On November 27, the HBS Cabaret brought entertainment to two sold-out audiences, one at 7 p.m. and another at 10:30 p.m., at the American Repertory Theater’s Oberon in Harvard Square. The theme was “Portrait Project” (following on last year’s “Truths Untold”), and as promised in the theme, an array of student performers painted vivid pictures of triumphs and struggles at HBS and in our careers to come.
After the ensemble welcomed the audience to the show, Shannon Wood (MBA ’19) kicked off the solo acts by singing about RC year, sharing lessons for the Class of 2020. The most important? “When Dean Nohria tells you he loves you, you’ve got to believe him.”
Following that uplifting note, Brandon Levin (MBA ’20) portrayed the joy of falling for one’s sectionmate—and the associated peril of humiliation. And thus began the catalogue of extremely divergent experiences that can coexist in the wild and precious lives of HBS students.
The other singers in the Cabaret, all of whom had solos, were Vaibhav Agarwala, Sara Appleton, Amanda Coleman, Camila Diehl, Ariel Finegold, Nicholas Fleming, Dom Furlong, Ellen Thuy Le, Michal Leszczynski, Viet Nguyen, Sarah Peck, Juan Quiroga Ponce, and your reporter. Also performing were Dilan Gomih, who served as master of ceremonies, and Spencer Fertig, who shared his stand-up comedy talents. A team of dancers from Beyond Dance accentuated the pathos of the songs with their choreography.
This year’s Cabaret was directed by Caroline Hunting. Meghan Mahajan was the executive producer. Music was directed by John Swisher, who also played keyboard alongside Steve Smith (bass) and Dan Frascella (drums).
“What I really love about the Cabaret is that it’s such a nice outlet for people to explore their creative side, especially in an environment like HBS where there is, of course, focus on academia and job searching,” said Swisher. “In that context, it’s nice to have this community where you can be creative and celebrate other people’s talents with the rest of the class and your peers.”
On today’s HBS campus, where an entire generation lasts only two years, students might assume that the Cabaret is a long-standing tradition. In fact, though, this year’s Cabaret was only the third.
To understand the history of the Cabaret, the Harbus spoke with Ophelia Chua (MBA ’17) and Raphael Roesler (MBA ’18). Both alumni now work in the theatre business.
The idea for the Cabaret began during the rehearsal process for the HBS Show in the spring of 2016. At that time, the Show was the only annual event in which students could showcase their talents in musical theatre. Chua and Roesler, along with Emily Song (MBA ’17) and Adam Gold (MBA ’17), began brainstorming ways to expand performing opportunities for talent within the student body. The next semester, the team of four turned their vision into reality.
The students behind the first Cabaret, which was performed in November 2016 with the theme “My Secret Identity,” had clear and compelling goals: to build a professional, accessible, and sustainable show with high production value, to create an emotional connection with the audience and a differentiated theatrical experience, and to provide a platform for performers and talents to shine through a hybrid of curated and scripted cohesive storytelling.
But they faced some steep challenges. At that time, the Cabaret was “basically a very quick-and-dirty startup,” Chua said. The creative theme, content, and structure all had to be decided from scratch, as did financing, logistics, and venue relationships. Marketing was difficult because many MBAs did not know what the “product” (a cabaret) actually was. Moreover, the team had to debate where to present the show and how to price tickets. Would students in the HBS bubble really venture off campus to experience a brand-new theatrical concept? And would they spend enough to recover the out-of-pocket investments that the team had made in upfront expenses?
It turned out that the answer to both questions was “yes.” (Regarding the latter, drink revenue from the cash bar at the Oberon did not hurt. “Since we chose to set prices low in order to underline the notion that the event is affordable and intended for the entire community, bar revenue was critical to ensuring that the Cabaret would be sustainable over the longer term,” Roesler explained.)
Though the Cabaret has matured as a concept, two things remain the same. One is that underneath the humor are serious themes—for example, the tradeoffs that many face between building wealth and pursuing a path about which they are passionate, or between slaving away in hopes of a promotion and keeping their soul. As students navigate these challenges, Chua said, “the Cabaret is there to say that you are not alone.” Her hope was that adding the Cabaret in the fall semester would stimulate conversations about these topics earlier in the school year.
The other constant in the three years of Cabaret to date is that the performances are consistently at capacity. Chua suggested that next autumn, the group offer more showtimes on an additional night. She was not in favor of moving to a larger venue, as the Oberon has an intimacy that she described as “magic.”
There should be no such capacity issues in April 2019, when the HBS Show will for the first time ever be performed in Klarman Hall. (To learn more about the newest building on campus, see “Klarman Hall Opens After Years of Planning,” November 2018.) Many of the performers from last month’s Cabaret will be involved in the Show—that is, if they can recover from their late nights at the Oberon in time.
Reflecting on the launch of the Cabaret led Roesler to share some advice for current students. “We highly encourage members of the community to create something new when they find a gap in the market that overlaps with their personal or professional interests! Ophelia (with our support) created Cabaret, and it was one of the most meaningful components of our HBS experience. In my EC year, working with producers and directors Kelly O’Grady and Amira Polack and stage manager Geoffrey Cheung cemented life-long friendships that I treasure greatly. I’m sure that there are many untapped conferences, events, and clubs that would flourish and contribute strongly to the HBS experience of many, and I hope that students will take the critical leap of transforming their ideas into reality.”
Gabriel Ellsworth (MBA ’20) came to HBS from HBS, where he worked for five years as a research associate, most recently as a casewriter with a faculty member in the Strategy Unit. He read English literature as an undergraduate at Yale.