Since 1894, The Varsity Show has brought laughs to Columbia students, faculty, alumni, parents, and Morningside Heights residents by satirizing life at Columbia. With tickets sold out each night at Roone Arledge Auditorium, the shows featured hilarious plots complemented by coordinated choreography and staging, intense lighting, elaborate set design, and a live pit orchestra. This year’s show, however, will be much different.
After postponing in May due to COVID-19, the 126th Annual Varsity Show will be presenting its first-ever digital Varsity Show on Jan. 2 at 8 p.m. The show will be directed by Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21, and co-produced by Antara Agarwal, CC ’20, and Nakiri Gallagher-Cave, CC ’21.
“The show is definitely a time capsule, I would say, of what life was like at Columbia before and what we hope life at Columbia will be like after [the pandemic],” Houdaigui said. “COVID is the one thing that every single Columbia student can rally around and knows that it’s impacting them in different ways, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues at Columbia and things that individuals deal with that are beyond that and continue to exist.”
According to Gallagher-Cave, the core of the show has remained similar to what it was pre-pandemic in terms of its general theme, but many elements of the show have been adapted to fit the humor of the present. Since no scene involves people being physically together in the same room, many of the stage directions or plotlines had to change to accommodate the virtual platform.
“Our hope is that people who are living through this year will find that there are humorous references to what our life and our school life is like now without it being like two hours of the COVID musical, which just sounds like something no one wanted to watch,” Gallagher-Cave said.
For Houdaigui, who is trained as a theater director, the transition to “movie director” required her to rethink how a theater production could work without physically being in a theater. For example, a solo song in a musical could be really powerful in person when there is little else on stage happening, but according to Houdaigui, that doesn’t necessarily translate to an online format since viewers’ attention spans tend to be shorter.
Lead designer Joseph Kurtz, SEAS ’21, saw an opportunity to incorporate animation into the production, so a team of eight “Scribble Squad” artists worked to create art that would accompany the plot. Additionally, many people from the graphics, build, and publicity teams were transferred to the editing team to package each aspect of the show into one cohesive production.
Houdaigui noted that the digital format allowed viewers unfamiliar with Columbia to get a better understanding of the show’s references; The Varsity Show tries to paint a year of life at Columbia but usually must do so on stage with little explanations for certain jokes.
“We’re really trying to market the show to not only the Columbia community but also [to] people who really just want to see some theater right now,” Houdaigui said. The production’s editors added clips of Columbia’s buildings to better connect the plot to the University and to create a more accessible show to viewers across the globe, including first-years, who have never stepped foot on campus.
“Theater is seriously lacking in terms of accessibility and opportunity, so you’re going to be able to see visuals of Columbia that we referenced throughout the show that you literally never would be able to see in the past,” she said.
Houdaigui said that the theater industry’s transition to an online platform has opened more discourse around targeting audiences that have historically had little access to the arts, especially since Broadway tickets can easily exceed $100. Since this year’s Varsity Show will be virtual, Houdaigui believes that the show can reach demographics that had previously not attended Columbia theater productions.
“I think it’s a conversation about accessibility and being able to reach more people, but also having real reckonings with what is actually needed to make a theater production and what isn’t because when you’re given a budget of any size, any kind, then people want to spend it on particular things,” she said. “But [people should] think about how [they] can utilize that money to benefit not only people of color who want to participate in theaters and institutions but also individuals from marginalized backgrounds.”
Yet without the community element of people filing into Roone cheering and laughing alongside one another, The Varsity Show needed a way to nurture that interactive and communal atmosphere. Through virtual chat boxes, viewers will be able to both demonstrate their support for the show’s team and interact with one another during the production. The show will also feature closed captioning so that the production can better reach all audiences.
“In the past, when you’ve had a parent or a family member who lived across the United States—or the world in the case of most of our cast—they would never be able to see the show, and this way, all of them can at the same time. They don’t have to wait four months to see it go up online,” Houdaigui said.
This year’s Varsity Show is also one of the first to feature five class years since a number of graduates from the class of 2020 stayed on board to finish the show. Despite having to move some people around, over 80 members of the original staff of over 110 students continued to work on the production this past fall.
Houdaigui and Gallagher-Cave said that even with time zone differences, the team has maintained its close-knit community. Despite some reservations from alumni, the response among the Columbia community to the show’s move to an online platform has been overwhelmingly positive, according to the team.
“I have not seen any other fully-written and conceived show do what we are attempting to do in the world, which is terrifying and kind of scary but really exciting,” Houdaigui said.
The Varsity Show will be free to all who register to attend in advance of the production. Houdaigui and Gallagher-Cave hope that the show will capture the experiences of students over the past year while remaining accessible.
“We literally make a show about our school to present to our school, and it’s a love letter, and a love letter can be complicated and sometimes feels hard to fully read through because we’re not easy on our love, Columbia, but it’s something that I hope that people want to come to and laugh at themselves a little bit, because we haven’t done that in a really long time,” Houdaigui said.
Editor’s note: Former Arts & Entertainment Editor Abby Rooney is the lyricist for the 127th Varsity Show. She was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.