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Hello, Follies!

LAW’s annual comedy show: Sarah Palin and a (beastly) Beauty

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On the stage at the LAW auditorium, a dozen men, prance and skip in drag while warbling to the effervescent tune “Belle” from the animated Disney film Beauty and the Beast. There are a few changes to the lyrics, which start out with a reference to the School of Law’s assistant dean for career development:

Here’s Maura Kelly with bad news like always,
The same career advice to sell.
Every morning just the same,
Since the morning that we came
To this second-rate law school…

In the movie, Belle explains the joys of reading during the song’s spoken interludes; in these Follies, LAW’s Belle rhapsodizes about the joys of reading criminal law cases: “I just finished the most wonderful story, about child abduction and toddler rape…”

Welcome to the Legal Follies, BU law students’ annual breather from the paper chase, where almost any subject is fair game for parody. Mixing live comedy skits and videos projected on a screen, the student-produced and -performed Follies have been around since at least the early 1980s, says Josh Cooper, LAW’s associate director for student affairs.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, anyone attempting to find a serious discussion of contracts or constitutional law here will be banished: the Follies are a deliberate holiday from torts and courts, albeit one that still involves backbreaking work, as well as an appreciation for dark and occasionally profane humor and a bent for self-reference. That’s codirector Dan Flaherty (LAW’11) as Belle, acknowledging in the lyrics: “Now it’s ironic that her name means Beauty/She kind of looks like Flaherty.”

This year’s Follies, which ran from February 25-27, included an appearance by Sarah Palin in full-nasal glory, accompanied by a friend: Gunny, the Talking Semi-Automatic Rifle. Another sketch spoofed stressed-out law students and their tension tics during the final minutes of a killer exam—one drops his pants.

While mirth is mandatory, it behooves the audience to have a working knowledge of current events; the 2009 Follies parodied Chief Justice John Roberts’ famously fumbled swearing-in of Barack Obama. On-campus targets are fair game as well; just ask Student Health Services (SHS), which two years ago was the subject of satire when law students made hay out of doctors’ questions about students’ sex lives.

The Follies are open to the public, so writers must thread the needle between zingers that are spot-on without being too inside-baseball. The vehicle to hoped-for hilarity is hyperbole. For example, the “Belle” number found its humor in marrying a bouncy ditty to the “pretty disgusting” content of criminal law coursework, says codirector Christopher Rudy (LAW’11).

The commensurate challenge is staying edgy without being hurtful or offensive, a charge that has dogged some skits in the past. Scriptwriter Jessica Lanier (LAW’13)—who also plays Palin, with an accent to shame Tina Fey—says a few jokes offended “one or two of us” this year and were dropped.

Emmy-award winning TV producer David E. Kelley (LAW’83) honed his scriptwriting chops with the Follies, although he downplayed his schooldays script-sculpting as “only a hobby” in a 1998 interview.

Now, almost three decades after Kelley graduated, a cast of 14, aided by a student band and a backstage crew, are following their famous predecessor’s excursion into diversion. Actors audition in the fall and are required to sing, learn a dance, and act a scene. Veteran cast members from previous Follies select newcomers each year. And the auditions may be just as rigorous as they are for a Broadway show: only 5 of 25 candidates made the cut last autumn, says Rudy.

The journey from fall tryouts to winter curtain-rise is arduous. “For a whole week, we’re here for like five hours a day” for auditions, which are filmed so that veterans can watch them and select the new cast, according to Rudy. The start of spring semester launches a marathon of weekly Monday-through-Thursday writing sessions (cast and band write the skits), videotapings, and rehearsals until opening night. There’s also a weekend brainstorming retreat for the performers; this year’s was at a rented home on Massachusetts’ South Shore last month.

Cast and crew slog on, enjoying the fun of creativity that legal classes, for all their analytical rigor, don’t provide. Follies is the anti–law school—“Thank God,” says Lanier—and Rudy says it has changed his perspective.

“I’ve realized, in comparing what I’ve done here—Follies, which is very important to me, and law school in general—that I need this in my life. I need to always be doing something like this.”

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