When the curtain rises on “The Happy Few,” this year’s freshman musical, audiences will meet a stressed-out and sometimes sordid cast of characters (and stereotypes): exhausted test-takers, Wellesley co-eds on the prowl for rich Harvard husbands, a miserable daughter trying to escape from the clutches of her overbearing father, and a scheming dean, intent on expelling any free spirits from campus. “For just one night,” the frazzled student characters sing in the show’s first number, “Lord let me sing out free from dread.”
Executive producer Rebecca Rubins assures prospective theatergoers that the show is “rambunctious and lighthearted,” but admits that it’s meant to be “provocative” too. “The Happy Few,” Rubins says, explores “college-aged angst, the basic human desire for love, and the ever-present need to fit in.”
“We tried to take ourselves more seriously (than previous producers),” says Rubins. “We really tried to think about what message we were trying to send.”
“The Happy Few” centers on Russ, a freshman who wants to climb to the top of Harvard’s undergraduate social scene. Russ applies to The Cat, the College’s most exclusive – and most notorious – finals club, and convinces his reluctant roommate, Cambridge, to join him. Simultaneously, Russ meets Hal, a homeless man who believes he’s Shakespeare’s Henry V. He also meets and falls in love with Anne, a fellow freshman and daughter of the draconian Dean Caulder. Caulder is the show’s Ahab, obsessed with shutting down The Cat and sending its members to the Administrative Board for punishment. Tensions build when Russ, Cambridge, Anne, and her roommate, Marcie, sneak into a party at The Cat. Dean Caulder breaks up the party and the students are sent to the Ad Board. The show climaxes with a Holyoke Center trial scene.
“There are no bad guys [at the show’s end],” says Rubins. For that matter, there are no really good guys either. Rubins describes the villain, Dean Caulder, as “Exclusive. Racist. He just wants to put [the freshmen] where they belong.” Rubins hopes that by the final scene, however, the audience also sees the dean as someone who honestly believes he’s doing the right thing. Initially, finals clubs are portrayed as an oasis of good times in a rigid academic environment. When the curtain falls, though, they also suffer rebuke for being vapid, sexist, and exclusive.
“The Happy Few” is the collaborative production effort of five different creative talents from the class of 2005: Rubins, co-directors Mathias Crawford and Joey Siesholtz, writer Luke Hedrick, and writer/composer Robbie Pennoyer. Rubins had already been an assistant director on a couple of productions by the time she came to Harvard from Minneapolis. Crawford was both a musician and an actor at his Toronto high school. Siesholtz grew up in Miami, where he immersed himself in theater and popular culture. Hedrick hails from Haines, Alaska, where he followed his father into the town’s vibrant theater scene and acted in 15 different productions. Pennoyer, who grew up in New York City, has a resume that includes high school productions of the “Sound of Music,” “Godspell” and “The Music Man,” as well as a stint with the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus. All five producers have been involved in every stage of the show’s development since work began in September.
“Maybe it sounds insane to say there have been five ‘directors’ in this play,” says co-director Siesholtz. “I’ll just say that [the show] has completely undone my idea of the director as a sort of dictator. Instead I see the position as another team player trying to put on a show.”
“I’m breaking into the world of Harvard theater on several fronts, says Siesholtz. “Producing. Directing. Acting. Like I said, though, the five of us are a team, so it’s natural to see strange things in our production, like Rebecca, the executive producer, doing preliminary blocking for one scene and … Robbie Pennoyer choreographing another. I think, at heart, we’re all just trying to make a good show, and so we all help out in whatever way we can.”
The team also had no qualms about soliciting help from others. Last fall, they invited any classmate with an idea to brainstorm about the show.
“We tried to involve as many people in the freshman class as possible,” says Rubins. “We got a bunch of ideas, from boy bands to getting lost on the T, to President Summers [trapped] in Widener over the weekend.”
Although the show and its producers sound impressive, some in the Harvard community may wonder how freshmen, who have only just come to Cambridge, can write a show about the College.
Rubins was a bit stunned when an upperclassman confronted her with just this concern. The question stayed with her, and she came up with an answer.
“I thought that (the freshman year) is before we fit in, but after we’ve transitioned,” she says. “We haven’t been absorbed entirely into the Harvard fabric, so we’re still able to look at it from the outside. That’s what makes the freshman musical unique.”
“The Happy Few” performances are 8 p.m. April 18-20, Agassiz Theater, 10 Garden St. Tickets are $10 general admission, $5 for students and senior citizens. Call (617) 496-2222.