Sondheim choralis – A college’s music theatre singing ensemble

It’s 5:06 on a Tuesday evening, and the recital hall is filled with noisy college students, faculty, professional staff and some members of the State University of New York at New Paltz community. Almost 100 people and voices are gathered to celebrate their common love: the singing of musical theatre songs. They’re restless from their classes and activities. Many will devote the rest of the day to rehearsing or studying. But for now, they join with an unpredictable energy. We have sung through a number of pieces arranged from an extensive repertoire of Golden Age and more contemporary musicals. But as I announce that we are moving onto the Stephen Sondheim medley, there is an overwhelming uproar of enthusiasm, a palpable excitement erupts, and as the group’s conductor and music director, I have to refocus the attention.

University of New York at New Paltz
Photo courtesy of State University of New York at New Paltz

It happens every time, consistently and unabashedly. We work through a choral arrangement of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” and over the distinctive 6/8 accompaniment the group sings as loudly as possible. One volume. Loudly. It’s as if a continuous series of ffff‘s appears on the page, and I have to remind the singers that the arrangement is marked to begin softer, at p, and build in volume and intensity. Calm down, please. Respect the dynamics.

Surely the popularity of Sweeney Todd, especially due to Tim Burton’s recent film, has added distinctly to the appeal, and there is no doubt that the choral elements and the sense of unresolved chords embedded in the Dies Irae and Offertorium-like phrases offer horror-movie homage that resonate with the singers. It’s the same idea, I think, that gets singers all riled up when they work on the “O fortuna” section from Carmina Burana. But Latin is a dead language, and the artful, subversive lyrics of Sondheim’s ballad offer an unparalleled opportunity for actability to these singers. There is safety in numbers, and the inexorable link between this music and drama it suggests is unquestionable. The nature of this type of a singing ensemble, a show choir rather than a chorus, offers anonymity and demands stage presence. The Sondheim repertoire easily exploits this sensibility and, consequently, there is a rich recklessness in singing this music.

But this is not limited to Sweeney Todd. We sing songs from Anyone Can Whistle and Sunday in the Park with George and have worked on “Comedy Tonight,” “Old Friends,” “Putting It Together” and even “The Little Things You Do Together.” These are songs written for specific moments and specific characters. The student singers tell me they feel invigorated after singing these songs. What’s more, they say the challenge and complexity reward them with a great sense of accomplishment. One young bass describes singing Sunday this way: “There is a stacked deck of cards that gradually forms throughout the passages of music until you finally reach an unparalleled release that can rarely be found elsewhere in the musical theatre repertoire.” Others say that they are totally aware of the almost scientific complexity of the works, even if they don’t fully understand the underlying structures. Another singer is happy to enter into a character’s journey – feeling and singing through the experience without having to inhabit the show itself. In a particular medley we perform that travels from Anyone Can Whistle to Sweeney Todd to Sunday in the Park, members of the audience are not the only ones who might experience emotional whiplash.

The pure, unified sound sought by many a choral conductor is not particularly sought here. This does not mean that we sacrifice musicianship. Instead, the “ensemble” promulgates openly that it will not offer the “peasants-on-the-green form of operetta” with which Sondheim has consistently said he is uncomfortable. The singers do not imagine themselves as members of a chorus. They see themselves earnestly as dirty, scrappy Londoners who live in the 19th-century world of the Industrial Revolution. They dive head first into the wryness of “they went to their maker impeccably shaved” with joy. And though “swing your razor wide, Sweeney” is sung by all simultaneously in a glorious harmony it really seems as if each singer addresses Mr. Todd individually — admonishing him. chastising him, praising him. The relationship among the music, the lyric and the dramatic action ensures a steady and unyielding connection between the music and the action. It doesn’t matter that the singers are sitting in 20 rows of chairs or standing on a series of choral risers. This singing calls for something not normally asked of choral singers — that is, acting.

In his 2009 memoir, Mainly on Directing, writing about performing musical theatre, Arthur Laurents observes, Acting gives meaning to every note and every step as well as to every word,” Why should it be limited to moments of solo singing? Anyone who has ever listened to Elaine Stritch singing “What would we do without you-ooh?” on the original recording of Company knows that here the technique of blending is anathema. Should a setting for mixed voices not also suggest this diversity of thought and visceral connection without sacrificing the overall sound? To blend or not to blend?

Even a song like “Anyone Can Whistle,” which has been given an interesting choral arrangement, is a sublime challengc. The spare simplicity of the lyric notwithstanding, the song spells out the universal desire for rediscovering our inner hope for wholeness. The healing power of singing is turned up to the highest level, and, in this particular setting by arranger Mae Huff, the song, removed from its intrinsic role in a staged production, welcomes the return of the phrase “What’s hard is simple./What’s natural comes hard” with the volume at full throttle. We hold onto the word “hard” for a bit, lingering there, reinforcing before relinquishing into the next phrase. “Maybe you could show me/How to let go.” The singer asks a question and invites both the performer and the listener into the dilemma. Although all of the voices simultaneously and collectively sing the same thought — “Whistle for me” — how can this be one voice? Ultimately, it is a multitude of voices releasing their own unique statements.

Choral arrangers can also illuminate a setting and, in some cases, recontextualize a work that serves well the dynamics of group singing. An example is a setting of “I Remember” from Evening Primrose, which has been recorded and performed extensively for 40 years by singers of various ages, genders and styles.  The poignant simplicity of remembering unobtainable, taken-for-granted joys such as sky, snow and leaves are at the root of the character’s “wanting” song. These are things that can be seen, held and touched, one person wanting one thing. Journey with me please, the song asks, and see if I can get what I want. In Robert Page’s imaginative arrangement, that phrasing links what David Craig, author of On Singing Onstage, would call the “active” lyrics and poetic imagery with a thickly scored piano arrangement that supports the ensemble voice. Choral voices do not typically sing hard-consonant lyrics such as “sharp as thumb-tacks” or “spread like broken umbrellas.” It is a bit odd to listen to, individual voices combined  and yearning for such character-specific things, but when we get to the final modified “A” section, there is a canon-like, almost cascading sense to the arrangement at “I remember days.”  The overlapping of the voices unites the sense of individuality and ensemble singing in an evocative and satisfying way.

I was stunned the first time I read that Sondheim referenced a book of barbershop songs to study the vocal distances inherent in writing close harmony for men’s voices. His honesty and candor are all the more illuminating because they form a more complex picture of a theatre songwriter who acclaims the human voice yet professes not to know anything about choral writing.

In Mark Eden Horowitz’s Sondheim on Music,  Sondheim reveals that, because he did not himself sing in a choir, his vocal arrangements are limited to pianistic-oriented stylings and that, consequently, he is constantly making mistakes. He generously credits his orchestrators with creating a choral sound and relegates his settings to “clever, crossword puzzle combinations.”

Nonetheless, it must start somewhere. When singers with varying degrees of  musical comprehension sing this repertoire, it doesn’t particularly matter how the puzzle was constructed. The so-called angular harmonies and syncopation, the complex polyphony and counterpoint lie beneath words that lure these group singers into a a world of character creation in a way that no other writer of this repertoire can do. The relationship between the music and words is never sacrificed for the dramatic action, regardless of a pinpoint solo or a wide-shot chorus.

I only need to look out at the tenors when they are singing “Sunday.” At the phrase, “and parasols,” their voices are smiling.