I’m writing this while the 125thVarsity Show is playing at Columbia. Actually, that’s a little deceptive. They may call it the 125th, but, for many depressing years, school spirit was so low, students couldn’t get it together to mount an original musical comedy satirizing campus life. It’s more accurate to say that the very first one was 125 years ago, a time when collegians put on musicals to raise money to pay for sports teams – hence, “Varsity.”
In roughly twenty years of people having no sense of humor (possibly the Vietnam War’s collateral damage?), including the years I attended, only one or two Varsity Shows were done. This was, to put it mildly, upsetting to me. I knew that Richard Rodgers came to Columbia specifically to write the Varsity Show, and it was Oscar Hammerstein who teamed the freshman up with Lorenz Hart, who’d already graduated. As luck would have it, after I graduated, my friends Adam Belanoff and Stephen Gee called me back to write songs for what would be the Show that ended the drought, The New U. They didn’t have to call far, as I lived just a few blocks away. The previous year, they’d proven they could create an original revue, Fear of Scaffolding, for which I contributed a little. This experience proved we liked each other and could work together.
Or did it? I wrote an eponymous opening number, and Adam and Steve were inspired by it. Adam suggested there be a section in which an individual student claims that he has no fear of scaffolding, that, in fact, it gives him confidence. Then he gets hit over the head by a falling piece of scaffolding. Funny, right?
Consider the reason for the scaffolding, the genesis of the tremendous amount you see all around the city today. Some years earlier, a piece of masonry fell off a Columbia building, killing a Barnard student on the sidewalk below. The city snapped into action, passing a law requiring a close inspection of every building with masonry on it every few years. That’s why most of the scaffolding you see is there: inspectors preventing another fatal tragedy. So, how hysterical would it be to see a student bonked on the head by something falling from the sky? And yet that’s not what the argument was about.
Adam and I disagreed on what style of music was needed for the bonking business. The rest of the number was a minor key rock song, something akin to Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme. I thought the energy of the rock needed to continue throughout the song. Adam thought a switch to a jaunty soft shoe would help the humor land. I wrote two different versions, but the contretemps continued. He liked the soft shoe; I liked my rock.
Meanwhile, Stephen Gee began to think about funny ways to stage the number, and came up with the idea of having people play planks of scaffolding, stumbling downstage like zombies. This notion was so clever, I think the song would have dazzled the audience no matter what genre the falling object section was in. But Adam and I were at such an impasse, he wrote a new title song, with the same premise, with another composer. As he was producer and director, and the other composer was writing the bulk of the score, he was within his rights to yank the thing from me. Did the version of Fear of Scaffolding not written by me work? Why, of course it did. It had that funny Gee (whiz) staging.
Adam’s brilliance as producer, though, was the principal reason the powers-that-were allowed the next Belanoff/Gee epic to be officially designated a Columbia Varsity Show, a round number of years ago. And, this time, they asked me to write all the songs. Meanwhile, friends familiar with the sad case of that opening number asked me how I could bury the hatchet with Adam after such shabby treatment. And here’s the little lesson hidden in this memoir: You bury hatchets in order to get work done. You make a thousand compromises along the way, doing things you swore you’d never do. These are the accommodations one makes to get work produced. Which is usually better than not getting work produced.
(Note, though, that a pair of Varsity Show writers from a later edition, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, just parted company with the bound-for-Broadway musical, Magic Mike. This should not be confused with the Las Vegas sensation, also based on the film, Magic Mike, originally cast by Joy Dewing, who knows a thing or two about sexy men – she’s married to me.)
Our oeuvre, The New U. was a packed-to-the-rafters success. It got the snowball rolling down the hill: There’s been a new Varsity Show every year since. And Adam’s brother saw the show, sized up how the audience was reacting, and decided to bankroll us on our first professional work, On the Brink, the following year. And he turned a profit. So, I’m glad to have buried the hatchet.
All these years later, I consider Adam – now a very successful television writer – just about my closest friend on earth. But I’m now reminded of something very sad. The talented company of The New U. recently lost its third cast member. He played a football player in our show, so of course I remember him as young and virile, cracking up the crowd in a dialogue with Adam about how to attract women. And I wish I could tie up this reminiscence with an O. Henry ending and say that he was killed by a falling piece of masonry while singing a soft shoe number. But no: This wasn’t a funny death at all.