Though I also go to actual church, I often think of theatre as my church, as I’ve had as many (possibly more?) transporting spiritual experiences at plays and musicals than in the pews. So the idea behind the volunteer choir Broadway Inspirational Voices makes intuitive sense to me, and the work of theirs I’ve sampled online—and more recently live—are as euphoric as I might have imagined.
This group of New York-based actor/singers has been gathering for 27 years under the directorship of Michael McElroy to make a joyful noise when they’re not chasing a new gig. And though in early years the choir’s concerts comprised mostly gospel standards and Christmas tunes, in recent years they’ve begun to do “Broadway Our Way”—i.e., gospel-flavored arrangements of showtunes and Broadway standards, from Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” to Violet’s “On My Way.”
Their most recent concert, “Broadway Our Way Live: On an Island in the River,” performed on June 19 and 20 on NYC’s newest public park, Little Island, and offered as a free stream on Broadway.com on June 30 (donations are encouraged), showcases this invigorating hybrid approach. There are some more-or-less obvious choices, like a medley from Big River that includes the soul-lifting “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” or Hairspray’s ebullient “Can’t Stop the Beat,” or Hadestown’s “All I’ve Ever Known.” An appearance by choir alumnus Norm Lewis, wrapping his creamy baritone around “Go the Distance” from Hercules, recalls BIV’s turn as a literal Greek chorus in the Public Theater’s historic outdoor staging in 2019.
But there’s also a tense rendition of “America” from West Side Story, with added lyrics about “children in cages” that give that song’s immigrant perspective a rueful spin. This darker tone is true to church too; if it’s for real, a church service isn’t all joy and uplift but also makes room for prophetic voices calling out injustice, for grief, even for questioning. (Doubting Thomas wasn’t excommunicated, after all, was he?)
For me the best moments come at the end, with two songs by New York City’s secular patron saint, Stephen Sondheim, that ring with fresh poignance as Gotham reopens: an early deep cut, “What More Do I Need,” transformed into a rousing gospel breakdown emphasizing the song’s upbeat conclusion over its litany of complaints about the city’s noise and stink, and “Sunday,” the stirring closer of Sunday in the Park With George. As McElroy put it in a speech before a rehearsal of the final number, with the Hudson River breeze wafting through the audience and the sunset behind him, “We are the transformation that we seek. And remember, it happened on an island in the river. This is our reawakening.”
It’s also a time of transition for BIV: After running the choir for 27 years, McElroy is leaving to become the new chair of the musical theatre program at the University of Michigan, as his longtime associate music director Allen René Louis—the one responsible for that ingenious arrangement of “What More Do I Need,” I learned—will take the reins. I sat down over Zoom on the week of the concert with both men to talk about the choir’s origins and future.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: First, congrats on this milestone and on a great concert which got some amazing coverage already. Can you tell me about the beginnings of Broadway Inspirational Voices? What does it mean to put the words “Broadway” and “inspirational” together, and has that changed over the years?
MICHAEL MCELROY: I founded the choir in 1994, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. I grew up in church. I’m from a church family. My grandfather was a minister, my stepfather and my family, they were all musicians in the church. So I grew up surrounded by musicians playing in the church, singing in the church. When I moved to New York after I graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1990, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging our community. We were all doing many things to take care of our fellow community members; Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was formed in that time, and we were doing what we could to make sure that physical needs were attended to. But there was nothing really happening that was addressing the spiritual part of us that was trying to grapple with such loss. And I knew for myself that gospel music had always been that thing that got me through difficult times.
So I decided to do a benefit for Broadway Cares, an evening of gospel music; we didn’t have a name, it was just an evening of gospel music. I asked 11 of my friends, diverse artists from all over Broadway—Alice Ripley, Adriane Lenox, Billy Reporter, Ric Ryder, all these different artists—to come together and sing this music. Not to try to convert anybody; it was just about the power of this music, which is rooted in the African American experience, and which I wanted to present with a diverse group of artists. People came and the response was overwhelming. And it became the thing which I hoped it would be: a spiritual moment where people can come and they can release, they can cry if they want to, they can clap if they want to, and they see themselves reflected back on the stage to the diversity that we represent.
We did benefits for Broadway Cares from until 1999, and then we became an LLC and wanted to do outreach programs. And so we became a nonprofit in 2007 so that we could bring the power of music to underserved populations. But the beginnings of it were just about, how do we heal our community emotionally, spiritually, at a time when there was so much loss and our intellectual minds had a hard time grappling with it. It’s interesting that we find ourselves stepping into a concert now, on the heels of another pandemic, in the role of attempting to heal our community for the music we bring over this weekend.
Allen, what was your first exposure to the choir?
