklyn named Franklin Sydney—a spoof of Columbia dropout Sidney Franklin, a bona fide Brooklyn-born bullfighter immortalized in Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon.
The Russian Revolution inspired Rodgers' and Hart's Fly With Me (1920), whose book was written by Philip Leavitt C1918 and Milton Kroopf C'22. Set 50 years in the future, the musical depicted the "Love Laboratory" of "Bolsheviki U.," on a Soviet-ruled island off the coast of North America. A student-led revolution, fueled by romance, overthrows the Soviet system.
With book in hand, music would follow. Because the same motifs tended to recur (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boys and girls bad-mouth each other), composers had a fair idea of what was expected of them. The noted jazz pianist Dick Hyman C'48, who composed Dead to Rights (1947), remembers being obliged to keep open "space for the requisite number of ballads, peppy songs, and so on." Philip Springer C'50, who would pen the Christmas novelty "Santa Baby," found that composing Streets of New York (1948) and Wait For It (1950) entailed the same elements as the songs he was selling on Tin Pan Alley at the time—simplicity and catchiness.
On rare occasions, the music would drive the book. When Rodgers and Hart first submitted Fly With Me to the Players, the songs were accepted but the play itself was not. The judging committee, composed of Hammerstein, Richard Conried C'08, and Ray Perkins C'17, came up with a radical notion. Why not adapt their tunes to another entry?
Thus it was that Leavitt and Kroopf got wedded to Rodgers and Hart, and Rodgers became the first freshman to write any portion of a Varsity Show. On that occasion, Hammerstein added two of own tunes, "There's Always Room For One More" and "Weaknesses," thereby marking the only collaboration of Columbia's three greatest songwriters.
Once they are sung, most Varsity Show songs go back in the trunk (where many of them belong). There are notable exceptions. The plot of Fly With Me was far-flung, but its signature tune has become a local standard:
Bull-dogs run around New Haven,
Harvard paints old Cambridge red;
Even poor old Philadelphia
Really has a college, it is said;
Williamstown belongs to Williams;
Princeton's tiger stands at bay;
But old New York won't let the world forget that
There's a college on Broadway.
Unimpressed by such artistry was Corey Ford C'23, who reviewed Fly With Me for Jester, the humor magazine. "I panned it unmercifully and, with rare critical foresight, predicted that its creators would never be heard from again," he later wrote in his memoir, The Time of Laughter.
He went on, "I had bragged rashly in my review that I could do a better job myself, and accordingly I was challenged to write the book and lyrics of the 1923 Varsity Show."
His bombast paid off. With Perry Ivins C1920, Ford wrote Half Moon Inn, perhaps the best, and best known, Varsity Show of all time. By drawing on New York's Dutch heritage as a theme, and by using characters from Washington Irving's Sketch-Book, Ford produced a show that spoke to Columbia's unique historical identity. And the anti-intellectualism that was then sweeping the country provided the show with a perfect, contemporary leitmotif.
The most enduring aspect of Half Moon Inn, however, was its touchstone musical number, "Bold Buccaneers," by Ford, Morris Watkins C'24, and Roy Webb. As any true son (or daughter) of Knickerbocker knows, the song was reborn almost immediately as a campus standard. Here's how Ford remembered it:
The Alumni Federation was offering a prize for a Columbia football song, so I concocted new words for the final chorus of the show and sent the entry in. The whole thing slipped my mind until the telephone of the fraternity house rang one midnight, and the irate editor of the Times roared, "I thought you were supposed to be our Columbia correspondent. We've just had a dispatch giving the results of their Alumni Federation song contest." I told him I hadn't heard anything about it. "Well, go out and interview the winner. His name is . . . " A slight pause. "Goddamnit, it's you." And that was how I learned that "Roar, Lion, Roar" had won the prize.
* * *
And now, our cast—always a challenge. How to bring to life Nicholas Murray Butler C1882, King George VI, or Mayor Jimmy Walker? Alma Mater herself has risen from her throne on many occasions; Raymond Appelgate C'31 in Oh Hector! (1929) was one of the early Almas. Perhaps the most notorious figure ever to be depicted in a Varsity Show was Adolf Hitler in Off Your Marx (1936), played by Carl Schorske C’36, the future Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. The experience had a profound effect on him.
"It alarmed me," he recalled nearly 60 years later, "that in a certain sense—how shall I put this?—what was ridiculous about Hitler was what was easy to achieve. His bombast was also the secret of his success. It was disgusting that even when you were parodying him, you felt the power of his uncontrolled expressivity."
Schorske's show may have set a record for most dictators on one stage. Mussolini and Stalin were H. R. Lieberman C'37 and Pierre Kolisch C'39, respectively; Haile Selassie was J. Franklin Bourne C'37, a black student, who Schorske said played the role "very straight"—a far cry from the days of burnt-cork minstrelism.
