New York City can be a lonely place to live, but for its senior residents, the fast-paced metropolis is absolutely isolating. When ailments restrict their movement, medication dictate their energy and financial burdens limit their access to the arts, seniors find themselves stuck in hospitals, assisted-living facilities, and even their own homes. Vanderbeck, who grew up close to her grandparents and great-grandparents, wondered, “Where are all of the [seniors]?” As a young actress running from audition to audition, she never crossed paths with the older generation.
Simultaneously, Vanderbeck was looking for a way to volunteer, but every opportunity required long term commitment, something an actor can never guarantee. She might be cast in a show and leave town with as little as a few days notice. Volunteering at an established organization was impossible. Like a true artist, Vanderbeck created her own opportunity.
She contacted senior centers, asking the facilities if she could come in and sing a few songs, until a living facility in the Village responded. Vanderbeck was such an instant hit that she soon ran out of material to sing. She reached out to her fellow graduates from The University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and recruited her roommate to play piano. After several performances, the group named themselves one day while walking to a senior center: Sing For Your Seniors was born.
Eleven years later, Sing For Your Seniors is thriving and so is its audience. “There’s always a lot of excitement when everyone knows Sing For Your Seniors is on the schedule for the day,” says Lucy Seligson, Director of Social Services at the Lillian Booth Actors Home. Sing For Your Seniors is not only a performance for Seligson’s residents, it’s therapy. Performers hold the residents’ hands, kneel down to meet their eyes, and encourage them to sing. Seligan continues, “The residents become energized. They become more talkative. They’re happy.”
In addition to a core company of singers that volunteer regularly, Vanderbeck created an off-shoot, Broadway Sessions, with board member Daniel Torres. For the first installment, Torres enlisted the Evita cast for a special performance at Calvary Cancer Hospital. The first half of Broadway Sessions runs like a regular Sing For Your Seniors performance: actors sing songs from their own repertoire, often pieces that have special meaning to them or that will resonate with the community. The Actors Fund Home audience loves obscure musical theatre while the crowd at Encores prefers selections from The American Songbook. In Broadway Sessions, the second half of the performance consists of music from the score of the visiting show.
For many seniors, especially those at Calvary Cancer Hospital, this may be the only opportunity left to see a Broadway musical. For the performers, it is a special experience in which they connect with an audience. “[Performers] love it so much because when you’re in a big theatre and you’re doing eight shows a week, it’s easy to become sort of detached from the audience experience because you don’t see them," says Vanderbeck, “but it’s a very different experience when you’re in a Sing For Your Seniors session, because you’re looking at your audience. And we really are trying to connect with them in a personal way.”
Whenever possible, Sing For Your Seniors matches the show with the venue. Fun Home’s Beth Malone had a life-changing experience when she joined her cast to perform for The SAGE Center, New York’s LGBTQ senior center in Chelsea. “The [SAGE Center] itself is really inspiring, and it’s such a great resource for people. And it made me very hopeful that it even existed,” Malone says, “If you’re a gay person and you think about getting old, you’re like, ‘Well, I want to be with my people, and where’s that? Does that place exist?’” Not only does The SAGE Center exist, it offers seniors classes and opportunities to perform; something Malone learned when the community invited the Fun Home cast to attend a SAGE concert!
Bringing Fun Home to The SAGE Center was a big goal Vanderbeck had been working on for months, but she’s far from done. “Sing For Your Seniors exists because it needs to exist,” Vanderbeck says. “My dream is to do as much as I can.” She can do more with help from the theatre community and anyone with a little time or money to spare. Performers can volunteer to sing by visiting the Sing For Your Seniors website, and non-performers can make a tax-deductible donation or donate a piano to one of the senior centers. With audiences all over the country clamoring for programs like Sing For Your Seniors, she just may have a smash hit on her hands.
Find out more at SingForYourSeniors.org.