ALLEN RENÉ LOUIS: In my high school, I was first introduced to the Broadway Inspirational Voices through one of my music teachers who directed the school gospel choir. We were learning some of the music from the Great Joy album. Similar to Michael, I grew up in a family of ministers, so gospel music is my roots. Hearing that album was my first time hearing both of my worlds collide, gospel and musical theatre really coming together in a unique sound. The first concert I saw of theirs was in June of 2018, their “Broadway Our Way” concert at the New Victory Theater, and just being in the balcony and hearing the choir sing for the first time, my life was changed. I said, “I need to be a part of this group in some form or fashion.” After the show, one of my friends from college who was in the choir, was like, “I’m going to make sure that I send BIV your information, and if they’re looking for people, maybe they’ll reach out.” Within months, I got an email inviting me to be a part of it. I joined in 2018.
Can you tell me a bit more about how you both think of the fusion of gospel and showtunes? You make it seem like a very natural marriage, but there’s a lot of interesting and unexpected stuff going on these arrangements.
MCELROY: Well, I grew up in a gospel family, but I also had a musical director for an uncle, and so from the time I was very young, he was taking me to rehearsals. And every tour that came through Cleveland, even in elementary school, we would take a bus and see matinees. One of the first matinees I saw was the national tour of Porgy and Bess, and it was a moment where I was able to see myself reflected on the stage and know, “People who look like me are doing something I could possibly do.” So I grew up with both gospel and musical theatre; my first cast album was Company.
Creating Broadway Inspirational Voices, at first we were all about the gospel music, but what we soon realized is that we wanted to also branch out and create another audience. You know, some people can be a little wary about the gospel music thing. It’s great to hear people say, “I was a little nervous to come, because I have my own history with organized religion, but I came and I felt such acceptance in the space.” That’s important to us, and it’s part of our mission. What the Broadway Our Way series, which we started four years ago, allowed us to do was to take my two loves—to take musical theatre and put it through the lens of gospel, and not even just gospel, but through the lens of our African American musical genres: jazz, pop, it covers the gamut.
What I love doing is that at BIV we are actors who sing gospel music; we’re a choir, but we’re also actors. And what this music repertoire allows us to do is take plot-driven, character-driven lyrics and music and put it with emotionally based music. You know, gospel music can be incredibly repetitive; folks needed that repetition to be able to refill those spaces in themselves, the holes that had been put in them and were replaced by the Sunday church experience. But musical theatre music is about forwarding plot, forwarding character. So bringing them together, you have this emotionally based music that also is storytelling, that’s also plot-driven, character-driven. This is what we do: We are actors who sing gospel music, who create gospel music through the lens of the musical theatre repertoire.
To be clear, though, before you started doing showtunes, you were singing songs about Jesus? And a wide variety of folks felt included and seen by that?
MCELROY: We’ve done the gamut. We’ve done spirituals, old Gospel, contemporary gospel. We don’t take Jesus out of songs that say Jesus. We have Jewish people who are in the choir; we have agnostics. But what we do is contextualize it. We have incredible narrators, Angela Robinson or John Eric Parker, who contextualize the songs so that we are able to build that bridge of understanding, so that people have a way in. We’re not converting you to Christianity; we’re saying that this music, which came out of a group of enslaved folks who used this music as a way to give voice to their lived experience—in that music, in the marrow of the bones of this music, is a power that is healing, that gives voice to the lived experience. As it has come through time, from sorrow songs and jubilee songs to gospel songs to quartets, all the way up to contemporary gospel, there’s a power here that is accessible to everyone. You don’t have to buy into the religious dogma. But there’s something about the combination of chord structure and music and melody and lyric that has the ability to touch us in ways that other musical forms do not. All we’re doing is offering up space for people to be in community with that, and they can take and leave whatever they want to take or leave.
I’m intrigued by how you pick songs. When a new musical comes out, do you listen for the tune that will work for the choir? And is it always the big uplifting chorus song, or is there room for other emotions?
MCELROY: It varies. In each season we’ve done, I’ve tried to explore new shows that were on Broadway, to find something in that season. That is usually based on the lyric, and also when I hear it, do I have an idea of how I can funnel it through the lens of a gospel sound? There are many different forms of gospel music that we do in the concert. Like what Allen did with “What More Do I Need” lives in that Pentecostal, Church of God in Christ kind of gospel music, which is very much its own genre, whereas Big River lives in that old gospel sound, then moves into a contemporary gospel, but contemporary gospel of a certain era, which is like the ’80s. Now, you listen to something like “All I’ve Ever Known” from Hadestown—I really wanted to do something that is straight-up Kirk Franklin, which is contemporary gospel, a smaller ensemble kind of sound that much more leans into an R&B pop sound. So my thing is always hearing the song and being able to figure out, what is the way in that’s gonna build the bridge to the gospel field that I’m thinking about? Once I find that, then it’s like, okay, now I just have to write it.