The actual quality of the performances was often suspect. As Spec said in 1900, "In a review of any Varsity Show, the book, lyrics and music are of greater importance than the acting, which can never be taken very seriously."
Was it really that bad?
"Good lord!" responded Jacques Barzun C'27, author of Zuleika, Or The Sultan Insulted (1928). "The voices were badly trained, if at all, and a couple of the people might be taking theatre work at Teachers College—to teach theatre to schoolchildren.”
It's not that Columbia students were particularly inept. True, one manager was heard to groan during a less-than-ideal rehearsal, "Oh, if this were only a professional show, and I could fine 'em or fire 'em." But rather, applying dramatic theory in an actual theatre was considered a manual art, and therefore not part of an intellectual curriculum. For many years, the College offered no practical dramatic instruction. "Dramatically, Columbia is non-existent," wrote Elmer L. Zeizenstein in the Alumni News in 1917.
Ergo, the Varsity Show was traditionally directed—as well as choreographed and orchestrated—by outside professionals. Often as not, alumni did the honors. For many years, the director's chair was occupied by Paul Winkopp C'25, a veteran vaudevillian and writer for the radio show Peep and Snoop.
"He was a tall, lean, very bright man who was in show business," remembered Herman Wouk C'34, who in his pre-Caine Mutiny days wrote Home, James (1933) and Laugh It Off (1934). "If he thought a song needed work, he'd just sit down and write a number. A very facile guy."
* * *
Instruction was not the only dramaturgical gap in Columbia's syllabus. For many years the campus lacked any sort of adequate performance space. "Up at Dartmouth College," complained Elmer Zeizenstein, "which, when compared to Columbia in point of size, is a mere grease-spot, they have a fully-equipped, fully-organized theater. At the University of Wisconsin—but why go on? The point is that almost every two-by-four college and university in the country has a flourishing dramatic plant—except Columbia."
So for almost half a century, the Varsity Show was seen in the regal rooms of midtown Manhattan—places like Carnegie Hall and the ballrooms of landmark hotels like the Astor and the old Waldorf-Astoria. In these august surroundings, the music generally issued from an orchestra that was fully professional and 20 or more strong.
Inconvenient though it might have been for the students, the distance from 116th Street had a salutary effect. The audience was filled with serious theatregoers (who ordinarily wouldn't venture far uptown) and with newspaper critics, who in those days were more numerous. Moreover, being in a classy joint tended to elevate the whole enterprise.
"It was supposed to be a real entertainment," said Jacques Barzun. "A junior offering to what was on Broadway. It was quite—what shall I say?—distingué.”
Indeed it was, said his classmate Robert Schnitzer. "The cast dressed in the crystal-chandeliered anterooms and many an ornament ended as an earring on our 'female' characters."
The publicity crew added to the luster by taking pictures of the cast in the company of whatever celebrities could be rounded up, then distributing them to the New York tabloids. "I remember posing with Ethel Merman," said Martin Manulis C'35, the future producer of such films as The Days of Wine and Roses and the TV series James at 15, who starred in the 1935 show, Flair-Flair, the Idol of Paree. "And I thought I was raucous."
Inevitably, though, there were things that no amount of preparation could prevent—the technical mishap, the missed cue, the forgotten line. Three days before the opening of His Majesty the Queen (1926), one of the cast's leading ladies, Henry Grant C'27, injured his ankle. "In 72 hours," said Bob Schnitzer, "I learned his dialogue, songs and dances. And since there was no Actors Equity union for college actors, I didn't even get a slip-sheet insert in the program booklet!"
During one performance of Saints Alive (1942), Gerald Green C'42—who later wrote Holocaust and The Last Angry Man—was engaged in one of his legendary Groucho Marx impersonations when he tripped over a cable. "God damn these German spies," he grunted, eliciting an unscripted roar.
In Feathertop (1967), Richard Kandrac C'68 played a witch's henchman who had a habit of lighting pieces of flash paper and tossing them back over his head. But there was this one flame that landed on top of his wig . . . the fire was quickly patted out. "I could use some of that hair today," he mused over 25 years later.
The Varsity Show generally ran for a week and occasionally went on the road, performing in Pittsburgh, Washington, the New York suburbs and elsewhere.
* * *
The undisputed high point of the traditional Varsity Show was always—but always —the pony ballet.
Now, anyone who studied Shakespeare knows that cross-dressing is a time-honored device in the theatre, mainly because a respectable woman's place was never on the stage.
Less clear is why otherwise sane Ivy Leaguers would tear the house down watching a bunch of skirt-wearing, sweaty, muscle-bound behemoths, rouged and wigged to the hilt, clunking around in high heels with the barest sense of grace or rhythm.
Basically, it was a case of the most laugh for the buck. Not that it started that way; the early ballets were not especially outrageous. "What a transformation has been wrought when they appear all complete in their flaxen wigs!" wrote one observer of The Conspirators (1906). "Taken at a distance (and in this case distance always lends a decided enchantment), they appear passably feminine, and elicit generous applause." Bob Schnitzer recalled his compatriots' earnest attempts to look and act female: "We weren't camp at all."
