Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
This week's question comes from the Playbill.com staff.
Question: "Coram Boy has a 20-person choir that sings along with the actors from a loft 12 feet above the stage. How did the production find the choir and how did they go about integrating it into a Broadway play?"
Answer: The choir is a diverse bunch. Some come from opera, some from choral singing. A couple have played in Broadway orchestras but happen to sing. Six of them are understudies for the main roles.
The show's music director, Constantine Kitsopoulos, was in charge of integrating the choir with the performers (many of whom are women playing and singing the roles of young boys). He filled much of the choir with singers from his past shows, which include the Broadway production of La Boheme. Others came from auditions, for which auditioners were asked to bring in a piece by Handel (they brought in arias from operas or excerpts from "Messiah").
The show has 75 minutes of music. About 15 percent is by Handel, and about 85 percent is new music written by the composer Adrian Sutton, though Sutton's music often uses elements from Handel. While the show has some parts in which the choir takes the lead, Zachary James, one of the choir members, likened the choir's function to that of a film soundtrack, which "enhances the mood without being too obtrusive," he says.
Kitsopoulos made sure to hire singers well versed in the style of choral music. "I would describe it as a very clean sound," Kitsopoulos says. "You could very clearly define and listen to 'Oh, those are the sopranos, those are the altos, those are the tenors, these are the basses." In a Broadway chorus, however, the idea "is to create a harmonic texture, like a wall of sound," and opera choruses work similarly. Broadway and opera choruses also use more vibrato (the throbbing effect that trained singers will sometimes use) than choirs do.
The 25-year-old James decided to try out for Coram Boy after hearing about the show's unique combination of theatre and classical music. Since he had only performed in operas, he was not a member of Actors' Equity and didn't get seen during equity auditions (non-equity members only get seen if there's time).
Instead, he says, "I bombarded them with cover letters, headshots, resumes. I got a hold of every email address I could." Luckily, at the last minute, the production needed two more basses, and he was called in to audition and made it.
The choir had around five days to rehearse and memorize the music before joining the actors. When the two groups came together, the choir rehearsed while sitting in chairs facing the actors, so that they could know what was going on in the show and help create the proper emotional atmosphere.
"The first time we did it altogether, we had a hard time singing because we were all in tears," James says.
The actors and the choir have made an effort to integrate socially. That first day they rehearsed altogether, the actors brought them coffee, donuts and "welcome" signs. The first rehearsal when the orchestra was added, the whole company went out for drinks afterwards. Now, on Saturday nights, company members gather for an informal pre-show dinner at a restaurant.
Kitsopoulos says, "The incredible thing about it is this has got to be the most harmonious rehearsal process I think I've ever experienced."
One element that helps integrate the choir with the actors is the sound design. Since the choir stands so far behind the actors — and the cloth behind them absorbs sound — the amplification "does help to make the sound more present," says Kitsopoulos.
James, who also sings in a church choir on the side, said that it was relatively easy to get used to singing choral music while in a play. He does note that in most choirs the singers sing while standing next to the singers with the same voice parts (bass, tenor, etc.), but in Coram Boy, they're grouped into quintets with singers of all different parts. James had never sung that way before, but he actually prefers it. "I can match my sound with theirs and blend to make a more unified sound," he says.