Several times a week I take my baby daughter to play on the lawns of Columbia University. I shouldn’t let June go by without acknowledging that it’s one of those big anniversaries of my graduation from the college.
Columbia was the place where Oscar Hammerstein introduced Richard Rodgers to Lorenz Hart. These three alums alone would be enough to make me want to go there. The story goes that, as a teen, Rodgers wasn’t particularly interested in musical theatre. Then he attended Columbia’s Varsity Show, the annual student-created musical comedy, and instantly knew this was what he wanted to do. He got to meet the show’s leading lady and blurted out his intention to attend, just so he could write the music to Varsity Shows. Who was that leading lady? In those days, Columbia was a male-only institution and so was the Varsity Show. The leading lady, in drag, was the man Rodgers would collaborate with 25 years later, Oscar Hammerstein.
As years went by, they eventually let women appear in the show, and the writers included lyricist Howard Dietz and a couple of Hermans who didn’t go into musical theatre: Wouk (who wrote about his V-show experience in more than one novel) and Mankiewicz, who’d go on to pen Citizen Kane. When I was applying for college, Mankiewicz’s son was a frequent visitor to our home. He recalled writing a letter to his father, overseas on a film, to report he’d gotten the highest possible score on the Acheivement Test. Herman instantly cabled back “Good thing they didn’t ask you to spell ‘achievement.’”
During the tumultuous sixties, when Columbia led the nation in student riots, they stopped doing The Varsity Show. But, the year I was applying, they’d managed to put one up for the first time in more than a decade. Some recruiter pointed me to a New York Times article about it, assuring me the revue would once again be an annual event. It was a false lie. The years I was at Columbia, they didn’t do Varsity Shows. The unfeeling graduate school spent a boat-load of money on reviving Rodgers & Hart’s 1920 edition, which, to me, was like rubbing salt in a wound. Luckily, the enterprising Adam Belanoff felt just as I did, and began a series of manipulations (read: administration ass-kissing) that led to the permanent restoration. After my graduation, he invited me to contribute to Fear of Scaffolding, and then collaborate on the entire score to The New U.
The New U. also featured writing by Alexa Junge (later a television comedy writer), humorist David Rakoff, and, Stephen Gee, whose actual experiences in a dorm provided fodder for our most successful song and scene. The big punch-line actually stopped the show. The crowd would not stop laughing and musical director Jeanine Tesori had to lift her hands from the piano keyboard to wait for the audience to let her continue. Adam’s oldest brother was heard to utter the magic words: “I bet if you guys did something similar that wasn’t about Columbia, it could run off-Broadway and make some money.”
He meant that literally. He put up the money for us to do a professional commercial musical the following year, and, indeed, turned a profit.
So one of the things I’m saying about Columbia was that meeting smart, talented and destined-to-be-successful people was a particularly valuable part of the experience. Over the years, the college has consistently ranked in the nation’s top ten. Few places are harder to get into. You can just tell that fellow students are going places, even if you never actually shake their hands and say hello. For instance, I’ve no recollection of casting my eyes on this tall, dark and thin guy with an afro, but he was there: Barack Obama.
A school is more than its potential for connectivity, what’s being taught matters greatly. Columbia has something called a core curriculum: a set of classes, on philosophy, literature, music and art. Every student’s required to take them. And, I recall, they were taught in small sections, so we could have a roundtable discussion re whether David Hume could out consume Schopenhauer and Hegel. I majored in English, ostensibly searching for public domain properties I could turn into musicals. I never found a thing, but that’s partly due to my being more fascinated by poetry than prose. It’s fair to say I improved as a lyricist by becoming familiar with the various poetic forms that have been used over time.
During the same four years I was at Columbia, I made weekly excursions to the BMI workshop under Lehman Engel. This had nothing to do with Columbia, but if I’d been stuck in the middle of nowhere (the location of many a great university), I might not have made the trip. Being located in New York is an obvious boon: that art we studied, we actually saw at MOMA, the Guggenheim, and the Met. That music we studied, we’d hear at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. I went across the street to Barnard for a course in urban politics. Yep: we got that.
And I’ll never forget the name of that professor, Fuchs. But I also studied playwriting with Howard Teichmann (The Solid Gold Cadillac) and Arnold Weinstein (The Red Eye of Love). Arnold, who would later write several well-regarded operas with composer William Bolcom, snagged me into something of an apprenticeship, which may or may not have been a good thing. Among some other things, he taught me that a lyricist-librettist could be lazy, disheveled, and live in a very messy abode. On its walls were paintings by his old drinking buddies, and whenever Arnold ran out of money, he’d sell one. I thought it remarkable at the time that an actual grown-up could live this way. Careful the things you do…