At least, that is, until 1935. That was the year of Flair-Flair, written by John Latouche C'37. The acclaimed lyricist of Broadway hits like The Golden Apple and Cabin in the Sky, Latouche was a flamboyant homosexual who reportedly loaded the cast and pony ballet of Flair-Flair with like-minded fellows. One Varsity Show alum derided the result as “very faggy”; Latouche himself called the show "Rabelaisian.” According to legend, the administration was so scandalized that the producers pledged that never again would testosterone be in short supply.
Whatever the reason, by the late 30's and early 40's, all pretense of female verisimilitude was gone. Instead, press releases trumpeted the pony ballet's "combined weight of more than two tons."
"What they did was go out and get as many big, horsey guys as they could," remembered Ogden Beresford C'43. "As long as you were big and ugly enough and laughed a lot, you were in. It was a ball of fun from start to finish."
To a man, the ponies took their womanhood seriously. "They worked three hours every afternoon," said former Lion football coach John Bateman C'38, who essayed such decidedly female roles as Mae West and archetypal debutante Brenda Diana Duff Frazier—and whose escort in 1939's Fair Enough was future Chicago Bears legend Sid Luckman '39. "Some of them lost ten pounds, others lost twenty." (Others grew up to be Henry King C'48, later chairman of the Board of Trustees.)
But boys will still be boys, even when they're pretending to be girls. "They rehearsed most earnestly and got the simple dance routines down surprisingly well," said Theodore Hoffmann C'44, who built scenery and worked backstage. "Then, of course, they got drunk on the opening and subsequent nights and fell all over themselves. I recall five or six of them slumped against the wall of an adjacent hallway during intermission, ministered to by despairing stage managers. I assume Winkopp was used to and ready for that."
The pony ballet was invariably a showstopper. One hula number, Bateman said, got 11 curtain calls; the ponies took so many bows that their grapefruit kept falling out of their brassieres. Og Beresford recalls Oscar Hammerstein coming to rehearsals just to chuckle at the unlikeliness of it all.
So entrenched was the strictly stag custom, in fact, that tumult erupted at the announcement that women would appear in Off Your Marx in 1936. Hundreds of angry students signed petitions and otherwise protested the sacrilege. But 50 females auditioned for the lead. The producers chose Sue Slough TC'36, who was, in the fond memory of Seymour Nadler C'36, the show's author, both beautiful and articulate. "She was the kind of girl you could take home to mother . . . and look out for father."
She was also a quietly determined pioneer, said her daughter, Christine Pratt. "She was very humble and able to win over people by keeping a sense of humor. She was not a firebrand for a movement, but being invited to play the lead, she would do it as an opportunity."
And so it came to pass that some 1,200 spectators packed the grand ballroom of the Hotel Lismore on the opening night of Off Your Marx—"in grim show-me attitude," recalled Morrie Watkins in Columbia College Today in 1969. Then the unexpected happened:
Following a dance number by the girls, a riotous situation developed. With a new twist, an ominous chant arose from the audience: "We want the girls!" The curtain was lowered. To make the long story short, show director Paul Winkopp '25 proceeded to handle the crowd in masterly fashion, with the result that the play got off its mark once more, and ran to the finish.
Although a couple of matronly types sniffed that "Columbia students are a bunch of hoodlums" as they walked out, theirs was a minority opinion.
Alas, the women in the 1937 show, Some of the People, didn't fare as well. The New York Sun reported, "Undergraduates borrowed a technic [sic] from the Bronx in disapproving the presence of girls in the cast. . . . Bananas and pennies, hardly from heaven, pelted the stage as the girls appeared."
The upshot: Women didn't make it back until Not Fit To Print in 1956. Even then, tradition died hard. In 1959, Norman Hildes-Heim C'60, having grown up on Varsity Show tales told by family friend Richard Rodgers, bypassed Players and with classmate Frank Decker wrote an alternative (i.e. really old-fashioned) show, Nothing Sacred. True to the past, the company was not only all male but composed mainly of jocks. "It was cast in the boathouse," said leading man Neilson Abeel '62. Among the women were Oscar Garfein C'61, who remembered wearing a genuine Chanel dress, and Vinnie Chiarello C'61, who less than seven years later would be shot down over North Vietnam as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
On opening night, Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves were out in front. "They offered to take it to Broadway," said Hildes-Heim, "but some of our cast members weren't doing too well academically—so we didn't go."
* * *
Corey Ford may have written the premier Varsity Show, and Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart were the alumni who achieved the greatest national acclaim, but for sheer Varsity Show éclat, the winner is I. A. L. Diamond C'41. Diamond was the only man to write four consecutive Varsity Shows, and he did it solo. Two of his efforts even won the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) prize for the best college musical in the East. Such was the quality of his work that when he graduated, there was genuine concern over whether the show could carry on without him.
