46th Pepperdine Songfest is Rousing Success

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Performers pose on stage at Smothers Theater at Pepperdine Saturday during the 46th annual Songfest.

In what can only be described as a mash-up of musical theater, glee club, cheerleading and gymnastics, Songfest at Pepperdine University wrapped up last weekend. Saturday night at Smothers Theater the finale performance was presented to a packed hall—Songfest’s fifth presentation of the week.

Pepperdine’s long tradition of Songfest started back in 1973 with humble beginnings in the school’s cafeteria. It’s become so popular over the years that the 550-seat Smothers Theater has been its home now for decades. Many students, in the show or not, say the musical production is the highlight of the year for student activities. Some even say Songfest is in the DNA of Pepperdine itself.

“Lights, Camera, Songfest!” was the theme for this year’s 46th annual production. A talented group of five student hosts set the tone for the evening with song and dance routines paying tribute to Hollywood and cinema. Four student groups and one faculty group then presented their send-ups of well-loved movies. Along with musical numbers from the films being recreated, some recent hits were included as well. There were also plenty of puns, enthusiasm, clever summer-camp-style staging to make the most use of a limited budget and some truly talented singers who could belt out a tune.

The highlight of the evening by far was a special cameo appearance from beloved Pepperdine University President Andrew Benton. Benton, who recently announced he will step down from his position next year, received a warm, yet spirited round of applause as he made his way from the audience to the stage. The president recited a few lines in the faculty/alumni production of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Cast members recreated the candy lover’s sweets-filled fantasy of a chocolate factory operated by the mysterioso Willy Wonka and his equally enigmatic Oompa Loompas. One small cast member of the production dressed as a diminutive Oompa Loompa was obviously the child of a faculty cast member, adding even more delight to the already lighthearted theatrical experience.

Incredibly, the extravagant production of Songfest is mostly put together in just two weeks. The 100-plus students in the show are given only two weeks split over the Spring Break period to write scripts, choreograph, arrange harmonies, and design sets and costumes. The rehearsals take place from 10 p.m. to midnight. A tight budget is placed on production expenses and time given for each presentation.

One of the shows hosts, Cari Callen, a 21-year-old junior, auditioned back in October and “has not stopped since”—collaborating on writing the skits that tie all of the musical numbers together. 

“It’s really nice,” the San Diego native said, “that Songfest is such a big part of the Pepperdine experience. A lot of our professors are understanding with that. But it’s been a juggling game for sure.” 

The integrated marketing and communications major added, “It’s so much fun. I didn’t know any of the other hosts going into this project and we’ve become really close and I’ve met a lot of new people too.” 

Callen, along with talented co-hosts Andrea Wigginton, Jared Evangelista, Lucas Hutchinson and Miles Ellis, had some musical theater background; however, Ellis, an accounting major, explained, “Songfest makes performing possible for students outside of the performing arts. For most of us it’s just school and Songfest. I gave up half of my senior year for this, but it was so fun.”

Songfest is also judged and each night had some notable names scoring the performances. Sara Vladic is an award-winning filmmaker and, years back, worked as a stunt person on the blockbuster movie “Titanic.” 

“It’s incredible,” Vladic said. “You can see how much enthusiasm there is coming from the kids. They’ve done so well with the time, the money and the resources they have.” Vladic, a Pepperdine alumna and herself a former Songfester, said, “It brings back the same camaraderie. You see this diverse group of people come together to put on something pretty special.”

Malibu City Council Member Lou La Monte, also a director and producer, has been a judge for several years.

“This is the most incredible night at Pepperdine,” La Monte said. “It’s fantastic to get to see these students work so incredibly hard with only two weeks rehearsal and only a couple of hours a night. What they come up with is spectacular.”

Fellow judge, entertainment veteran and local Candace Bowen, said, “I come from the theater so I’m impressed with the little bit of time and hours they spend. Somebody’s Peter Pan in there.”