HMS and the Tiebreaker Tournament

107th annual Second-Year Show delights with song, dance, parody

The cast of the 2013 Second Year Show takes a bow. Image: John Soares

It’s hard being a wizard ... at physiology.

That’s one of the lessons Harvard Medical School student Carey Trotter (played by Derek Stenquist) learns while trying to navigate his first year at the School, alongside newfound friends Schmermione Langer (Nicole de Paz) and John Keasley (Daniel Brein) in the 2013 performance of the Second-Year Show, entitled “HMS and the Tie-Breaker Tournament.”

Now in its 107th year, the show, put on by students in their second year at HMS and Harvard School of Dental Medicine, parodies faculty members, the School and the medical education community through song, dance and popular culture references.

In this year's show, loosely based on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one HMS student must compete against students from Stanford and Johns Hopkins to prove that HMS deserves to remain the #1-ranked medical school in the U.S.

The news that HMS might lose its “10,000-year-old” first-place standing due to an anonymous whistleblower breaks on the first day of classes, causing HMS Dean Jeffrey Flier, played by Chijioke Nze, to cut short a song-and-dance introduction and convene an emergency staff meeting.

Humorous squabbling ensues amongst the faculty about whether one of their own betrayed them, before they get down to debating the best ways to train their student champion.

All the familiar faculty characters were once again subject to the students’ comic interpretations this year, including Kate Treadway, the Gerald S. Foster Academy Associate Professor of Medicine; Dean for Students Nancy Oriol; Richard Schwartzstein, the Ellen and Melvin Gordon Professor of Medical Education; and Randy King, the Harry C. McKenzie Professor of Cell Biology.

Overall, the production, co-directed and co-written by Flier’s daughter Lydia, toned down some of the edginess that piqued critics of past shows.

“I think we did a good job of making things funny without being malicious,” said Ariana Metchik-Gaddis, another of the show’s four head writers. “In general, we really like our professors and our community, and we tried to poke fun at things that are universally ridiculous.”

One standout routine in the first act, for example, didn’t lampoon HMS faculty but transformed “The Cell Block Tango” from the Broadway musical Chicago into “The Longwood Tango.” The song featured pathologically overachieving students calling themselves “gunners” who confess, without much remorse, to the crimes they committed to get ahead of their classmates, from booby-trapping a cadaver to blackmailing Paul Farmer, the well-known Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine.

Dressed in provocative red and black cabaret outfits and dancing around folding chairs, they sang:

You call it gunning
You call it gunning
You say ambition is to blame
But if you’d been here
With all these GUNNERS
I betcha you would have done the same!

Lighthearted caricatures included Professor of Genetics David Altshuler (Chris Henderson) and Concordia Professor of Pediatrics Joel Hirschhorn (Scott Elman), performing a scant minute of The Who’s “See Me, Feel Me” in falsetto before a disturbed Dean Flier puts a stop to it. In a running gag, Altshuler constantly interrupts Hirshhorn.

Meanwhile, Oriol’s character (Margaret Soroka) wields a pistol, and Scholars in Medicine administrators Kari Hannibal (Ariana Metchik-Gaddis) and Patricia Johnson (Eddie Grom) deliver “News You Can Use” in an irreverent video "newscast."

The other highlight of the first act was a montage of actual video clips of Lecturer on Cell Biology Cindi McDermott and Clinical Instructor in Radiology Tracy Van Houten lecturing, with the video played at half-speed to simulate what happens after one of the play’s characters slips them peyote. The audience, including a contingent of first- and second-year HMS students, laughed loudly enough to drown out many of the lines.

“This was one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been coming for a long time,” said the real McDermott, who could be seen wiping away tears of laughter after the video ended.

“There were excellent jokes, and they didn’t rely on shock value. I don’t remember the last time I’ve laughed that hard,” she said.

“This year’s show was one of the best because it’s good-humored,” agreed Schwartzstein, director of the HMS Academy, who attended the first night’s performance. He said he participated in a Second-Year Show himself as a student in 1976.

Schwartzstein’s magnanimity was all the more noteworthy given that his onstage counterpart, played by an excellent Ben Brush, seemed to be as much of a villain as the play was going to deliver.