Diamond was Billy Wilder's screenwriting partner on such classics as Some Like It Hot, The Fortune Cookie, and The Apartment, for which the team won an Oscar. The cynicism, worldliness, and contempt for unscrupulousness that marked their films was already evident in Diamond's Varsity Show writing. In You've Got Something There (1938), he depicted the resurrection of the country's Founding Fathers and their involvement in President Butler's scheme to raise $50 million for the University. Eventually they are accused of un-American activities and exiled to an Alaskan concentration camp, but wind up on radio endorsing "Plucky Tripe Cigarettes."
His shows rocked with satiric wit. But to his friends, Izzy Diamond put on a different face.
"He never made jokes in his small talk—he saved it all for his writing," remembered Gerald Green. "He'd sit there—silent, brooding, chain-smoking, his eyes half-closed, never saying a thing. Someone would try to get his opinion on a scene and they'd ask, 'What do you think?' He'd just shrug and close his eyes. That meant he didn't like it. He was a presence, and he wasn't even there."
* * *
The Varsity Show was a temporary casualty of the Second World War. With those students not yet in uniform accelerating through classes so they could graduate before being called up, College rolls barely existed. I. A. L. Diamond had written a spare show, but the manpower shortage was just too acute: there was no show in 1943. Not since the 1895 Buccaneer debacle had there been such a lapse.
But thanks largely to a fellow named Ben Hubbard, the show managed to regroup. For many years, Hubbard was the director of King's Crown Activities; in an unofficial capacity, he was also the keeper of the production's lore. Much of his institutional memory he passed on to an undergraduate with a background in show business, Preston Munter C'46.
"He was a very nice, portly child," recalled Munter. "He had never grown up. A very imposing guy. If you wanted to change anything, Ben would object."
With Hubbard's help, Munter, Leonard Moss C'45, Joseph Barata C'44, and Louis Garisto C'46 teamed up to resume the show's interrupted continuity with On The Double in 1944. Certain concessions were made to the war: The orchestra was reduced to two pianos. The production moved onto campus permanently, to the now-vanished Brander Matthews Theatre (later, McMillin Theatre in Dodge Hall and Wollman Auditorium in Ferris Booth Hall would be the main sites).
"We knew almost nothing about the history of the Players," said Moss. "We knew the names, but as far as traditions go, forget it."
The one thing they did know about? The pony ballet.
On The Double took a barbed look at the Navy's V-12 training program, which had largely taken over the campus. In fact, a sizeable contingent of actual naval cadets was scheduled to appear. But just two hours before the curtain, their commandant ordered the entire corps to assemble for a dress review. Munter, who was directing, suddenly found himself without a major chunk of his cast.
"I went ape shit," he recalled. Tracking the commandant down, he yelled, “’What the hell do you think you're doing, interrupting the Varsity Show?!' And he said, 'Who the hell are you?!'"
The confrontation ended peacefully. "We identified each other," Munter continued, "calmed down, and he released all the guys who were in the show. And he said, 'Please give me your schedule so this doesn't happen again.’”
The show went on, and its underlying theme of patriotism proved a resounding success: for the finale, the cadets marched down the aisles to general pandemonium. Their symbolic steps toward victory on the battlefield also represented the triumph of the Varsity Show in its 50th anniversary year.
The war ended. The Varsity Show didn't. 1947's Dead To Rights was a broad send-up of Congressional investigating committees. Co-author Edward Costikyan C'47 played a senator whose compatriot, Senator Cottonmouth, would later delight audiences as the bumbling, corrupt Boss Hogg in the television series The Dukes of Hazzard.
"There was this young kid, Sorrell Booke [C'49], who'd never been on the damn stage before," Costikyan remembered. "But he was fantastic."
No one bothered to formally script the show's second act. "Why the hell write it?" asked Costikyan. "It was already done. We were all playing to Sorrell, who was just making it up as he went along.”
For 1948, Pres Munter dug up a 19th-century melodrama, Alan Koehler C'49 and Joseph Meredith C'49 based a script on it, and Richard Chodosh C'49 and Phil Springer added music. Streets of New York, the story of an evildoer redeemed by his love of his daughter, proved so popular and reliable that it was revived three times (1952, 1958, and 1961), a Varsity Show record. "It's a tearjerker," explained Springer. "The emotions are so marvelous."
So marvelous, in fact, that another version of Streets of New York, with fresh Chodosh music, and a new book and lyrics by Barry Alan Grael C'52, opened in 1963 at the Maidman Playhouse on West 42nd Street. It ran for nearly a year, winning the Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award as best Off-Broadway Musical of the Season. Some years later in New York magazine, Alan Rich wrote, "My own favorite New York musical . . . [was] a small but imaginative entertainment called Streets of New York. . . . The show had style, wit, bustle, and a marvelous, edgy ingenuity in both music and words. . . . I can think of nothing worthier of revival than this show."
