The Varsity Show: A History Lesson
Written by Bwog Staff
Come April, Columbia is witness to a familiar but slightly strange sight: thousands of students and patrons eagerly line up to fork over their money for a musical theater show. And this all happens in an age when musical theater is about as relevant as a rotary phone. It’s a testament not only to the power of tradition, but to the Varsity Show’s tradition of breaking with tradition. In an old program by the Blue & White, Vijay Iyer charted the impressive history of the Varsity Show. Below, Bwog presents an abridged version, sprinkled with some old- school images we dug up from the library archives. We really enjoyed the preview, and have high expectations for tomorrow’s opening night.
Defying easy categorization, the Varsity Show now hovers somewhere in the gray area between comedic and parodic interpretation of musical theater. But its roots are firmly planted in the song and dance of an era long since past. Paging through one playbill from the show’s early history, you’ll find a cheerful advertisement with a helpful suggestion: “For digestion’s sake, smoke Camels.” Things have certainly changed.
Originally, the Varsity Show was conceived as a fundraiser for Columbia’s athletic program. The first show, “Joan of Arc,” premiered in 1894 with an all-male cast. In its heyday, Varsity Show was a bona fide New York event: it boasted lavishly decorated sets, was staged at venues like the Waldorf-Astoria, and was even covered in the New York Times. And there was plenty to write about—including the work of such luminaries as Richard Rodgers C’23, Oscar Hammerstein C’16, Lorenz Hart, C’18, and Herman Wouk, C’34.
A snapshot of the more than hundred-year span of shows reveals a succession of themes broadly reflective of their respective eras. Varsity shows at the turn of the century recreated lavish exoticized—one might even say Orientalized—visions of the East. “The Buccaneers,” the swashbuckling tale of 1896, was followed in short order by “Cleopatra,” “The Khan of Kathan,” “Made in India” and “The Mysterious Miss Apache.” Starting in 1920 the show moved toward a brand of somewhat more serious humor. Featuring a score by the formidable trio of Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart, “Fly With Me” was a send-up of the Bolshevik Revolution. The widely praised production began a trend of political satire Vshows. In 1923, Corey Ford penned one of the most famous shows, “Half-Moon Inn,” based on characters from Washington Irving’s Sketch-Book, more broadly attacking the anti-intellectualism prevalent in America following World War I. The now eminent (103 year old!) historian, Jacques Barzun, C ’27, continued the tradition with a lofty script for 1928’s “Zuleika, or the Sultan Insulted.”
For 1929’s “Oh Hector!” an all-male cast re-enacted scenes from the Iliad and the Aeneid, with beefy athletes playing the roles of Andromache, Cassandra and (gasp) Helen. One glance and the audience realized this wasn’t “the face that set sail a thousand ships.” Far from it— in fact by this time, the Varsity Show had become famous for the “Pony Ballet,” a group of Lion gridiron’s finest ferociously rouged and tucked into ill-fitting dresses, who provided a raucous finale for the night’s festivities. But in 1936, the New York Times reported the scandalous rumor that “Columbia’s Varsity Show has dropped the 50-year tradition of young huskies in skirts.” Instead, as the follow-up story explained, the show “furnished a rough initiation for the Barnard belles.” The production, “Off Your Marx,” was an incisive critique of fascism, featuring appearances by Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler—mediated by Alma Mater, no less. Still, the big story was “leading lady Sue Clough” and the cast of beauties. During one performance, boys, began chanting “We want girls!” prompting two elderly ladies to leave the theater with the comment that “Columbia students are a bunch of hoodlums.” Vshow dropped the ladies, and they wouldn’t return to the show until 1956.
In the fifties, the powerfully titled “Dead to Rights” was a black comedy about the anti-communist crusade that led to McCarthyism. Even in such a dark time for the country and the university, the Varsity Show made light of the foibles of respected individuals, from professors on campus to venerable U.S. Senators. Reflecting the tenor of the times, the Varsity Show took on a more playful—even ribald tone in the 1960s. 1966 saw “The Bawd’s Opera,” a play on British sensibilities, appropriate featuring characters with names out of a James Bond movie: Ned Kisswell, Rob Ravisham, Clarissa Harlotte, Sarah Sleazy and Fanny Lounger.
Although by this time many had come to expect the cyclical level of student interest in staging the Varsity Show, with its original impetus long forgotten and the glamor of the Waldorf-Astoria years faded away, few expected the twelve year interlude between 1966 and 1978. The somber mood prevailing after the events of 1968, the collapse of American involvement in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal likely played a role in the lapse. Before, these events might have furnished a successful show, but for whatever reason, the Varsity Show almost died.
Adam Belanoff revived the show in 1983 with his concept of theater based on improvisation, and a much greater comedic focus on the Columbia community itself. While the Vshow may never 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 to themselves and to Alma Mater.