For Some Columbia Graduates, Life Truly is a Cabaret

May 04, 2015

Before they graduate from Columbia’s School of the Arts, M.F.A. students in the theater management and producing  concentration are required to put together a project that has some connection to the University.

As befitting a budding producer, Danielle Gautier, a first-year student in the program, decided to go big on her project. “I got to thinking, `What could I do that would really showcase the Columbia community?’ she said. "I started researching who’s gone here – the composers, the writers, the actors. What I found was that there was more than enough material, so why not use everyone?”

The fruits of her labor culminated March 10 with a production of Columbia University Songbook at 54 Below, a cabaret in midtown Manhattan, featuring songs written by graduates whose works have made theater history and performed by alumni who have gone on to careers as singers and musicians. Two dozen graduates and current students took to the stage, performing works from hit musicals of the 20th century to more recent, student-written Columbia Varsity Shows. An equal number worked behind the scenes as part of the creative team and crew.

“It started as an idea on a piece of paper last September, and the progression into a full-blown performance was amazing,” said Gautier, who raised the money for the show, managed the budget and scheduling, and convinced 54 Below to present it. She worked with director Laura Pietropinto (CC'02) to find Columbia alums who were singers.“It was surreal, getting all these people involved. Nobody said `no’ when we asked them to participate – it was always, ‘What’s the date, and where?'"

Columbia graduates have a long and influential history in musical theater. Songwriters Richard Rodgers (CC 1923) and Lorenz Hart (JRN 1916) wrote their first songs for the University Varsity Show in 1919, and Rodgers later paired up with Oscar Hammerstein (CC 1916) to create such classics as Oklahoma and The Sound of Music. Then there's composer John Kander (GSAS '54), who wrote a dozen musicals, including Cabaret and Chicago, with lyricist Fred Ebb. 

More recently, Tom Kitt (CC’96) and Brian Yorkey (CC’93) met while working on for the 100th Varsity Show in 1996, a partnership that led to their 2009 musical Next to Normal, which won three Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Jeanine Tesori (BC'83) wrote the music for the current Broadway hit Fun Home, which was was just nominated for 12 Tony awards.

Steven Chaikelson (CC ’89, Law/SoA ’93), a Broadway producer who is also a professor at the School of the Arts and head of its producing program, said the requirement that students use Columbia in some way is very broad. “My hope is that the students discover the talent that is all around them at Columbia and create new work,” he said. “The scope of Danielle's project, in reaching out to so many Columbians, past and present, and bringing them together – that was a huge accomplishment.”

Gautier doesn’t get graded on her effort—it simply satisfies the requirement of producing a show. “That was what I intended and what I hoped it would be.” She said it was far more rewarding to her that so many Columbians past and present wanted to be part of the program—and want to do it again next year. “They were proud to be a part of this,” she said. “That’s definitely what made it such a success.”