Another success was The Sky's The Limit, the entry for Columbia's bicentennial year of 1954. Befitting the occasion, the show was a sweeping overview of the entire history of the University, with scenes like "The Revolutionary War and Who Won It," "Barnard College is Founded for Good Reasons," and "Football is Banned at Morningside." The ambitious mix was leavened by skits, songs, and lyrics from an astounding array of alumni contributors: Roy Webb, Ken Webb, Howard Dietz, Arthur Schwartz GF'21, Paul Winkopp, I. A. L. Diamond, Maurice Levin C'29, Nicolas Monjo C'46, Herman Wouk, and Richard Chodosh. Original material came from juniors Peter Pressman, Lewis Banci, Herb Gardner, and sophomore Milburn Smith, among others.
"Everyone in the show had a sense of its historical importance," said David Gerstein C'54, who played Aaron Burr to the Alexander Hamilton of Joseph Wishy C'55 in a skit called "Columbia Vs. C.C.N.J." "Not that it was necessarily the best thing about the 200th anniversary, but it was the idea that we were participating. It was kind of neat that the Varsity Show was one of the venues of celebration."
* * *
As the 1950's progressed, the Varsity Show was as popular as ever—for the audience. Many of the show's guiding spirits, though, were less satisfied. Somehow, guys in drag and collegiate hijinks no longer inspired the mirth they used to.
The Varsity Show was suddenly old hat. Good though Streets of New York was, its revivals reflected the mounting difficulty in finding a suitable book, a problem that culminated in 1962, when no show appeared at all. In other years, the proceedings seemed to have an unusual grimness. Adjectives like "undistinguished" and "tenuous" began cropping up in reviews.
"We had a bunch of creative people who felt constrained by the mold we were being forced to pour our scripts and songs into," said David Rosen C'58, who supplied music for When in Rome (1955), Not Fit To Print (1956), and Voice of the Sea (1957). "It was getting kind of tiresome, really—the same old thing. We were excoriated by Spectator for cooking up warmed-over merchandise." (He added, "I could have said the same thing about their lousy editorials.")
The Players continued to make the show their centerpiece, but increasingly they felt the big challenges lay in straight drama and experimental theatre. Changes in musical taste were also an issue. Howard Kissel C'64, drama critic of the New York Daily News and author of Elsinore! (1963) and Il Troubleshootore (1964), notes that before the 1960's, show tunes were synonymous with American popular music: "The idiom in which the musical theatre operated was an idiom that all Americans spoke." The strange new language called rock 'n' roll, however, ended all that.
Around that time, too, the long-standing lack of functional campus theatre space finally reached a breaking point. This plaintive note in the 1954 show program speaks volumes:
Hundreds of colleges and universities, far less fortunate in endowments, have their own theaters. It is to the shame of Columbia College that it does not. The official word from the College is that a theatre is being planned for us in the sorely needed Student Center [Ferris Booth]. Examination of the blueprints for this theatre reveals that it is actually a dance hall with a stage at one end. In other words, when you come to see a Varsity Show in the new Student Center, you will sit on folding chairs. The architect has failed to realize that the comfort of the audience is a major factor in establishing a theatrical atmosphere. . . . In the meantime, we must continue to use theatres as they become available, build our sets in a room two and a half blocks from the rehearsal hall and get them through a door so small that anything sizeable must be built in pieces not over six feet wide and assembled when finally they are carried to the stage, which is never more than four nights before the performance.
Adding to the tension were forces beyond anyone's control—namely, the Bomb, Khruschev & Co. Daniel Klein C'58, who wrote lyrics for several shows, argues against the notion of the 50's as a decade of comfortable conformity. "You had this tremendous intensity about your future. People would ask me, 'What's your future?' I'd say, 'I'll probably go off to war and get killed.' People really felt that way."
But gifted contributors managed to keep things percolating. In 1960, the show was written by senior Terrence McNally, whose Broadway career (Love! Valour! Compassion!, The Ritz, Master Class, Kiss of the Spider Woman) would garner him multiple Tony Awards. His Varsity Show, A Little Bit Different, was about a film company shooting on location in Africa; he populated the show with "a bunch of obnoxious public figures in American life" who get devoured by the cannibals he also sketched in. The music, which included the song "Burp," was by Ed Kleban C'59, who would go on to write the lyrics for something called A Chorus Line.
Michael Feingold C'66, future drama critic of The Village Voice, wrote The Bawd's Opera (1966), which was slated for 1965 but held up because of insufficient funding. Another nagging problem, that; rumor has it that Players began going into debt when Brian de Palma C'62 started raiding the till for his experimental movies.
