This article is part of a special issue looking back at the 2011-12 academic year. Read the rest of the issue here.
Touching on hot-button issues including Occupy Wall Street and the McKinsey report, the 118th incarnation of the Varsity Show expressed the anxieties that many Columbians have about the administration, with a heavy dose of humor.
This year’s Varsity Show portrayed the struggle of classics/philosophy major Phineas (Sean Walsh, CC ’14) to defend the Core Curriculum against the corporate reform efforts of the Center for Career Education Director Niamh (pronounced “Neeeeev”) O’Brien (Rebekah Lowin, CC ’14) and her lackey, Dean James Valentini (Gray Henry, CC ’14). O’Brien, in an effort to enhance post-graduation employment rates, institutes the “Corporate Core,” which inspires Phineas to form a protest coalition under the banner of Alma’s Army, with the help of fellow students Claire (Eleanor Bray, BC ’14) and Lexi (Jenny Singer, BC ’15).
Highlights from the show included the Bwog-riffing “That’s How I Troll,” “The One Percent,” and “Another Epic Day!” Lowin’s solo, “Poor Little Lass,” also stood out, showcasing the opera singer’s classically trained voice.
Lowin, who was in the Varsity Show last year, had not planned on auditioning for V118. But when she heard who was on the creative team, she didn’t need further convincing.
Co-written by John Goodwin, CC ’12, and Jeff Stern, CC ’12, the show featured an original score by Solomon Hoffman, CC ’14, and Tareq Abuissa, CC ’14, and choreography by Adrianna Aguilar, BC ’13. V118 was co-produced by Ben Harris, CC ’14, and Hillary Kritt, BC ’12, and featured a meticulous set executed by art director Stephen Davan, CC ’12.
“When I saw the Varsity Show for the first time, I realized how incredible the experience could be and how it could take a community that is sometimes very cynical and let them laugh at themselves,” Stern said. “For me, it was the best illustration of what the school excels at, which is taking incredibly driven, passionate people and giving them a forum to take their interests and run with them.”
Founded in 1894, the Varsity Show is the oldest performing arts group on campus and has become rooted in the Columbia community. “Roar, Lion, Roar” is even based on a Varsity Show tune.
Perhaps the best-known side of the Varsity Show to the average Columbia student is the sense of mystery before it premieres. The theme, like most other details surrounding the production, isn’t even unveiled until the opening night.
“We do that for the community, so that the audience gets a surprise performance basically—so you get into the room and you don’t know what you’re getting till you get the program. You see the title and as the show goes on, you’re just sort of surprised by what’s going to happen,” Kritt said. “For that reason, and also because the show is always changing. Like literally, we’ve cut numbers like two days ago so we don’t want to tell you guys something that’s not going to be real.”
The Varsity Show team builds its own sense of community by involving its alumni in the creative process. Before opening night, the cast participates in an hours-long ordeal called “Turkey Day.” The annual event assembles V-Show alumni together to review a raw cut of the show. After the performance, the alumni meet with the show’s producers to critique the show. It’s where plot twists and entire characters are debated and occasionally thrown out.
“This year in particular was very constructive,” Harris said. “We had 60 alumni come and we talked for four hours … It’s a really impressive showcase of the Varsity Show community and people come back—one of the people there did a Varsity Show in 1958.”
From Turkey Day onward, the cast is thrown into a whirlwind of practices, often working late into the night and spending hours exclusively with their cast mates.
“Not only is the creative team a second family, but the whole Varsity Show community is, just ’cause of how much time we spend together,” Harris said.
The team’s bonding starts with a pie to the face. The Varsity Show creative team goes to the actors’ dorms to throw pies in their faces to inform them that they made the cut, rather than making them go the conventional route of waiting by a door for a cast list posting.
V118 director and V116 actor Alex Hare, CC ’13, joked that “getting pied in the face is definitely not delicious,” as the creative team just fills the empty pie tins with whipped cream, but it’s still one of the most memorable moments for any cast member—and for many Columbia students, the result was a memorable Varsity Show.
Read the rest of the issue here.