Although you may have thought your class squashed the life out of the famed author of the Iliad and the Odyssey in Lit Hum, the bond between Homer and Columbia lives on. Just ask the façade of Butler Library or better yet: ask the cast and creative team of the 111th Annual Varsity Show.
The student-written and produced musical satire of life at Columbia is known for keeping details about the show a secret until the curtain rises on opening night, but the basic premise of this year's show is out in the open."Homer is returning to Columbia, the school that honors his name" said Jordan Barbour, CC '05. "But I'm not telling why or how."
And Barbour would know better than almost anyone else. A rare four-year veteran of the Varsity Show, he is responsible for bringing the blind Greek poet (back) to life onstage in Lerner Hall next weekend. His is also the face behind the Homer on thefacebook.com, who has over 700 "friends" at Columbia already. The Varsity Show Web site includes a link to Homer's profile on the online social network, presumably with the hope that all of these people will come out to see their buddy Homer narrate this year's original story.
It's not an unrealistic expectation. The show consistently plays to a packed Roone Arledge Auditorium each spring with a cast of some of the best performers on campus. All the members of this year's cast have been involved in the Varsity Show in years past. But this year's production includes a few key differences that the Varsity Show team is eager to showcase.
The most obvious changes are in the structure of the cast. There are eight main cast members, whose parts are equally divided, and a six person Greek chorus.
"The cast is much smaller than last year," director Patrick Young, CC '05, said. "A tight cast reflects really well in the quality of the show. It's such a talented group of performers that everybody shines, and you never get tired of seeing any of them onstage."
Barbour agreed that this year's cast has a better chemistry than any he has worked with before. He emphasized the strong acting, singing, and dancing abilities of all the performers, a talented group with extensive experience in theater and improvisation.
"Everyone can do everything, which makes the show more enjoyable," he said.
Composer Ben Smith, CC '06, "has done great writing music for them," Young said. "The music, writing, and dancing are all amazing," he added, noting that Sarabeth Berman, BC '06 (co-producer with Geo Karapetyan, CC '07), also contributed creatively by choreographing the show.
Young stressed that this year's show is "more than just funny jokes about Columbia." Though it remains close to the sketch comedy tradition that the Varsity Show comes from, Young wanted the show to have a solid, compelling story at its core with characters that people would care about.
"I wanted to make it so that people could see themselves onstage," he said. "I think that people are going to be surprised by this year's show. I hope they respond well."
The Varsity Show writers—Chris Wells, CC '06, Philippa Ainsley, CC '07, and Addison Anderson, CC '07—have tried to maintain this vision through the organic creative process they used to write the script. The show originates with character sketches that the cast then uses to improvise scenes. The writing team culls the best jokes from these interactions and develops them into a coherent storyline.
Input for the final version of the story extends beyond the current year's cast and creative team. Following an annual tradition, this year's group performed the show for Varsity Show alumni at the West End shortly before spring break. Known as "Turkey Day," this preview gives old and new Varsity Show members the chance to discuss what works and what doesn't before the script is finalized.
The result of this collaborative process is a balance between the different comic perspectives and Columbia experiences of CC, SEAS, and BC students.
"This is stuff that everyone's going to get," said Ainsley. "It's representative of our experience here, and a year in review for this campus. You get to see that things that happened here are inherently funny and make fun of the ridiculousness of certain situations."
"It's a great plot [this year] because our school is so heavily based in Western culture," Barbour added. "We get to poke fun at that part of our education."