But the songs aren’t necessarily all upbeat, just as not all gospel music is not.
MCELROY: With this entire concert, the concept is framed around coming out of the pandemic, framed around a reawakening. It’s a call to action in this moment. So with Big River, it was important that we start with “The Crossing,” which represents where we’ve been in this past year, and “Waiting for the Light to Shine” is the transition out. We actually changed the lyric; instead of just “living and waiting for the light to shine,” we change it to, “I am the light.” Instead of waiting, we have every ability in this moment to be the thing that we need to transform our world. Human beings are incredibly resilient, but also resourceful; we can adapt to the limitations, and we did. But now we have to deal with what that adaptation or what that limiting of spirit—what are the repercussions of that? And what do we have to dismantle so that we can really live in the potential of what we can be? Every one of the songs is curated as a part of a section of a journey.
You mentioned lyric changes, and I noticed the “children in cages” line in “America.” Do you have to seek permission when you make changes like that, or is it more just, you’re doing a cover so it’s fair game?
MCELROY: It’s doing a cover, but we do talk to all of the songwriting teams, usually I make personal asks and make sure they’re okay with it. In the case of “America,” it’s interesting. Will Stone did that arrangement. And when we’re talking about America in this moment, what does that mean? When we talk about the idea of the immigrant coming here, how can we sing a song that was written in a certain time and not talk about immigrants coming here now and what it means for them now?
I do music for my little church in Brooklyn, and this past year, we couldn’t sing together. It’s been really difficult, even on my small level. Can you talk about how you kept your big choir alive in a year when you couldn’t sing together?
LOUIS: You know, BIV went from our gala on March 2 last year, and days later everything was shut down. But we didn’t miss a beat; we went right into the virtual world and figured it out. One of the great things the organization did was we made sure all our members are equipped to enter this virtual season; we were sending out mics and all the equipment people needed if they didn’t have it. And I think there were 30, 40, maybe even more than that, virtual things we were a part of. So we really went into the virtual, you know, because, you know, because that’s what we are here to do: shed light and spread the music.
So you found ways to do recorded, layered work that you could present virtually. But obviously until very recently you couldn’t be in a room together, let alone on a stage.
MCELROY: Yeah, even rehearsals for this concert started out on Zoom, and it was a very challenging experience, where I or one of the music team or Allan would plunk through accompaniment in their space, and then everyone would mute and sing in their space. It was very frustrating. But we were really observing the guidelines. This concert is the first time since the gala last March that we are actually getting together and singing together, so it’s very special in that way.
It has been challenging, and we just have met the challenge. You know, it’s important that music, especially in this time of pandemic, which has the ability to touch people’s hearts and souls, that the music needed to get out there. Our outreach programs had to continue to thrive. We have one around the Ronald McDonald house, and those are immune-compromised children, so we could not be in person. We figured out a way to do it virtually. It was always about the “yes, and.” Now that we have done both, there will be a virtual aspect of this concert as well. Because with our virtual holiday concert last year, we created an audience of over 10,000 people across like 20, 30 countries. So we also want to engage them now. So we will no longer just be concerts live, it’ll be both, because we want to continue to cultivate an audience to have access to this music.
Do you require the members of BIV, which over the years have included the likes of Renée Elise Goldsberry, Phylicia Rashad, Capathia Jenkins, and Eden Espinosa, to bring with them some kind of spiritual commitment, or is it entirely a non-denominational affair?
MCELROY: We have everybody. For me, it’s about more than just talent, more than just having a voice. It’s about, what is the energy you bring? So much of what we do with our talent is to make money; you go into auditions and use your talent to get a job, then you get the job and use your talents to maintain the job. I wanted to create a space also where it’s about refilling those spaces of yourself that aren’t about the business. It’s not about using your talent for employment, it’s about singing for the joy of it, with the same level of excellence, and with a diverse group of people. And by creating this community and singing this music, it becomes a healing experience for the people who are doing it. This choir has had many close relationships and best friends; we’ve had children who have gone off to college. It’s a real community. And when we sing, we sing as one unified voice. It doesn’t matter whether you’re agnostic or Jewish or what your gender identity is; we come to it, I think, in the purest form of what I believe Christianity to be, which is a non-judgmental, open, welcoming experience. As a result, that’s what we’ve created. People get to sing, and they’re not interested in being the soloist or the star; they’re interested in being a part of a community where they get to use their talent to refill those spaces that sometimes the industry can take out of you.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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