By the 1960's, the showmakers were seeking inspiration from existing drama and literature. Elsinore! was a parody of Hamlet, The Bawd's Opera was derived from The Beggar's Opera, and Feathertop came from the Nathaniel Hawthorne tale The Witch. "As students we were reading an incredible amount," Stefan Rudnicki explained, "maybe a thousand pages a week, and I find it difficult to imagine that anyone doing that could come up with anything totally original."
These borrowing tactics were not exactly unprecedented. As long ago as 1913, the producers had abandoned their original production of Allan of Alkanburgh and replaced it with Jacques Offenbach's opera bouffe, The Brigands. And by all indications, the show was hardly in its death throes. Attendance was still full and enthusiastic; Jon "Bowzer" Bauman C'68, later of Sha Na Na, shone in Feathertop and The Bawd's Opera, and the latter show, along with Elsinore!, won the annual BMI competition for best college varsity show. Plans were discussed for Michael Feingold to write a Varsity Show based on Tobacco Road for 1968.
It was Students for a Democratic Society, not Players, who had other ideas that spring.
"It died," acknowledged Bruce Trinkley C'66, composer of The Bawd's Opera and Feathertop. "But it didn't fizzle."
* * *
The Varsity Show lay moribund for a decade as Columbia and New York struggled through the nadir of the 1970's. Then, as the campus mood and the city's fortunes both began to lift, several disjointed initiatives came together to give the show an unexpected second lease on life.
The first step was taken in 1978 by seniors Michael Eisenberg and Steven Werner, assisted by classmate Ben Caplan. They knew only that something called the Varsity Show had once been a big thing on campus, and as Eisenberg put it, "We were both ambitious and foolhardy enough to think we could write it."
The result, The Great Columbia Riot of '78, was a fitting swipe at the Mark Rudd generation that had killed the show in the first place. Ed Shockley C'78, probably the first African-American ever to star in the show, played a tenured radical disgusted with his students' lack of revolutionary fervor. To get good grades, his pupils try to take over alma mater; their attempts are so pathetic that Shockley tells them, "You all fail!" The punchline—"Not again!"—was delivered by elderly library cataloguer and longtime campus fixture Steve Hermides.
Narrated in Twilight Zone fashion by Chris Tong C'78, the show recaptured the spirit of the past, down to an experienced alumnus as director—Joseph Klein C'58, who had been musical director of Man of La Mancha on Broadway. Unfortunately, there was no follow-up. "It was just a few ambitious young guys trying to do a show," said Eisenberg, "rather than setting up an institutional infrastructure to support it."
Still, an indefinable movement was in the air. A few months later Rick Shur C’75 tried to mount Morningside Plights, a Varsity Show he had written as an undergraduate. His effort just barely missed. “It had a bisexual subplot, and it was a bit racy, and the star, who had to do a crucial underwear scene, got cold feet as the opening drew near,” he recalled. “Since we couldn't do the show as written, I decided to abort it, much to my regret.”
Matters improved in 1979 when Andrew Harris, an assistant professor of theatre in the School of the Arts, hit upon the idea of reviving Fly With Me for its 60th anniversary ("I was under the gun to find a reason to be there"). Although the script and score were incomplete, MFA candidate Michael Numark adapted the material, and Richard Rodgers gladly provided some additional songs. Sadly, the Varsity Show's best-known alumnus never lived to see the reincarnation.
However, when the show was unveiled in April of 1980, less than four months after Rodgers' death, its enthusiastic reception and wide press exposure turned it into an unexpectedly successful memorial tribute. For the occasion, Rodgers' widow, Dorothy, made her first public appearance since her husband's demise. Also on hand were Hammerstein's widow, Dorothy, and Lorenz Hart's sister-in-law—also named Dorothy. Thus, recalled Harris, "I had three Dorothys. On opening night I had a dozen roses, so I gave four to each of them."
In 1982, Harris offered a further glimmer by melding elements of Fly With Me, You'll Never Know (the Rodgers and Hart show of 1921), The Peace Pirates, and Home, James (not Herman Wouk's show, but the eponymous 1917 effort by Hammerstein, Herman Axelrod C'1915, and Robert Lippmann C'1919). The pastiche was dubbed College On Broadway, a sort of narrated series of set pieces that showcased the tone, if not the actual format, of the show.
The last piece of the Varsity Show's resurrection fell into place that spring when sophomore Adam Belanoff decided to create an original revue like those at his old high school. After seeking advice from Andrew Harris, he teamed up with classmate Stephen Gee and grandly called the partnership "Columbia Musical Theatre." The two devised a short series of largely improvised skits, coupled with several songs by Belanoff and M. Tait Fredrickson GS'83. "If we'd done a book show," said Belanoff, "we would have fallen flat."
The production, Columbia Graffiti, was decidedly low-key. Lasting just about an hour, it was performed cabaret-style on rickety risers in the cramped East Wing of Ferris Booth Hall. A single piano provided the music. But on that April night in 1982, the Varsity Show was truly reborn. Sensing momentum, the powers behind Columbia Graffiti went on to do another revue, Fear of Scaffolding, in Faculty House that fall, wryly subtitling their efforts the "Junior Varsity Show."
