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It’s a Harbie World

The cast and crew of Harbie reflect on putting together the 51st annual HBS show.

Every year students and partners participate in the time-honored tradition of putting on the HBS Show, a satirical musical about the MBA experience. Typically based on a popular movie or musical, the script and lyrics use this IP only as an inspiration, writing an entirely new story from scratch, with original characters and musical numbers (to the tune of well-known songs), filled to the brim with jokes poking fun at HBS. This year’s Show theme was the Barbie movie (2023). The production successfully expanded the scope and scale of the Show’s 51 year run: more musical numbers, detailed choreography, coherency and complexity of plot, and a complete lack of fear in pushing the boundaries of what could be said on stage. 

While the Show took inspiration from the Barbie movie, including scenes with direct parallels (i.e. party and beach scenes) as well as musical numbers such as “Harbie Girl'' and “I’m Just Ken,” the musical took a left turn from its source material. Not only are there several different characters, but the story also attempts to tackle the generative AI revolution. The plot follows Protagonist Harbie and her partner Struggling Partner Ken (played by EC Partner Mary Gardener and David Clossey (MBA ’24), respectively) in Harbieland. Each Harbie Doll is assigned a real-world career by the Case Protagonist Development department (CPD), but must never question the status quo. However, Protagonist soon discovers that Matt-ell (played by Jessie Shaw, RC Partner) plans to replace all Harbies with higher-performing AI replicas, in an effort to create better protagonists and sell more cases for HBS. So, she and a gang of friends venture to the real world to learn the “art of business” skills necessary to prove they are not obsolete compared to HarbAI. Along the way they learn a lot about business, relationships, and humanity as they begin to question who they are beyond the hyper-constructed world of Harbieland. 

The Show seemed to have struck a chord in the psyche of HBS students. Whether an Instagram story with the caption, “Making us remember the important things,” or a cast member sharing that at a recent dinner party, “everyone has been talking about the Show for the last hour…people are quoting jokes, song lyrics, referencing dance moves, and even asking everyone which Ken and Harbie they think they’re most like,” the Show was clearly memorable. An audience member and close friend of the author says, “it’s more than just Barbie at HBS…the plot was really ambitious, and it paid off.” Even chair of the MBA program, Matt Weinzierl, says that this year’s Show was “creative, thought-provoking, and hilarious… speaking both to what makes our HBS community strong, even in the face of real challenges, and to what it truly takes to become a leader who makes a difference in the world.”

The world of the Show featured several familiar characters and situations MBA students find at HBS, taken to a hyperbolic extreme that did not hold any punches in reflecting back the absurdities of this experience we’ve become all too accustomed to. No one was safe from critique (even the Harbus, which got a spicy shout-out to which we don’t need to respond in print). The various Harbie and Ken doll caricatures hit close to home for many in the audience, despite their obvious exaggeration: climate tech Harbie, spiritually empty ex-consultant Harbies, ex-investor KKRbie turned yoga-aware Goop Harbie, Newly Cool Harbie desperately seeking social status, Global Citizen Harbie putting up four flags for Flag Day, and Long Distance Ken who lives on the Amtrak. Even Oppenharbie (played by Alex Osborne, MBA ’25), came to embody the burnout tech founder trope despite initially being included as a minor character nodding to the Barbenheimer phenomenon of last summer. The Show also directly confronted some of the issues in which HBS and Harvard at large have been embroiled over the last year, including controversies related to academic dishonesty by faculty members and critiques around free speech on Harvard’s campus. Perhaps most importantly, the Show also covered familiar emotional territory for HBS students, including such topics as how to live up to their full potential, or find true friends, but the emotional question at the heart of the story was about how to find the right long-term partner. With three couples as the central characters, each provided a different perspective on how to make relationships with a partner work at business school. “It’s a good reminder to remember to value the partners as equally as the students…it can feel incredibly isolating to be a partner at HBS,” says Tricia Peralta (MBA ’24), who played KKRbie. 

Several memorable musical numbers punctuated the Show. “The lyrics, singing, and choreography in these were just flawless. And they embody the ups and downs of the Show’s emotional journey,” says Michelle Okereke (MBA ’24), the Show’s Executive Producer. Several songs were cited as the audience’s and Show team’s favorites, including: “Harvard Style,” a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Style” about the experience of feeling isolated as a partner; “Army,” a cover of “Shallow” from A Star is Born sang by Alana Hinkston (MBA ’24) and Stephen McGarvey (MBA ’24) about the experience of being a veteran at HBS; and “Exceptional,” a cover of “Wrecking Ball” sung by Gardener (the star of the Show) about her renewed sense of individual agency and emotional truth that her relationship with Ken must end. However, the most often cited favorite was “Sheep,” a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” belted out with vulnerability and sincerity by Peralta. The song’s raw, honest lyrics, “I’m a sheep, a fake hardo” and the heavy metal chorus consistently brought down the audience’s guard on all three nights, just 15 minutes into the Show, generating deep, hard laughs as well as a few tears. “It’s the first time the audience realizes the Show has real depth and is more than just a bunch of jokes about HBS, and I think the song resonates with a lot of students,” says Daniel Silberwasser (MBA ’24), head writer of the Show. 

