On Sunday night, Arts Editor Isa RingswaldEgan attended an exclusive preview screening of Explaining Elizabeth, a movie musical written and directed by Trevor Siegel (CC ‘24), and contributed to by more than 40 other Columbia students.

Entering the Roone Arledge Auditorium, it was clear that everyone involved with and connected with Explaining Elizabeth had bonded during the process. Audience members—which included predominantly cast, crew, friends, and family—sat chatting, laughing, and discussing aspects of the film they were excited to see, as well as sharing stories about the creation process, and catching up on their lives since. The screening began about 40 minutes after doors opened, giving the audience ample time for these conversations.

The film opened with a quote from Jean-Luc Godard: “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” Throughout the course of the film, Siegel paid homage to many of his favorite filmmakers, which ensured the ambitious cinematography, storylines, and score felt clearly informed—and in some ways defined—by film history and its giants like Steven Spielberg, Joe Wright, and Wes Anderson. Siegel even thanked these creatives as well as members of his family in the credits, cementing their influence in this project.

That being said—this was a preview screening, meant to allow contributors to celebrate the project, but also to get feedback from the audience before the film is officially premiered in its final form. That meant that there were some aspects that, understandably, felt unpolished. The Godard quote was written in a font that resembled American Typewriter, a choice which was inconsistent with fonts used later in the film, but which also introduced the film with a more amateur feel than perhaps intended. Additionally, there were some prominent issues with camera focus and stabilization, problems which might have owed to the level of ambition in the camera work. Complicatedly long takes with winding movements were exciting—and the artistic vision of each shot was clear—but had significant technical issues in their execution. 

The story centers around a Columbia student named Erik played by Kieran Lomboy (CC ‘26), who loses his sister Elizabeth, played by Monroe Lemaire (CC ‘23), to suicide while writing a musical. To process the tragedy, he writes the musical to attempt to explain his sister’s death, and in the process, comes to terms with some of the problematic ways in which he conceptualizes the world; he is cruel to his cast, particularly his ex-girlfriend Maria, played by Anja Vasa (BC ‘25), who plays Elizabeth. He also reduces incomprehensibly complex situations down to good vs. bad, incarnated in his idea that he will be able to simply explain or even understand his sister’s death. Over the course of rehearsal and production, Erik realizes some of these flaws. He gives a final speech when the musical is performed that acknowledges the fallibility of his endeavor to explain Elizabeth and his new intention in the play—to remember Elizabeth.

Over the course of the film, each of the performers had moments that really showcased their talents. Vasa’s dramatic acting in particular was a highlight of the film; her subtle and remarkably natural expressions of shame, anger, and concern during the scenes where she was yelled at by Erik brought a true sense of professionalism to the film. Her warm and melodic voice reinforced the stabilizing role that she played in Erik’s life, as well as simply being a joy to listen to. Cindy, played by Rebecca Ho (SoA ‘24), who played Erik’s assistant, had similarly impressive vocals; despite being a bit confused as to why a college student independently devising a show would have a personal assistant, her performance was undeniably skilled.  

Rose, the in-film musical’s choreographer, played by Maya Small, also gave a memorably witty performance. As the brusque and aloof creative of the team, she provided comedic relief and Kubrick stares. Her liberal cursing and sarcastic joking gave the movie a distinctly college feel. In fact, many aspects of the film were uniquely college-y—a feature I always support. It’s pieces like this that remind audiences that a university setting can provide just as good if not better of a backdrop for movies and TV as high school can, despite the latter being so prominent in media. The musical was held in a lecture hall, the cast danced outside of St. Paul’s Chapel, and Erik worked through his creative process while walking around Philosophy lawn. College gives young characters more freedom from the surveillance of parents and school administration (at least in theory) to explore their emotions and experiences. Raunchy wordplay and strong agency stood side by side with moments of striking naivete and loss of control. Especially considering that it was shot on Columbia’s campus, it not only felt distinct to the undergraduate experience but also to the school itself. 

Musically, many of the film’s strongest moments came outside of the lyricized musical numbers. Terry Foley’s (GS ‘24) interpretations of the auditory representation of the subject matter were at many points best expressed without words. Well-timed swells in the music, lamenting high notes, and attention to detail created some of the most successful emotional beats of the production. At other times, the complicated nature of mixing vocals meant the volume and quality shifted less than elegantly in select instances.

Despite its awkward moments, the film’s denouement was strong. Erik leaves during the musical to go process his emotions privately, and reenters after a particularly emotional musical number to the end of the performance. As he opens the doors of the performance space, he sees the audience responding to the story with raucous applause, which gives his emotional journey a sense of closure. 

The film ended to smiles from the audience as the screen read “Explaining Elizabeth—or Remembering Elizabeth.” Overall the sense of accomplishment and creativity achieved by the cast and crew made the film worth it; it was a clear reminder that creation is invaluable for all of us, in whatever form it takes. 

Image via Trevor Siegel.