At last Thursday’s Voices of Gotham rehearsal we were joined by Tony-nominated actor, Douglas Sills. Among his many accolades, Douglas performed major roles in The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Secret Garden, two shows that served as the source material for Voices of Gotham’s 2015 contest set. We were fortunate to have Douglas—who premiered the lead role in Pimpernel on Broadway—give us some insight into performing the show’s most popular tune, “Into The Fire” on the big stage (one of the perks of being a New York City chapter).
Barbershop and Broadway have enjoyed a long relationship; the most well-known, of course, is the casting of the 1950 International Quartet Champions, The Buffalo Bills, in The Music Man. Songs from Broadway have frequently crossed the International stage throughout the years as well: Vocal Spectrum recently performed “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady and the Suntones were well known for their medleys of songs from Broadway musicals. The challenge that often exists for barbershop singers when performing show tunes is how to communicate the message of the song when taken out of the context of the show.
Alongside “Into the Fire,” VoG will sing “How Could I Ever Know?” from The Secret Garden, another Broadway classic. The Secret Garden, along with The Scarlet Pimpernel, hit Broadway in the 1990s, and are relatively recent additions to the American musical theater repertoire. They lack the wide scale recognition of songs such as “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls, “Where or When?” from Babes in Arms, and other songs which broke beyond their original contexts to eventually became pop music standards. So the challenge of bringing the meaning and stories of these songs to life is something that we, as singers and performers, face this year.
At the end of our rehearsal, Douglas provided us with some poignant advice that addresses the dilemma of singing musical theater songs outside the context of the show:
It’s so easy to say, “Oh, he did it and that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.” It’s not that … It doesn’t exist until you open your mouth, and it never existed before you opened your mouth. Your impulses are perfect in this moment right now, there was nobody before you, and there will be nobody after you.
Even though “Into the Fire” may have originally been a call to action in the midst of France’s Reign of Terror, or that “How Could I Ever Know?” told the words of a ghost speaking to her lover, we intend to convey a different, more relatable meaning when we take the stage in Pittsburgh. This speaks to the overall responsibility of any performer—finding a way to communicate your story to the audience every time you perform.
Like any other chorus competing this year, we’ve lived with these songs for awhile: the singing, interpretation, and the choreography have progressed over time; coaches have helped us find new tools to connect to our sound and our feelings (not to mention reminding us of things we’ve forgotten); and our artistic leadership has inspired us to bring our best to the stage in Pittsburgh. As we approach the final days before our competition, Douglas’ advice has been a fantastic reminder of our duty as performers.
See you in Pittsburgh!