Making the Show was an absolute blast for everyone involved. One word that consistently came up over and over again when asking the cast and crew about their experience working on the Show: community. “The best part of working on Show is working with everyone in it! The enthusiasm and energy people bring to the Show is really special,” says Michelle Luo (MBA ’24), Executive Director of this year’s Show. She continues, “I love how passionate people are about it. Across all performers (actors, band, and dancers), people have brought lots of great and unique ideas to the table which have all come together to make the Show the fantastic result that it is.” Polina Skladneva (MBA ’25), a key dancer in the Show, shares a similar sentiment, saying, “as an RC, this is the only club where I genuinely made close EC and partner friends.” Peralta added, “never have I seen a group outside of Section that’s so willing to cheer each other on, so readily high five one another or give each other a hug … to be constantly inspired by how warm everyone is or how much heart and passion they put into the Show despite everything else going on in their lives.” Few clubs have such warm words said about those involved.

The standard of excellence was extremely high, though that shouldn’t come as a surprise for a production put on by type-A HBS students. Those involved found it refreshing to see how committed everyone was to an excellent end product, and how intrinsically fulfilling it was to work on. “As a cast and crew, we definitely get really buried in it, so it’s incredibly rewarding to finally share it with friends, families, and professors and entertain them,” says Luo. Okereke added, “it was really rewarding to see the creativity and hard work that goes into every step of the process, and seeing it all come together. Everyone was firing on all cylinders...this year’s Show took it to the next level.”

I should disclose at this point that I was a member of the writing team and band this year, and on the producing side last year, and share the exact same sentiment as the rest of the team (which perhaps biases my reporting). The experience of working on the Show all the way from initial concept to final execution was deeply enriching. Monday night writing meetings during my first semester were a reprieve for our close team of nine writers, each from a diverse set of backgrounds and circumstances. Yes, there was endless brainstorming on plot ideas and many jokes were cracked (some which will never be repeated outside that room). But often these late-night working sessions evolved into deeper discussions about our core values, the ways our experiences shaped our worldviews, and the human experience at HBS – much of which made it into the Show’s DNA. Silberwasser expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “it’s an incredibly creative and funny and diverse group of people that I feel lucky to have met and worked with, and we now have this special bond from the shared experience of writing this Show and seeing it come to life.”

When asking the cast, crew, and audience about what they thought the Show was trying to say about HBS, many different and even contradictory perspectives surfaced, but all clearly saw that the Show was trying to do something more than do more than make jokes at the school’s expense. “This year’s Show doesn’t hold back on critiquing HBS as an institution. But more than that, it is also a celebration of the human spirit…to embrace the fullness of your humanity,” says Okereke. Others echoed this idea, sharing that “the Show reminds us that there’s no one true definition of success. Truly what makes each of us exceptional is staying true to ourselves,” and that “I really think it holds HBS accountable.”  Even the writers are not all aligned on what the Show was trying to say. “I think the Show tries to highlight the questions HBS students are facing… I don’t think it gives any answers but at its best it conveys the joy and anguish of trying to find them,” says Silberwasser.

After getting to see the Show grow from a half-baked idea to a full-fledged musical with 1,500+ unique audience members, I am going to politely disagree with my writing partner and offer the perspective that the Show does have a specific viewpoint. My belief is that it attempts to interrogate HBS’s mission: educating leaders who make a difference in the world. But what is the education we’re getting? And what does it mean to make a difference in the world? The story provides an answer to this question by saying that being a leader means not compromising one’s integrity for personal gain. That if we abandon the unique core parts of who we are, we lose our humanity. This is where the use of AI in the story is a bit of a red herring. Yes, GenAI is topically relevant in the ways it’s radically transforming the economy and HBS, stoking the fear of a post-apocalyptic “rise of the robots” that threaten to replace all our MBA jobs. These fears are valid. But the HarbAIs aren’t just addressing an economic danger; they’re surfacing a spiritual danger. They show what happens when MBA students become coldly and rationally focused only on excellence, performance, and status, and how HBS risks its integrity as an institution if it only prioritizes values of exceptionality in its students over cultivating the completeness of their humanity. 

Being exceptional is more than maximizing our personal gain while minimizing risk. It’s about being unafraid to hold on to the truest versions of who we are, even when it’s incredibly challenging to do so. In doing so, we can find a way to use our gifts to make a difference in the world, according to our own internal scorecard. “Doing the right thing even if it doesn’t always work out,” as Protagonist Harbie says. Overall, the story is asking more of both the student body and the school to elevate our educational experience to this aspirational level of integrity. To dream a bit bigger than we do now and hold ourselves to a higher standard, to preserve what makes this place so special: its potential as an institution to unleash the fullness of our potential as humans. Even if that means being…Just Harbie. 

So, how are we doing so far? There’s no better first place to look than the Show team. Vocal director Shreya Raghuraman (MBA ’24) sums it up perfectly: “Show Club is one of the few spaces on campus where no one cares where we came from or where we’re going. I worked with incredibly talented people for two years and I couldn’t tell you a single thing about most of their resumes.”

Shayne Gelbard (MBA '24) was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Prior to HBS, he founded a venture-backed software startup and worked in CPG brand management. He will be working in consulting in New York after graduation.

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