Broadway Has a Tony Award-Honored Gospel Choir and You Need to Know About It

Interview   Broadway Has a Tony Award-Honored Gospel Choir and You Need to Know About It
 
How Michael McElroy and Broadway Inspirational Voices have changed the fabric of Broadway—and how you can hear their Grammy-nominated music.
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Brent Dundore

At a midtown rehearsal studio, 60 singers enter single file. They form a circle around the room’s perimeter. The intimate audience collects in their center. The director raises his arms, the piano chimes, they open their mouths, and then…the music rumbles.

Imagine a wall of sound. Impenetrable. Enveloping. It’s a human sound bath. They sing: “Let’s set the atmosphere for a blessing.” Indeed, they do and have been for 25 years. They are Broadway Inspirational Voices.

This year, BIV celebrates 25 years of music and service, a silver anniversary honored earlier this year with a special Tony Award for Michael McElroy as its founder and music director. On December 16, the choir—now a New York institution—marks the occasion with its grandest annual holiday concert to date at Symphony Space.

But the choir’s origins were modest. When McElroy assembled the original troupe of singers, “there was no thought of forming a choir, there was no thought of an ongoing event,” he says. But then audiences heard them.

Humble Beginnings
In 1994, the HIV/AIDS epidemic had been raging for over a decade and the theatre community rallied around their own. “What we actors were doing at that time were cabarets,” says McElroy, to raise money for Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS—so far back they were separate organizations. But after solo cabarets in ’92 and ’93 at hubs like Don’t Tell Mama and Steve McGraw’s (now The Triad), McElroy wasn’t sure he had anything new to say. So he recruited 11 friends to add their voices to the cause.

Among the original dozen—alongside McElroy—were talents like Alice Ripley, Billy Porter, Adriane Lenox, Sharon Leal, Ric Ryder, and Ty Taylor. But this was supposed to be a one-off evening of gospel music. “I was nervous because I thought, ‘People are going to think I’m preaching or trying to convert them,’” McElroy recalls, “and that wasn’t it at all.”

The music was a long-needed salve. Plus, numerous people in the theatre community, who had oft been excluded from spiritual spaces, finally felt a belonging to a spiritual home. “The community needed the healing that this community-like moment brought,” he continues. “The music was [and is] bigger than the religious dogma.”

The following year, McElroy organized the concert again—this time with an ensemble of 21; the third year it grew to more than 30. By 1999, the Broadway Gospel Choir (as it had been known up until that point) became Broadway Inspirational Voices and an LLC to address performance demands—from joining Rosie O’Donnell on the 54th Annual Tony Awards to singing for the City Center love songs PBS special. Everywhere they went, their sound moved the earth.

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Brent Dundore

Why Gospel
From the beginning, McElroy’s mission has been to heal through music. And while, admittedly, any combination of melody and rhythm can evoke a certain feeling, McElroy was after one thing infused in all gospel: hope.

“What’s baked into the DNA is that you go all the way back to slavery,” McElroy says, “but even in the midst of all of that, they still found a way to sing. They found a way to create a song that expressed not only their sorrow, not only their pain, but also their hope.

“It’s a music that touches you at your very deepest core and speaks to that honest, quiet voice that’s inside. It’s a music that you can’t really fight.” Science makes that case for the genre, too, showing people who listen specifically to gospel music experience less anxiety about death and a high sense of control—across races, genders, and socio-economic classes.

And the performers feel that, too. “When you’re standing next to someone,” says Schele Williams, the choir’s current chairperson and a member for 18 years, “and you are blending with them, which is such an incredible thing, and you find that sweet spot where you hear their voice and your voice and the voices around you… I can’t even describe what that feeling is. It just feels other-worldly.” Which is why singers in the community began clamoring to join.

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Broadway Inspirational Voices Brent Dundore

Card-Carrying Members
Every member of BIV has received a personal invitation to join from McElroy—though he does seek suggestions from current members. The music director curates his choir with more than voice parts in mind. “A big part of the original mission for me was that it’d be a diverse group of people and that this music was available to everyone,” McElroy adds. “Diversity is not accidental,” says Williams.

And that tenant of BIV has become a greater priority in recent years. “So many messages we’re being given right now tell us that if we don’t think alike or look alike or believe the same things, there’s no space for us to meet,” McElroy posits. “Here at Broadway Inspirational Voices we don’t believe that. We use the music as our vehicle to prove you can be this.” While BIV began to heal the wounds of devastating loss, today it’s here, additionally, to mend fractures in our society.

That Gospel Sound
Of course, none of it works without the joyful noise—a music practically in McElroy’s blood. “My grandmother taught herself to play piano. She was my grandfather’s wife; he was the minister. She was the first lady of the church,” he says. “At three years old, my mom was a child prodigy at the piano, and my mom still plays to this day, directing choirs, all of that. My sister plays piano, directs choirs. My uncle plays piano and organ, directs choirs. My brother plays piano, directs choirs in Cleveland. Now all of my nieces and nephews do the same thing.” And yet, it’s less like the family business than the family calling. “Out of that grew this love of arranging and hearing music and wanting to write what I heard”—and leading.

