Despite being Columbia’s oldest performing arts tradition and a melodic encapsulation of the school year—as well as the deciding factor in many noteworthy alumni’s decisions to attend this university—the history behind the Varsity Show remains unknown to many students.
Yet another obligatory excursion from the Butler stacks for many students, the show retains its prominence in campus culture because it is truly Columbia-specific. The 123-year tradition is conscientious comedy that summarizes and satirizes the events from Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue and beyond. But it didn't start out that way.
There are multiple issues of Columbia College Today, the college’s alumni magazine, which chronicle one of Columbia’s longest standing traditions. But startlingly, not until Thomas Vinciguerra’s (CC ’85, CJS ’86, GSAS ’90, and former Spectator journalist) warm and nostalgic article “Sing a Song of Morningside” was published in 2004 did a complete and accessible history of the Varsity Show actually exist. But Vinciguerra’s engaging account may be a bit long-winded and personal for the tastes of most students. At roughly 19 single-spaced pages, his jovial and anecdotal story comes to a near complete halt in 1984, when the show was reborn with the sketch-song format it has maintained since.
Students hungry for an even less manageable portion of Varsity Show antiquity can examine its section of archives within Butler’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In addition, they can unearth Vinciguerra’s personal perspectives on how the show’s evolution has commenced with this past weekend’s production of the 123rd Annual Varsity Show: “A Tale of Two Colleges.”
From the beginning, the Varsity Show has aimed to champion the underdog. In 1894, when the Columbia College Musical Society debuted its musical showcase “Joan of Arc” to raise revenue for varsity sports teams, college athletics were the simple underdog. Underfunded and undervalued, Vinciguerra stated in his article that Spectator cited, at the time, the students’ responsibility to put together a theater organization if they wanted to see any support garnered for athletics.
Though 1894’s production induced roaring public success, indecision over the venue meant that no show occurred the following year. Reinvigorated with the popularity of 1896’s “The Buccaneer,” however, the annual musical production had overcome its first of many interruptions and was officially deemed the “Varsity Show” in 1900.
The pattern was set; each year, students created a satirical period piece with contemporary allusions for their peers’ consumption. Although the Broadway-style musical as we know it today did not yet exist, the show was well on its way by the time its original purpose of financially supporting athletics was abandoned.
The Columbia University Players came into being as a progression of the Musical Society in order to produce drama in their own right. “Although the Players were not established until 1906, the history of Columbia College dramatics goes back much further, into the dawn of the last century, paralleling the rise of the college,” recalls a foreward to 1939’s show “Fair Enough,” housed in Butler’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Before such formality, though, the renowned Richard Rodgers, CC 1923, of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lorenz Hart, CC 1918, submitted their script to the Columbia University Players. Oscar Hammerstein II, CC 1916 himself, was on the board that excitedly accepted the proposed songs. The ensuing collaboration, which culminated in 1920’s production “Fly With Me,” represents one of the only communal musical ventures of the three men, arguably the greatest songwriters in Columbia history.
The unusual metric of the show attracted some criticism. Corey Ford, CC 1923 and a reviewer for the Jester, Columbia’s comedy magazine, boasted that he thought even he could do a better job. The writers of the show took him up on his offer, and, rising to the challenge, he submitted the successful “Roar, Lion, Roar,” for the 1923 Varsity Show “Half Moon Inn.” It is doubtful even he could have predicted himself doing so well.
For years, the show remained similar to a Broadway production, performed in Midtown in front of tremendous crowds and even frequently going on tour to cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. An essential fixture of any Varsity Show worth its salt was something called the Pony Ballet, a spirited dance number featuring the company’s biggest, burliest men in feathers, sequins, and skirts.
There was no shortage of men to fulfill these roles, because the Varsity Show did not see its first female cast member until Sue Slough, TC 1936, played the lead in “Off Your Marx” in 1936 to tremendous acclaim. Producers tried again in 1937 to cast women, but the actresses were ultimately booed off the stage, pelted with bananas and pennies by more conservative audience members. Women wouldn’t make it back into a production until 1959’s “Not Fit To Print.”
In 1941, I.A.L. Diamond, CC 1941, became the only man to write four consecutive Varsity Shows. He went on to become an Oscar-winning screenwriter for “Some Like It Hot,” but within in the Columbia community, his devotion to the arts has earned him the distinction of becoming the namesake of the I.A.L. Diamond Award for Achievement in the Arts, awarded each year to an alumnus on the weekend of the Varsity Show.
When the tradition was rekindled following a hiatus due to World War II, it had moved onto campus permanently and with fanfare, as naval cadets marched triumphantly onstage to reenact the Pony Ballet on the show’s 50th anniversary year.
1948’s “The Streets of New York” was revived three times, a tribute to its musical achievement but also to a continual grappling to find originality. Writers felt constrained by the Broadway genre, and the tradition lay dormant for most of the decade following 1962.
After this period of artistic stagnation, “The Great Columbia Riot of ’78” lifted spirits and generated crowds, starring Ed Shockley, CC 1978, the first person of African-American descent to fill such a large role. Though there wasn’t a follow-up in 1979, in 1980, the show was a touching memorial tribute after Rodgers’ death four months earlier.
The Varsity Show as we know it today was proposed by Adam Belanoff, CC 1984, in 1981, but was not performed until 1982 as “Columbia Graffiti,” the pioneer of the current song-to-sketch format.
The Varsity Show’s uninterrupted chronology coincides nicely with the time that women have spent enrolled here. In the years since 1984, the show has become both racier and more structured. With the 1994 centennial, “Angels at Columbia: Centennial Approaches,” the choreographer and producer, both female, collaborated to spoof the collective history of the University with a team of more than 30 writers. And productions are only growing in scale—even if they may never leave Morningside Heights.
Commenting on the relevancy of the show’s lineage as it continues to evolve, Vinciguerra told Spectator that he found recent productions’ focus on student fears of insignificance and unworthiness disconcerting. Several heroes and heroines have grappled with the idea that they don’t quite belong at Columbia—that maybe, countering that letter of acceptance, they aren’t quite good enough. Invariably, though, the protagonist’s fears are refuted and they find themselves embraced by their community. That communal effort is, to many, what the Varsity Show is all about.
Some surprising facets of the musical project, such as the policy of not divulging plot details in advance of the show, are relatively new. When asked to comment on the show’s maintenance of secrecy throughout rehearsals, Vinciguerra said the concept felt alien to him. “We didn’t have resources. We wanted any warm body we could have, and if people didn’t know what we were up to, it was probably because they didn’t care.”
Increased prestige may have been a source of increased privacy, though. In recent years the Varsity Show has produced alumni as marked as Jenny Slate, CC ’04, and Kate McKinnon, CC ’06, both Saturday Night Live cast members.
Kyle Marshall, CC ’17, director of this year’s production, spoke to the show’s general impact as well.
“I think that it’s really shifted not just towards Columbia students but towards Columbia students who have lived through this year on campus, because it really is a flash-in-the-pan experience,” he said. “You can go back and read scripts in Butler or you can watch shows from the past ten years on YouTube, but you really won’t have the experience of sitting in the theater, watching it, knowing what’s happening, and feeling in the moment with all of the people there.”
Readers and audience members may ascertain for themselves where this application to an increasingly niche crowd will take the Varsity Show in years to come, and only the future will tell how it will continue to evolve.