The Columbia Songbook: Alumni Making Music


From Rodger & Hammerstein's groundbreaking contributions to musical theater to Vampire Weekend's chart-topping indie rock, Columbians have made an indelible impression on the musical landscape. To highlight the impact they've had, we've compiled a short list of some of Columbia's musical heavy hitters, in order of graduation year.

Oscar Hammerstein II '16CC

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, iconic and influential composers who wrote classics like Oklahoma!, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music, met and began their partnership at Columbia College. Although Rodgers did not graduate, his professional partnership with Hammerstein lasted for more than 15 years.

Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the face of American musical theater by integrating the elements of drama, music, and dance as never before. Their 17-year partnership began in 1943 with Oklahoma! and continued through ten other musicals, including one motion picture (State Fair, 1945) and one teleplay (Cinderella, 1957). In all, the duo won thirty-five Tonys, fifteen Oscars, two Grammys, two Pulitzers, and two Emmys.

Here's the opening song from their first professional collaboration:

Paul Robeson '23LAW

One of the most prominent black Americans of the 1930s and 1940s, Robeson won critical and popular acclaim for his stage and screen roles. It was as a concert singer, however, that he earned his greatest fame, performing a uniquely broad repertoire of spirituals, classical music, world folk songs, and political songs that reflected the struggles of the marginalized and disenfranchised. He was also heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement and was admired for his outspoken opposition to racial and social inequality.

Robeson graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers College, where he was a star four-sport athlete, and enrolled at Columbia Law School in 1920. Persuaded by his wife to take time off from legal studies to act on Broadway and in England, he returned to New York to earn his law degree in 1923. While Robeson was increasingly attracted to the theater, he joined a prestigious law firm; repelled by the racism he encountered, he abandoned legal practice after less than a year for the life of a performing artist. 

Here's Robeson, singing the song that brought his talents into the mainstream:

John Kander '54GSAS

Kander is the musical partner of the songwriting team of Kander and Ebb, who together created at least sixteen Broadway shows, including Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975). They also contributed material to fourteen films and television specials over their forty-year partnership. Independently, Kander supplied the scores to many films, including Something For Everyone (1970), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Places in the Heart (1984), and Billy Bathgate (1991). Together, Kander and Ebb won three Tony Awards, one Emmy, and two Grammys. Both Cabaret and Chicago were eventually made into films; the screen version of Chicago won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Here's Kander (on the piano) and Ebb performing what is arguably their most famous composition: 

Pat Boone '58GS

Boone is an American singer, composer, actor, writer, television personality, motivational speaker, and spokesperson. He was a successful pop singer in the United States during the 1950s and early 1960s. He has sold over 45 million albums, had 38 Top 40 hits, and appeared in more than 12 Hollywood films.

"After I won The Ted Mack Amateur Hour in 1954 and then went pro that same week on The Arthur Godfrey Show, I got signed to Dot Records," Boone told Columbia Magazine in 2008 about ending up at Columbia. "Although I had been studying at North Texas State, I was making constant trips to New York to record. In '55 I had my first million seller, 'Ain't That A Shame,' and my wife, Shirley, and I moved to New Jersey, and in the midst of making records, I enrolled in the School of General Studies."

Boone's cover of this popular 1930s ballad became a major hit for him in 1957:

Art Garfunkel '65CC

Garfunkel originally enrolled at Columbia College in 1960 as an architecture student. He dropped out after one year but reenrolled, earning his bachelor's degree in 1965, with a major in art history. As a member of Columbia's a cappella group, the Kingsmen, he performed at the West End and campus venues. 

It was in 1957 that a teenaged Garfunkel and his friend Paul Simon, calling themselves Tom & Jerry, wrote and recorded a demo, "Hey Schoolgirl," which sold a surprising 150,000 copies. After going their separate ways—Garfunkel to Columbia and Simon to Queens College—they reestablished their joint act in 1964. Over the next six years, Simon & Garfunkel recorded five albums, selling millions of records and racking up 13 top forty hits. The duo has reunited periodically since their 1970 split—first on NBC's Saturday Night Live in 1975 and most recently for the Old Friends tour of 2003-4.

Here's Simon & Garfunkel performing one of their most well-known songs:

Sha Na Na

(Alan Cooper '71CC, Robert Leonard '70CC, '73, '82 GSAS, Jon "Bowzer" Bauman '68CC, Joe Witkin '70CC, Richard Joffe '72CC, '93LAW, Donald York '71CC, David Garrett '70SEAS, Bruce Clarke '74CC, John "Jocko" Marcellino '72CC, Elliot Cahn '70CC, Scott Powell '70CC, Vinnie Taylor (Chris Donald) '71CC, Frederick "Denny" Greene '72CC)

Given the amount of alumni listed above, it's no surprise that Sha Na Na was born out of a Columbia a cappella group. Sha Na Na achieved national recognition after performing at Woodstock, and eventually hosted a syndicated variety series from 1977 to 1981. Sha Na Na also performed in the film Grease as a 1950s band called Johnny Casino and the Gamblers, and contributed substantially to the soundtrack.

In case you need to remember, here's Sha Na Na at their peak:

Laurie Anderson '69BC, '72SOA, '04HON

Mass audiences first encountered Anderson's work with "O Superman," 11 eerie minutes of techno-drone and spoken-word riffing that rose to the top of the British pop music charts in the early 1980s. In the decades that followed, Anderson continued to smudge the line between popular and avant-garde performance. 

