By Martha Wade Steketee
The show starts on the stairs at 54 Below. Twice in the past few weeks, these aural pre-shows have been somber celebrations of great diva lives. On August 16, the soundtrack was Aretha Franklin, whose death earlier in the day had the world reeling. This evening, a recorded live performance by Marin Mazzie entertained the line that filled the stairwell. Mazzie, who died earlier this day at age 57, was beloved by all who love warm sopranos, good acting chops, and big hearts. This night her presence was honored by Harvard and Yale performers of all ages who “rowed for their school” by singing in solo and ensembles in the fourth annual edition of The Harvard-Yale Cantata.
Produced and hosted by Tom Toce, the event has a class reunion feel, with squeals of recognition punctuating the pre-show air. The rules are simple: a regatta’s race of heats with cumulative points is transformed into a cantata’s “heats” inspired by song themes. Each heat is judged, lightly and with humor, by three celebrity judges: Ben Cameron, Bob Stillman and Marcy Heisler. The team allocated a total of 63 points to the two teams (7 heats, 3 points per judge totaling 9 points per heat).
The opening salvo to the crowd from host Tom Toce – “I want a good clean fight, let’s go” – is immediately charmingly ignored in verbal banter. The first theme, “Let’s Misbehave,” begins with a Yale group trash talk number “Anything Can Happen in the Theatre” (Maury Yeston) followed up by smashing solo ballad stylings by Harvard’s Julia Biedry performing “Night and Day” (Cole Porter). The teams genially debated who could claim Porter for the evening (he attended Yale as a undergrad of course and wrote the school fight song, yet he also attended law and music schools at Harvard). Harvard won that fight.
The second heat “Let’s Change the World” led off with another Yale group tune, “The Sexual Harassment Prevention Song,” crafted by the brilliant topical lyric crafter Lauren Mayer, in from San Francisco. “So much news, so little time,” she quipped before leading a team of women through lyrics addressing sexual harassment, resolving with multiple versions of “Or you could hire and promote more women” to cheers and laughs from the crowd. Harvard again offered a solo, “Making a Difference” by the songwriter and lawyer Matt Corriel, that described earnest teens with clipboards prowling for signatures for social issues. “I believe in hope and Yes We Can,” went one delightful lyric.
The judges offered mid-event observations in response to a shout out from the stage. Marcy Heisler quipped that “Yeston was very Cole Porterish” in the first tune, and Ben Cameron admitted that “being an actor, I see how f*cking desperate we are.”
The third heat’s theme “Let’s Not and Say We Did” addressed social themes including global warming (an earnest solo by Harvard grad Jennie Litt) and abortion rights in another Yale ensemble number.
After the third round, the tradition has been that the judges give a mid-event status update – how have the 27 possible points so far been allocated? An inadvertent comedy routine ensued as Ben Cameron, the newest judge, wasn’t quite able to grasp the scoring mechanics. All these Ivy League degrees and arts professionals struggled with basic math – and the crowd loved it. (And I’m a proud Harvard grad so feel entitled to chide my colleagues.)
Round Four (“Why Can’t You Behave?”) provided a Harvard heart-breaking tune by Michael Friedman “What If I Like It?” delivered in luscious duet by Eli Schleider and Brook Sweeney, and one of my favorite lyrics of the evening: “One day you realize there’s another girl inside you.”
Round Five, “Let’s Get Lost,” and Round Six, “Let’s Match Wits” worked a bit harder for humor than some of the others. The final Round Seven, “Let’s Do It” had strong showings from both teams in songs about birth. A Yale duet of Mallory Baysek and Sam Bolen broke our collective hearts, in the best cabaret manner, with Baby’s “What Could be Better” (Richard Maltby and David Shire). Team Harvard wowed the room with the sweet “Closing Time” (Dan Wilson) provided a childbirth twist on the barfly song image: “closing time, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” And the evening’s rousing lovely finale by a combined “Pickup Chorus” was a lovely “One Love” by our host Tom Toce.
While the final score was almost a dead heat (Harvard 30.5 and Yale 32.5), we all won.
The Harvard-Yale Cantata IV played at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on Thursday September 13 at 9:30pm.
Photos: Martha Wade Steketee