Monday, December 20, 2010

Before They Were Famous: Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, And More

By Nancy Mattoon

Original Poster For The
1955 Columbia Varsity Show.
(All Images Courtesy Of Columbia University Library.)

The Columbia University Archives has mounted a new online exhibit celebrating its annual theatrical production, The Varsity Show. What, you may ask, makes the school play at this New York City campus rate anything more than a Bronx cheer? Well, a few participants over the show's 116 year history went on to make a little noise on Broadway and in Hollywood. Maybe you've heard of some of them, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and I.A.L. Diamond, for example?

Poster For The 1909 Production,
In Newport.

According to the exhibition, The Varsity Show was, "initially conceived as a fundraiser for the University's athletics teams, [but] has grown into Columbia University's oldest performing arts tradition. It is an annual extravaganza that has launched many students on their paths to careers in the arts..." In his autobiography, Musical Stages (1975), Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer Prize-winning (Whew!) composer Richard Rodgers said he entered Columbia only so that he could participate in the show: "Beyond doubt, the Triangle Show at Princeton and the Hasty Pudding Show at Harvard were classier ventures, because Princeton and Harvard were classier schools. But the Varsity Show at Columbia offered a boy like me something no other school in the country could supply: an almost professional production."

Poster For 1921's
You'll Never Know

The Columbia campus is just a stone's throw from New York's theatre district, and the school's savvy students took full advantage of that situation. Alums of the school, who had gone on to professional directing and producing gigs, returned to their alma mater every year to help with the show. And because, amazingly, Columbia did not have a suitable theatrical venue until the 1950's, the play was mounted off-campus at such impressive sites as The Hotel Astor and the Waldorf-Astoria. This not only drew in a crowd of sophisticated theatre-goers who normally wouldn't be caught dead at a school play, but also meant, as Richard Rodgers pointed out,"There were experienced directors, a beautifully equipped stage with good lighting situated in the heart of the Broadway theatre district, and best of all, professional musicians in the pit. Here, certainly, were near-ideal working conditions..."

Original Poster For
1928 Columbia Varsity Show.

So the lack of a campus theatre, combined with an ideal location, made the Columbia's Varsity Show the Broadway equivalent of Schwab's Drug Store. If you wanted to get noticed by those in the know, Columbia was the place to go. This led to a number of beautiful theatrical friendships being formed during the show's productions. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who later wrote Blue Moon, My Funny Valentine, The Lady Is A Tramp, and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, penned their first tunes together for The Varsity Show. And Rodgers later collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein, also worked on the show before teaming up with him on such immortal Broadway hits as Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.

The Show, And The Poster,
Reflected The Austerity During WW II.

But some of the greatest songs in American 20th century music weren't the only major contributions to popular culture to have their roots in The Varsity Show. Famed screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond got his start penning scripts for four Varsity Shows in a row in the late 1930's. His scripts were known for razor sharp wit, even then, though a fellow student recalled, "He never made jokes in his small talk—he saved it all for his writing. He'd sit there—silent, brooding, chain-smoking, his eyes half-closed, never saying a thing...He was a presence, and he wasn't even there." Diamond went on to be present at the writing of scripts for films such as Some Like It Hot (1959), Irma La Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Apartment (1960), for which he won as Oscar.

1923's Art Nouveau Poster For
Half Moon Inn.

And Diamond was far from the only famous writer to cut his teeth on The Varsity Show. Herman Wouk, who became a Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, honed his chops at Columbia before going on to publish The Caine Mutiny (1951), The Winds of War (1971), and War and Remembrance (1978). Another Herman, this one with the surname Mankiewicz, wrote the script for the 1916 Varsity Show, The Peace Pirates, before moving on to the Academy Award-winning screenplay for a little film called Citizen Kane (1941). Twenty years later, The Varsity Show was still a breeding ground for first class theatrical scribes, Emmy and Tony Award Winner Terrence McNally wrote the show in 1960, and 1959's scribbler, Ed Kleban, later wrote the lyrics for a fairly successful musical, A Chorus Line.

1938's Poster For
You've Got Something There.

Believe it or not, this is only a small sampling of the honor roll made up of the participants in Columbia University's annual school play. For a much more detailed history of The Varsity Show, visit its official website, and read a wonderful piece on many more of its famous alums, Sing A Song Of Morningside by Thomas J. Vinciguerra. The Varsity Show continues to be produced at Columbia University every Spring, and who knows what talents may emerge from its collegiate capers to delight and entertain us in Hollywood, on Broadway, or in the publishing world in years to come?

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