“My teaching is working outside in,” he says. “With the singing of it, there are certain sounds, there are certain styles of how we say words, how we form vowels, what tone, what vibrato we use when we sing it a certain way.”

McElroy transmits stylistic ideology and emotional philosophy with every cue to produce the singular gospel timbre.

For audiences who are strangers to the genre, never fear. “My balance is always creating a musical evening that is allowing for a varied ear,” the music director assures. The December 16 concert will feature holiday songs from the choir’s Grammy-nominated Great Joy and Great Joy II albums plus audience and ensemble favorites from the past 25 years. That includes McElroy’s original arrangements of musical theatre tunes from the Broadway Our Way series—which includes songs like “Answer Me” from The Band’s Visit and “A Whole New World” from Disney’s Aladdin.

The fact that BIV recruits members from Broadway is crucial. These are people who know how to interpret a lyric, who can meet the rigors of rehearsal, the standards of professionalism, and the demanded excellence. But it’s also a population practiced in opening hearts by exposing their own vulnerability.

“I feel like what we do as actors is a ministry, is a service, right?” McElroy says. “We are ministering to souls. We are—by them coming into theatre spaces—we are transforming their lives. We are touching them in ways that help them feel, help them reconcile, help to recognize themselves.” Theatre and gospel are intertwined.

Music and Service
The annual winter concert, spring gala (March 2, 2020), and 40 to 50 events throughout the year are only half of the BIV mission. “The choir is a two-prong thing,” says Williams. “It’s not only the concerts that we do, but it is the service that we provide to the community.”

Baked into the DNA of BIV is that original mission of giving back.

BIV established Songs in the Key of Me with the Ronald McDonald House in New York City. Now in its eighth year, the program serves to create original songs inspired by children living at the House. Seven or eight families, each with a child undergoing treatment for pediatric cancer, match with a composing team—arranged by BIV—that then spends three visits getting to know the kid who will inspire their latest song. (You know, Jason Robert Brown’s “Invisible” from his album how we react and how we recover? This program.) From Jeanine Tesori to Brown and more, Tony– and Grammy-winning composers (some of whom are singers in the choir and some whom are simply allies) write original tunes that a small group of BIV singers perform in a private celebration for the families at the Ronald McDonald House each September.

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Jason Robert Brown at the Ronald McDonald House

But it’s not enough to write more music. BIV invests in arts education. Music and Me!, for kindergartners and first-graders, and 1, 2, 3…In The Key of Me, for students whose schools have lost arts funding, bring music classes to underserved youngsters. Choir members Crystal Monee Hall, Ben Chavez, Danielle K. Thomas, Tasha Michelle, and Allison K. Daniel teach kids rhythm, pitch, simple piano, and, most importantly, how to find their voice.

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BIV’s education impact reaches beyond elementary schools. Through a partnership with Covenant House New York, choir member Angela Grovey offers a monthly workshop to the residents of the homeless youth shelter. Each workshop appeals to a different skillset, be it playwriting, dance, songwriting, or make-up application. “We want them to know that we’re there every single month, which is really important when young people have been kicked out, let down,” says Williams. “It is the consistency of seeing someone who shows up for you that proves to them that you’re trustworthy.”

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Angela Grovey at Covenant House New York

Speaking of consistency, each year, BIV brings Songs in the Key of Me to Covenant House, this time pairing professional songwriters with young co-writers who live there. During the annual “Night of Broadway Stars” gala, Broadway performers sing the original compositions. Through each of these outlets, BIV ensures a future of kindness, artistry, and advocacy.

Inspirational Dreams
Twenty-five years is simply a marker on a long highway for McElroy, who continues to combine performance and outreach and grow BIV’s impact. “I never feel like I’m doing enough,” he says.

As the non-profit considers the future, leadership pushes themselves to answer: “How do we expand our umbrella of diversity? How can we serve more communities and also live up to our values?” asks Williams. “How are we continuing to see the people that seem to be in the shadows and invisible? How do we bring light into those places?”

As always, it begins with the music. “One of my dreams would be to create a branch of the choir that tours around the country—eventually the world—partnering with symphony orchestras,” McElroy says. And on each stop, choir members would offer master classes in local churches and schools. Separately, BIV plans to expand its work with neurodiverse populations.

“If you work, the possibilities open up,” McElroy smiles.

Indeed, over the past two-and-a-half decades, McElroy and his choir have worked and opportunity has knocked. “Twenty-five years ago, would I have told you we’d be here right now, getting an honorary Tony Award for our work, 80 members strong? Absolutely not,” he says. “I didn’t dream that big. All I was thinking about was healing.”

Looking back to that rehearsal studio and the 60 singers belting to high heaven, there was something that happened in that room. The atmosphere changed; it felt like we’d been chemically rearranged—synced up. A spirit crackled in the air. Is that healing? Who knows, but it's definitely inspirational.

Learn more at BroadwayInspirationalVoices.org.

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