Yet another big anniversary of yet another of my shows: The New U., which revived the Varsity Show tradition at Columbia. I worry it seems to you, dear reader, that I’m endlessly reliving former glories. But think of it this way: a successful musical springs from a certain set of creative circumstances. I can’t tell you how to go about constructing such an environment for yourself; all I can do is recall the breeding ground that birthed something magical.
It starts with smart people. Very smart people. Columbia only accepted the cream of the crop from a huge pool of applicants world-wide. And then there’s the core curriculum: It was required that we all take the same courses about foundational philosophy, arts and literature. So, we all knew our Socrates from our Sophocles and could joke about certain classics with the confidence that everyone in our audience would understand what we were ribbing. In the opening sequence, I dropped these names: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, B. F. Skinner and Cervantes. (And rhymed them all.)
Perhaps The New U. doesn’t sound like your cup of tea at this point. Understandable, but here’s an example of the importance of knowing your audience. We were collegians entertaining the university community, people who appreciate the odd Alexander Pope reference; there was no reason to believe the show would be seen by any others. The communication with our spectators was proscribed, helpfully: we knew just what we could joke about. Mass entertainment, like a network sitcom hoping to reach millions of viewers, doesn’t have this advantage.
But there was also an advantage we had in common with sitcoms: a large quantity of writers. That TV half-hour you see credited to one person is usually the product of a big boardroom table punching up, contributing jokes and, sometimes, entire scenes. As fate would have it, two of The New U. creators, Alexa Junge and Adam Belanoff, went on to long careers as staff TV writers. So, they continued to have their drafts rewritten by a staff, and were part of the process that improved other people’s scripts. Our modus operandi on The New U. welcomed contributions from the actors themselves. If they could figure out a funnier way of saying something, their version stuck. It seemed to me that Adam’s methodology didn’t involve writing per se, but rather performers improvising and re-improvising until they found the funniest lines. Whether this is the most efficient use of rehearsal time or not, it certainly resulted in hysterical scenes, more hilarious every time they were done.
It would be churlish to pick a favorite out of that cast, but I’ve previously mentioned the late great David Rakoff as a most valuable player. He went on to win all sorts of prestigious awards, publishing wonderfully droll books. His humor was particularly out there and The New U., to its credit, established a framework for many kinds of madness. One number provided an outlet for my Kurt Weill predilection: It depicted the labyrinthine class-registration rigmarole as a Dantean ring of hell, using Brechtian devices, constantly switching back and forth between acerbic dialogue and snatches of song. Writer Alexa Junge, director Stephen Gee and I worked closely together to send up experimental theatre while cracking wise about long lines and pitiless registrars. All of this was done, I must add, with no sets or costumes; a handful of lights on a pole or two. In the years since, the budget for the Varsity Show expanded exponentially. We were given a space but no cash. I vividly remember our little stage being hammered together and placed on a disused cafeteria floor. We had less than a shoestring budget: we had an aglet budget.
Something else that has changed for the better in the decades since. When I describe the moment that stopped the show, you have to think back to a time when some topics went unmentioned in most media. The Sweetest Guy In the Suite was a trio about dorm life that began with Adam wistfully warbling about his inability to impress the girl next door: unrequited love, writ with wit. Then we meet this neighbor, and she’s pining for a different boy on the floor. What was (then) cutting edge about her number is that she’s clearly expressing a sexual desire. (This was uncommon all those years ago; I’m not saying anyone was shocked, but it certainly made people smile.) Finally we meet the object of her affections and he, in turn, is hot for Adam. When this third point in the triangle had its big reveal the audience laughed so hard, the show couldn’t continue. The musical director was Jeanine Tesori (she later composed Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek, Fun Home and Violet) and I distinctly remember her hands lifted from the keys, patiently waiting for the audience to quiet down, to continue. Many years after The New U., I saw the wonderful Maltby & Shire revue, Closer Than Ever and one of its first numbers used the exact same structure and reveal. It garnered a few chuckles.
But then, in a by-students/for-students situation, some of the reaction can be based on people in the audience knowing the performers, personally. Perhaps part of the fun involved folks who knew that the actor playing the gay guy was straight. But the more in-the-know would have recognized that the creative team’s Steve Gee was the inspiration: girls developed crushes on him all the time. Which reminds me that another thing we spoofed could only be made fun of at that time. You see, MTV was a new phenomenon and – I know this is hard to believe – it once showed music videos. We came up with an ambitious scene combining this nascent “art-form” with a pitch for study aids: MTV Cliff Notes.
Does it seem like I’m pinning laurels on myself? I had nothing at all to do with MTV Cliff Notes. But I was the sole creator of a duet, Most Embarrassing Moments, that was chock full of specific punch lines about the Columbia campus. When the performers had polished it to the level that it could be shown to the rest of the company, I found the experience of sharing it so exciting, I could not keep still in my seat (on the floor). I’m probably the only one who remembers that moment. And I guess that’s because I’m recalling a feeling, a particular kind of ecstasy. Get it while you can.