Directed by Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21 and produced by Antara Agarwal, CC ’20 and Nakiri Gallagher-Cave, CC ’21, the 126th Annual Varsity Show: We Hope This Musical Finds You Well, premiered Saturday, January 2nd. Staff Writers Sydney Contreras and Mary Qiu review the livestream of this long-awaited virtual musical.

The 126th Annual Varsity Show plucked the heartstrings of Columbia students near and far last Saturday evening as it was live-streamed via YouTube to over 1,000 eager viewers. No ordinary musical experience, this edition of the Varsity Show strived to embrace the digital platform and push the bounds of the theatrical experience—a goal that was evident from the outset of the performance. 

Though the musical is adamantly not about quarantine as Director Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21 underscored in an interview with Bwog, the premise that guides the plot is one we all became intimately familiar with this summer: another harebrained scheme from Columbia’s administration to support its students during the pandemic. This time, Josh Lucas, Executive Director of Student Engagement (Wesley Schmidt, CC ’22) and Emily Delman, Assistant Director of Student Engagement (Giuliana Russo, BC ’22) have devised a plan to help both the local businesses of Morningside Heights and financially struggling students by creating a brand ambassadorship contest. 

Portrayed as rival gangs of Columbia, the Columbia Performance Art Collective led by Raindrop (Adam Kluge, CC ’22) and St. A’s led by Sebastian (Erik Larsson, CC ’23) battle it out in a fight against each other and the evils of the ambassadorship contest (viewed by the members of the Hall as “tacky” and the members of the Art Collective as blatantly “consumerist.”)  

In the midst of this mayhem, the show follows AJ (Jackie Chu, BC ’22), an Econ major struggling to climb the social ladder and masquerade as a member of the capital-E Elite by pledging St. A’s. She is supported by her best friend and fellow low-income student, Oliver (Ethan Woo, CC ’20), and her wealthy and manipulative girlfriend (already a member of the Hall herself) Molly (Samantha Seiff, CC ’22). 

Houdaigui noted with pride that the extended production time allowed them to take care in their efforts to reimagine the show rather than rushing through; all of the meticulous time and attention was rewarded tenfold in the impressive final product. 

The team’s creative efforts were evident in every aspect of the production, from the intricate details of the virtual sets to the inventive combination of Zoom-style individual footage with animations headed by lead designer Joseph Kurtz, SEAS ’21. The additional time in quarantine and digital delivery also allowed for the music to be pre-recorded and perfected. The show was filled with unforgettable musical numbers by Composer Ian Yan, CC ’22 and Lyricist Callum Kiser, CC ’21 (performed by all of the incredibly talented Pit Musicians) including the hilarious, “Eat the Rich,” and the tear-jerking, “You’ve Got Time.”

The choreography by Sophie Visscher-Lubinizki, BC/JTS ’21 was also surprisingly cohesive and animated, though much of it had to be modified. In “Eat the Rich” the choreography consisted mostly of hand movements, but the dance-off between St. A’s and the Arts Collective in “Rumble at the St. A’s” included fiery, syncopated, and full-bodied movements. Mimicking the style of the dance battles between the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story, these dance numbers communicated the rival dynamics well and preserved the integrity of the dance elements of a musical. 

The “either completely platonic or totally romantic” interactions between Raindrop and Sebastian were also a consistent highlight of the show, owing largely to the commitment of both Kluge and Larsson, whose portrayals of these caricatures were hilariously accurate. One of the most memorable moments of the musical occurs when Sebastian looks into the camera and asks, “Could a sad person do this?” before transitioning into a seductive dance interlude.

In the story written by Corinne Rabbin-Birnbaum, CC ’20 and Louisa Melcher, CC ’20, protagonist AJ is no doubt the most developed character, and she reminds us that not everyone has the luxury to pursue their passions or be an example of moral righteousness on this campus. “Selling out,” so scorned and shunned, is a means of survival for many low-income students. Sure, AJ is deeply flawed—calculating and even ruthless at times, going behind Oliver’s back to win the brand ambassador competition—but she feels so real. She is an unmasked exposé of our collective inner demon that tells us, time and time again, that reality is cruel, success is limited for the few, and the end justifies the means.

When AJ remarks at the end that, despite hitting her goals, she can’t help but feel that “there is something more out there” beyond the endless race for stability, for respect, for wealth, she strikes a chord with so many of us. Don’t most Columbia students, at some point, wrestle with this tug-of-war between stability and passion, with more agency reserved for students from wealthier backgrounds in this dilemma?

Though the director has adamantly insisted that this show is NOT about the pandemic, the message of taking it slow we see at the end of the play is one that feels so important right now. In a time when many of the usual internships and opportunities have halted, there is an increasing anxiety about not doing enough with the time on our hands, about the perhaps more cutthroat competition coming towards us in a faltering economy, about the general uncertainty of the world. This year’s Varsity Show reminds us to be kinder to our peers and ourselves, to try to understand the difficulties of each other’s circumstances, and to help each other be well and stay well. 

The idea that our campus is cutthroat is not new, nor are the jokes about the Canada Goose and the Moncler jackets, but V126’s graceful navigation of this virtual medium, the convincing and empathetic character of AJ, and the admirable attention to details elevate this familiar plot into a heart-wrenching and hilarious show that tells a story that gets to the true “core” of the Columbia experience.

The 126th Varsity Show, We Hope This Musical Finds You Well is available to stream for free on Youtube.

Editor’s Note: Deputy Arts Editor Adam Kluge was an actor in the 126th Varsity Show. He was not involved in any part of the drafting or editing process for this review.

The cast of the 126th Varsity Show just singing their hearts out via Youtube.