On Dean's Day 1983, portions of both revues were combined and performed before an appreciative alumni audience, including some surviving members of the Class of 1920. At the behest of their president, Arthur Snyder, a proud "pony" in the original Fly With Me, they decided to donate their class treasury to create a prize fund to perpetuate the shows. In 1984, Belanoff, Gee, Noel Katz C'82, and Alexa Junge BC'86 took the first prize with a show that was, perhaps appropriately, titled The New "U."
It was as unlikely and happy a path to redemption as any Varsity Show plot could have offered.
* * *
In the more than 30 consecutive years of its second act, the Varsity Show has been devoted largely to skewering the more dubious aspects of College life—orientation lectures, the swimming test, unreliable dorm elevators. As usual, the larger themes bespeak the times. The demise of the Berlin Wall, but not of the University bureaucracy, colored Behind the Lion Curtain (1990); political correctness got its comeuppance in The Silence of the Lions (1991).
As the new show found its footing, the producers grew more confident. This was especially true as the 1980’s gave way to the 1990’s.
"We were very determined to restore the show to a central place in the students' consciousness," said Lyle Zimskind C'90, who wore multiple hats as an actor, writer, and director for From Here To Uncertainty (1987), The Bonfire of the Humanities (1988), Sans Souci, Be Happy (1989), and Behind the Lion Curtain. "People would come up to me after the performance and express their real regret that they hadn't been involved in the show. They just hadn't known about it."
So once the College swung into the full throes of coeducation, the Varsity Show progressed from a loosely assembled revue into a unified, full-fledged evening's entertainment, just like in the old days. To make sure that folks noticed, the students employed a publicity apparatus of which Howard Dietz might have approved.
"Matthew Cooper [C'88] would go up to the kids who were riding their tricycles around College Walk and give them a nickel or a piece of candy to yell 'Varsity Show! Varsity Show!'" said Zimskind. "I used to spend every night after rehearsals going around campus putting up posters that would get torn down 10 minutes later."
A big boost came in 1989, when the University refurbished Dodge Hall's dowdy Miller Theatre, transforming it into a major uptown recital space as the Kathryn Bache Miller Theatre. The students grabbed the chance to display their prowess in the state-of-the-art facility, which seated more than 1000. The budget, however, would allow only one weekend's worth of performances in the expensive space. So for most of the 1990's the show would run over two weekends, in both Miller and the more intimate confines of Schapiro Hall's 99-seat black-box theatre.
These extended runs, coupled with burgeoning College rolls and a new undergraduate major in drama and theatre arts, yielded increased professionalism and proficiency. By any definition, the quality of the acting—and especially the dancing!—has risen appreciably. So, too, has the edginess of the humor. Not that long ago, no one would have dared mount a song-and-dance number like 1990's "Logic and Erotic," which assailed profs who sleep with their students.
But some things never change; the fight for love, glory, and a room in Furnald remains eternal. When Saddam Hussein (a.k.a. John Mathews C'93) made a guest appearance in The Silence of the Lions, he was following in the Hitlerian goose steps of Off Your Marx. The 1994 centennial show, Angels at Columbia: Millennium Approaches (the title being a nod to Tony Kushner C'78), dealt with heaven-sent guardians who assist the students who are struggling to write the show itself—not unlike the plot of Saints Alive in 1942.
Like The Sky's The Limit 40 years before, Angels at Columbia was an epic worthy of its special anniversary status. Mocking each era of the University in turn, the show was "written and inspired" by a record 30-odd contributors, directed and choreographed by Francesca Contiguglia C'94, produced by Rita Pietropinto C'93, and scored by Tom Kitt C'95. For the role of God, no one student would have sufficed, so a series of stellar names trod the heavenly boards: former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, ex-New York City Mayor David Dinkins, NBC News notable Jane Pauley, local sportscaster Len Berman, and Dean of Students Roger Lehecka C'67.
It was a major coup for both polytheism and publicity: as in the past, the Varsity Show again made headlines.
* * *
In the years following Angels at Columbia, the Varsity Show has continued to hone the unspoken formula that has propelled it into the 21st century, oscillating between solid book musicals and shows that emphasize sketch comedy, with plenty of room for maneuvering in between.
Perhaps reflecting the campus's unprecedented size and diversity, a recurring theme of late has been the poignant and comic attempts of insecure students to discover just who and what they are. In shows like Devil in a Light Blue Dress (1996), Enlargement and Enhancement: The Scaffolding Years (1997), and Mo' Money, Mo' Problems (2000), the plot has involved the stars assuming different guises to impress their peers, win affection, and otherwise define their identities. Invariably, our heroes and heroines realize they’re better off just being themselves.
