Wikipedia calls Hasty Pudding “a theatrical student society at Harvard University, known for its burlesque cross-dressing musicals.” They were described by John Wheelwright in 1897 as “a kindly association of men of all ages in a gay evening of simple enjoyment.”
The meaning of “gay” has changed a bit since then. Hasty Pudding has not.
Presented annually since 1844 — except during 3 war years — the comedy productions still feature exactly 12 male performers (6 play men; the other 6 play women). There is a live pit orchestra, but no computers or synthesizers. The plots are silly, the jokes crude, the production values low, the puns anachronistic and sophomoric.
But it worked for Hasty Pudding members of yore like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Randolph Hearst, Alan Jay Learner and Jack Lemmon.
And writing the Hasty Pudding show helped launch the careers of — more recently — comedian Mo Rocca, librettist Mark O’Donnell (“Hairspray”), and Rashida Jones (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” “Boston Public”).
Petey Menz hopes some of that magic fairy dust rubs off on him.
The 2011 Staples graduate is co-writing the 2015 Hasty Pudding show. In a rare exhibition of burlesque cross-dressing musical genius, he also helped pen last year’s production.
The 2nd and 3rd times were the charm for Petey and his freshman roommates. They entered the writing competition as a lark that 1st year. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he recalls. “But it was fun.”
Harvard students are smart. So Petey and his pals figured out what they needed to do to succeed. In the summer of 2013 they were chosen to write the 2014 show. Last year, they were picked again.
Yeah, it takes that long to write — then produce — the show.
It’s not your average theatrical production. There are 30 or so dates in Cambridge (this year’s opening is February 6). Then it goes on the road, for more performances in New York and (I”m sure there’s a reason for this) Bermuda.
“There’s a lot of spitballing in the beginning,” Petey says of the writing process. (The term refers to brainstorming, not the juvenile game that may seem appropriate to a Hasty Pudding production.)
Eventually, Petey’s team came up with the settings: Victorian England last year, medieval Spain this time. Then they had to create scenes (making sure each character had equal stage time — another tradition), write lyrics, and make sure it was all appropriately sophomorically funny.
The bulk of the work is done during the summer. Because Petey and his co-writers were all in different places, they communicated via Skype and Google Hangouts. (I don’t think that’s the way it was done in 1844.)
It’s a “self-consciously antique form of theater,” Petey admits. “This is one of the last institutions in the world to do theatrical drag shows. But it’s fun to to beef up what started as a skeletal scene, and it’s rewarding to see that jokes you’ve fine-tuned actually get laughs.”
Petey hopes his 2 years as a Hasty Pudding collaborator will help get him a writing job after he graduates this spring. He’s got a joint concentration in English and art history. [Insert your own finding-a-job joke here.]