She moved to New York City to study art at Barnard College, graduating magna cum laude in 1969; she continued her education in art and sculpture at Columbia University's School of the Arts. The University's urban location put Anderson in close proximity to contemporary conceptual art movements, which formed the context of much of her early work. Anderson has remained connected to Columbia, standing to receive an honorary doctorate in 2005 and teaching Master Classes at the School of the Arts in 2006. Anderson also has remained deeply rooted in the New York City art scene, where her wit and playful use of technology continue to surprise.

Here's that "O Superman" video:

Suzanne Vega '81BC

Vega is "regarded as one of the most brilliant songwriters of her generation," according to her website. She "emerged as a leading figure of the folk-music revival of the early 1980s when, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she sang what has been labeled contemporary folk or neo-folk songs of her own creation in Greenwich Village clubs."

As a Barnard student, she would often play music at the Postcrypt Coffeehouse in the basement of St. Paul's Chapel on Columbia's campus. She even returned to play there in 2004.

Here's the Vega song (about a Morningside Heights institution) that was stuck in everyone's head in the late 80s:

Jeanine Tesori '83BC

In musical theater, an industry where talent and hard work don't always receive rewards or recognition, Jeanine Tesori has garnered both critical acclaim and popular success: her scores for Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center, Thoroughly Modern MillieShrek The MusicalCaroline, or Change, Violet, and Fun Home garnered Tony nominations, with the music for Caroline, or Change earning Drama Desk and Olivier awards. Tesori and her writing partner, Lisa Kron, made history at the 2015 Tony Awards for becoming the first women writing team to win a Tony for a musical score. The two won for their score for Fun Home, which also won the Tony for Best New Musical. 

Here's the Tony Award performance from that musical:

Tom Kitt '96CC and Brian Yorkey '93CC

In 2010, Kitt and Yorkey shared the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the rock musical Next to Normal. Kitt composed the production's music and Yorkey wrote the book and lyrics. Kitt and Yorkey met over a pitcher of beer at The West End while at Columbia College and later collaborated on The Varsity Show. In addition to writing Next to Normal (for which they also won the Tony Award for best original score), they also created the musical, If/Then

Kitt and Yorkey have also experienced success independent of each other. Kitt's many Broadway credits include Green Day"s American Idiot (which won a Tony Award for Best Musical), High FidelityDebbie Does DallasUrban Cowboy, and 13; he also has written music for the Public Theater's New York Shakespeare Festival and TV’s Sesame Street and Dawson’s Creek.  He was composer and music supervisor for the recent Grease: Live! musical.

Yorkey was the associate artistic director, for seven years, at Village Theatre in Issaquah and Everett, WA, which is one of the nation's leading incubators of musicals. Yorkey also wrote the book for Sting's The Last Ship, which appeared on Broadway in 2014.

Here's the Tony Award performance from the show that won Kitt and Yorkey the Pulitzer:

Andy Ross '01SEAS

Andy Ross is OK Go's guitarist, keyboardist, and backing vocalist. While at Columbia, Ross performed with bands Unsacred Hearts and DraculaZombieUSA, before moving on to form the A-Ross Experience. He graduated from the engineering school in 2001 and replaced Andy Duncan in OK Go in 2005. The band is perhaps most known for its jaw-dropping one-take music videos. Anyone who has seen this music video shouldn't be all that surprised by Ross' engineering background.

Here's a gravity-defying video from the band:

Nico Muhly '03CC

As described on his website, Muhly is "a composer of operas, chamber and symphonic works, and sacred music whose influences range from American minimalism to the Anglican choral tradition. Described by The Guardian as 'one of the most celebrated and sought-after classical composers of the last decade,' he is the youngest composer ever commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera."

Ever since his sophomore year at Columbia College, Muhly became a protégé of the prolific American composer, Philip Glass. As reported by The New Yorker, Glass said that he finds in Muhly "a curious ear, a restless listening, and a maker of works. He's doing his own thing." In addition to Glass, Muhly has also collaborated with Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright, Bjork, and many others. 

Here's a world premiere of one of his pieces at The Proms (aka musical paradise):

Vampire Weekend

(Rostam Batmanglij '06CC, Ezra Koenig '06CC, Chris Tomson '06CC, Chris Baio '07CC)

The band members met while enrolled at Columbia College, beginning with a rap collaboration between Koenig and Tomson. The band chose the name "Vampire Weekend" from the title of a short film project Koenig worked on during the summer between freshman and sophomore years in college. They began playing shows around Columbia University, starting with a battle of the bands at Lerner Hall. After graduating from college, the band self-produced their debut album while simultaneously working full-time jobs. Their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.

Here's the official music video for the song that put them on the map:

AJ (aka Kim Jaeseop '16GS)

AJ, who often goes unrecognized on Columbia's campus, is a superstar back home in South Korea as a member of the K-pop band U-KISS.

"The pro is that I can experience the best of both worlds, but the con would be the confusion," AJ told the New York Post in 2014. "I am kind of confused on my identity. But since I chose this life, though it is difficult, I have to deal with it."

Here's one of U-KISS's most popular music videos (Seriously. Check out the YouTube views):

Can't get enough Columbia music? Check out this comprehensive playlist of music by Columbia alumni (and even those who attended Columbia but did not graduate):