Never, though, are things allowed to get too mawkish. To see College Dean Austin Quigley and Alma Mater wagering on dropout rates in Mo' Money, or to witness University President George Rupp selling out the campus to turn it into an MTV reality show in Sex, Lions and Videotape (2001), is to be reminded that for the Varsity Show, little remains sacred.
Meanwhile, numerous traditions, lovingly laid down in decades past, continue to evolve. In the 1930's and 40's, an issue of Jester would double as the show's program, with elaborate cover art drawn by such artists as abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt C'35 and New Yorker cartoonist Chuck Saxon C'40. Beginning with Dial D for Deadline (2003), this joint venture was given a new gloss when the show's playbill was published as an issue of The Blue and White, a student magazine that was itself brought out of mothballs some years ago.
And yes, Virginia, the pony ballet is back! Has been, in fact, on and off, ever since The Bonfire of the Humanities. Though the skirts rarely number more than half a dozen, today's audiences anticipate a drag number with the same glee as they did before the war.
"The ballet was always a definite, mandatory condition to be continued," recalled Laura Pietropinto C'00, an alumna of the shows from Enlargement and Enhancement to Mo' Money. In fact, when the ballet was cut from Sex, Lions and Videotape, reaction was so adverse that it was restored the next year.
New traditions also flourish. Chief among these is Turkey Day, a dry run of the show staged for its alumni. After taking it in, the grizzled veterans offer criticism, suggestions, and other changes (as gently as they can, naturally) to help the students whip things into final shape. Almost invariably, the marathon session ends with at least one grad, usually Noel Katz, cheerfully declaring the show's unofficial motto: "[Expletive] 'em if they can't take a joke."
The opening of Alfred Lerner Hall, the new student center, in 1999 continued a less happy trend—namely, the reliance on a space unsuited to the show's special needs. To properly mount the show in the Roone Arledge Auditorium, the producers must rent bleachers and expensive sound systems.
"It is big to the point of ungainliness," said Will Graham '02, the 2001 and 2002 show director. "Everything on stage is reduced to blobs, which destroys a lot of what more subtle performers do with the bodies and voices." At least, Graham notes, Lerner is an undergrad-friendly space, one that affords the chance for more crucial tech time. And its size has allowed for greater experimentation, like the prominent use of video links in Dial D for Deadline.
But then, where would the Varsity Show be without challenges to overcome? And anyway, the show's physical locale has always been less important than the luminaries who fill it. In that regard, posterity can rest assured; the new generation has already made its mark. Adam Belanoff became a writer/producer of the TV series Wings, Murphy Brown, Cosby, The Closer and Major Crimes; Alexa Junge, who was similarly disposed for five years on Friends, is a four-time Emmy nominee who graduated to The West Wing. Other noteworthy names are:
• Jeanine Tesori BC'83, the Tony-nominated composer of Thoroughly Modern Millie;
• David Rakoff C'86, the late comedic essayist;
• New York Times style reporter Alex Kuczynski BC'90;
• Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti C'92;
• Brian Yorkey C’93 and Tom Kitt C’96, who scored a Pulitzer and a Tony for Next to Normal;
• Saturday Night Live cast members Jenny Slate C’04 and Kate McKinnon C’06;
• and mumblecore film icon Greta Gerwig BC’06.
It is a roster that will surely grow as the years unspool.
* * *
From some recent program notes by Vijay Iyer C'03:
While the Varsity Show may never again regain its 1920s status or transcend the environs of Morningside Heights, these days it draws its very power from its uniquely local aspect. We should be proud of, and remember above all, the staggering amount of time and effort students put in each year to bring off this amazing spectacle—all to preserve a tradition that Columbia can call its own. For unlike the swim test or the Core, students have a choice when it comes to the Varsity Show—and for over a hundred years now, they have decided to make the sacrifice for themselves and to Alma Mater.
How to sum up the extraordinary resilience of the Varsity Show, its hold on the University's imagination, its unique place in the collective consciousness of alumni? This anecdote, told by Lou Garisto, might help. Sometime in the late 1960's, he was scoring a movie—title now forgotten—for which Dick Hyman played keyboard. Time came for the rest of the orchestra to ease off and for Hyman to play alone, for a cocktail-lounge scene.
"He was supposed to play background music," said Garisto. "You know, just noodle around. So he started playing, but there was something familiar about it . . . it was sufficiently recognizable that I thought we were usurping a copyright. I said, 'Dick, you're not supposed to play anything that's been written; we'll have to get permission to use it.'
"He started laughing and said, 'You wrote that, Lou—for the Varsity Show!'"
The melody—and the memory—does indeed linger on.
* * *
Thomas J. Vinciguerra C'85, J'86, GSAS'90 directed, performed, and wrote—in ascending order of competence—portions of the Varsity Shows Columbia Graffiti and Fear of Scaffolding. A founding editor of The Week and a contributor to The New York Times, he is a former editor of Columbia College Today, where a shorter version of this history originally appeared.