After the class survives a semester of fascia-filled anatomy lab, disastrous patient interviews, dental school parties and endless petitions, the big day arrives when the HMS champion will be selected to defend the School’s honor in the Tie-Breaker Tournament. When the Dean announces that he will choose by picking a name at random from the Goblet of Flier, however, the students erupt in protest. Oriol draws her gun to quiet the crowd, and Carey jumps in front of it—thus becoming the champion for his display of bravery.

A stressed-out Carey soon finds himself caught between the teaching philosophies of Schwartzstein, who swears by concept maps and dedicated effort (“If you don’t want to die, you’re not working hard enough,” he advises Carey), and Randy King (Will Lewis), who extols the virtues of shortcuts.

“Bullet points are where it’s at! You’ve got to skip a concept or two,” the King character sings in a parody of “(You’ve Got To) Pick a Pocket or Two” from the musical Oliver!

Getting into the spirit, Carey replies, “Human hearts go thump, thump, thump—I can skip a concept or two.”

That might not be the best method, though. The night before the Tie-breaker Tournament, Schmermione and John discover that by following King’s advice, Carey has learned almost nothing about physiology.

Carey demonstrates what he knows by playing a music video “cheat sheet” that King made him called “What Does The Spleen Do?” In this uproarious tribute to Ylvis’ “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?),” students sing about vestigial organs in Auto-Tune. Richard Ngo, who choreographed the dances in the video, steals the show in a spleen costume.

“You might as well be studying from a coloring book,” says John when it’s over.  

“A coloring book would be more accurate,” moans Schmermione.

Using free food as bait, the friends convince HMS, HST and HSDM students to join forces to help Carey cram for the tournament.

The next day, the tournament host (Brandon Kappy) introduces the champions from Hopkins (Marguerite Basilico playing an overachieving Type-A) and Stanford (Chris Kearney as a laconic surfer dude)—Yale (Gigi Gomez) was not invited—and announces the challenge: Each student must conduct a patient interview, arriving at a correct diagnosis while expressing empathy.

The twist? They’re forbidden from saying, “That must be hard for you.”

Underdog Carey is the only one to correctly diagnose his patient, thanks to his friends’ tutoring and his natural talent for human connection. But wait—a drug test disqualifies him.

It turns out that Atrium Café barista Franceny Bedoya (Kai Qui), with administrator permission, has been feeding HMS students and faculty cookies laced with Adderall.

Oriol quickly brandishes her gun and claims she prescribed it to Carey, and HMS wrenches its title back.

On his way off the stage, the tournament host thanks none other than Randy King for having sent in the tip about why the School should lose its status. The faculty reacts with shock, and King delivers a speech about how he hates teaching and deliberately tried to undermine Carey. When the dean of Stanford, where King was planning to transfer, appears to say that the offer has been rescinded, King comes crawling back to Dean Flier, but the dean will have none of it.

King is carried off in the Family Van, and a dour Schwartzstein, whom the dean fired earlier for not going easy on Carey, is welcomed back into the fold. Schmermione and John find love through dental research to the tune of “Secretly Geeky” (a riff on “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors), and all is well in Longwood.

The show ended with a reprise of an original song, “Greatest School in the Country,” concluding with the line, “We’re all gonna fail the boards!”

The show ran nearly three hours, and included 13 songs and several videos.

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed here when you see people already studying hard-core for an exam in April. This show provides a perfect opportunity for people to stay sane in the medical school environment and express ourselves creatively,” said executive producer Justin Partridge.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in things right now and say if we don’t get every single thing down 100 percent we’re failures,” added Lydia Flier. “But two, three, five, 20 years from now, people won’t remember their board scores. They won’t remember what they went through studying-wise. They’ll remember being part of the second-year show. It’s Ben Brush as Richard Schwartzstein, Will Lewis as Randy King, Nicole de Paz as Schmermione Langer that people will be talking about.”

2013 Second-Year Show

Photo Gallery

2013 Second-Year Show

The 107th annual Second-Year Show at Harvard Medical School parodied faculty members, the School and the medical education community through song, dance and popular culture references.

View the photo gallery