Almost every year since 1891, members of Princeton’s Triangle Club have presented an original, student-written musical — with a decidedly comic twist. This year’s show, “Night of the Laughing Dead” — at McCarter Theatre Center on Nov. 9 – 11 — is no exception.
“There’s silly humor, tongue-in-cheek, pointed comments, regular jokes,” said Princeton senior Lena Volpe, one of the musical’s performers. “When you combine that with a little bit of drama and scariness and romance, I really think there’s something for everyone.”
Triangle is the oldest collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the country. Past members include actors Jimmy Stewart ’32, Brooke Shields ’87 and Ellie Kemper ’02 and writers F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 (“The Great Gatsby” and three Triangle productions) Lewis Flynn ’90 (“Lysistrata Jones”) and Doug McGrath ’80 (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”).
And while that’s special, former performer/current Triangle Board of Trustees member Hans Kriefall said it’s something else makes Triangle “extraordinary.”
“On Broadway, it takes years and years of development to bring a show to the stage. Triangle pulls it together with six months of writing and seven weeks of rehearsal,” Kriefall said. “And it’s not just cute and funny. It’s something that merits a stage like the McCarter Theatre.”
The Triangle Club is popular not just with its members but students past and present alike, so much so that after the McCarter performances, the club will take the show on the road, performing at alumni event nationwide. For some perspective on its importance, realize that Princeton is a university rich with traditions including eating clubs, Cane Spree and Step Sing.
(If you’re a Princeton student or alum, that last paragraph made sense. To everyone else: Think of that one out-of-ordinary event or club your high school or college had — Skull and Bones at Yale University, Bryn Mawr College’s May Day, Reed College’s Renn Fayre — add centuries of history and multiply by five.)
Volpe referred to “the Triangle effect.” While she’d been involved in drama in high school and once took singing lessons, Triangle performances turn everything up a notch.
“For an audience, it’s such so wonderful to see people onstage who have energy and are really enjoying themselves,” she said. “It’s incredible to harness so many students’ talents in this semi-professional show.”
“Semi-professional” because Triangle hires a professional director and choreographer for the productions. The club built the McCarter Theatre Center in 1929 — in one of its first performances there, a sophomore named James Stewart – and club members work closely with McCarter professionals during productions.
“They’re been wonderful partners. They pull tech professionals to help teach kids how to hang the lights, they take them into their shop to build sets,” Kriefall said. “It’s really a partnership that’s in the DNA of the club.”
The club’s Board helps shepherd each show through its development, which starts a full year before the actual performance with lessons in song and sketch writing.
“There’s really no limit to what the writers might choose to do … We ask questions like how does this theme lends itself to song and dance? What would you big production number be?” Kriefall said. “We’ve done it for 128 years so I’d say we’re getting pretty good at it.”
In 2017, the “Spies School Musical” featured three spy school failures who uncover an air conditioning magnate’s plan to speed up Global Warming so he could make more money. This year’s show centers on a journalist investigating a supposedly haunted house. Songs like “Journalism Is Dead” provide social commentary. Promotional materials ask the eternal question: What happens when a zombie’s foot is kicked high in the air?
The shows are written for a general audience, meaning no insider knowledge of Princeton — or in this case also journalism, zombies and ghosts — is required.
That said, none of the shows has moved on to bigger stages, like off-Broadway or the Great White Way.
Still, some things are too good not to share. The jazz standard “East of the Sun (And West of the Moon” -recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and others, was written by Brooks Bowman ’36 and performed by the club in 1934.
Like many other alums before and after him, Bowman’s Triangle days inspired him to enter the entertainment industry after graduation. His career was cut shot when he was killed in a car accident in 1937 just as he and a writing partner were poised to sign a contract with a New York music publisher.
Kriefall too, followed a career in the performing arts after college, working briefly as a professional dancer on Broadway. He eventually settling down to a career in law.
“I loved it too much,” he joked.
NIGHT OF THE LAUGHING DEAD
McCarter Theatre Center
91 University Place, Princeton
Tickets: $10- 35; sponsorship/premium tickets: $60-250, available online at www.mccarter.org. Nov. 9-11.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Twitter @nataliepompilio. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.
The real scary thing? Missing this show by the Triangle Club