COLUMBIA — Girls are in swingy red dresses spattered with silver sequins, boys in matching red dress shirts and black vests accented with the same silver sparkles. They are talking quietly in small groups, hanging out, waiting to start, but there's nothing casual about it. After all, they’ll depart for competition in less than 24 hours. “Places!” shouts the director, Mike Pierson, a man in a dark orange polo shirt. Suddenly the girls and boys jump to a tight formation. They sing a few bars, a capella, until the director says:
“That’s not a crescendo and you’ve got to master these crescendos. Do it again. 5-6-7-8.” They do it four more times until he is satisfied.
“Those crescendos — that’s where you unleash it,” Pierson says. “Unleash the hounds.”
This is City Lights, Rock Bridge High School’s coed show choir. This year, everything is leading up to a trip to the national show choir competition — the first time there’s been an organized, nationwide contest. To receive a bid to nationals in Indianapolis, City Lights has to first beat out about 20 schools to place in the top three in the regional competition Saturday morning in Branson.
The group puts together a 20-minute show every year complete with singing, dancing, costumes and even a mechanical set. In the seven years that Pierson has been director, City Lights has covered a variety of songs including Aerosmith and the Black Eyed Peas, in addition to the requisite Broadway show tunes.
However, a lot more work goes into their final show than New Directions in the hit television show "Glee" makes it look like. There aren’t brand new, perfectly polished songs debuted every week, slushies to the face or secret teen pregnancies. Instead, there’s practice, practice and more practice. What is realistic is the competition with other choirs. Pierson estimates they’ll spend around $50,000 to produce the coed and all-female shows they take to the competitive level.
In October, choir members had memorized the songs. Now it was time to begin the choreography.
Not yet ready for the real stage in the Rock Bridge Performing Arts Center, practice takes place in the department of vocal music. It’s a large rehearsal complex punctuated by smaller practice rooms, stuffed closets and offices. Pierson rouses them from reclining on the risers and snacking on the sidelines. He assigns each student a number and calls them out for the formation on the risers, loosely grouped by vocal sections.
A tall man in a gray athletic shirt and swishy pants who wasn’t noticeable before suddenly steps forward and takes over. He’s the choreographer, Kevin Breazeale, a show choir veteran hired and flown in from Los Angeles for the week.
He gives no introduction. The kids are left with little time to get their bearings.
The dance moves seem simple enough at first, mostly synchronized arm movements and simple turns. After a few eight counts, though, it starts to get harder and faster. They break off into different parts; not everyone is doing the same choreography.
It’s difficult to see what the visual effect is supposed to be, because at this point, too many mistakes are made and there isn’t a run-through where everybody gets all of it right. Breazeale moves quickly and teaches with sound effects mimicking the music and the beats instead of using counts. He only has a few rehearsals to teach them the choreography to six numbers.
The singers struggle to keep up, but they look like they get most of it. A few of the boys bumble through the number. Dancing doesn’t come as easily to them, and for some, this is their first experience with it. Many of the girls spent a year or two in the women’s show choir before making this one.
By now, there's no goofing off. Breazeale has their attention. The singers occasionally help each other with a troublesome move. Finally, he turns on the music from a large stereo. It’s not a crisp recording, and the song isn’t discernible at first. It turns out to be “Saturday Night in the City,” a song from the recent Broadway adaptation of "The Wedding Singer." The beats are pounding, not in a hip-hop way, but rather an ‘80s-synthesizer way. The addition of the music causes some confusion; it isn’t quite the same as the counts they’ve been practicing with. Breazeale goes back and corrects the parts that were particularly weak, but the kids have a lot of work to do.
They have 12 weeks until their first performance.
After “Saturday Night in the City,” they sing “Land of Confusion” by Phil Collins, followed by “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. The last three numbers are all Latin-inspired: “Havana,” “Cuban Pete” and “Hey Mambo.”
Pierson says he designed the show along a loose theme. He delineates it as “they’re going out in the city, and then they realize the city isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s confusion — ‘I gotta get out of here! I’m gonna sail, I land in Cuba. I’m in Havana, and I party.’”
City Lights will practice the moves, over and over, every night.
There are four risers across the stage, so the singers are spread out across them and on the floor. Some of the choreography is in unison; sometimes it’s separated by vocal part, riser level, or gender. “It’s a mixture. It’s layered,” Pierson says.
Hiring the choreographer from Los Angeles contributes to the daunting $50,000 two-show price tag. The group holds benefits — one is a show choir boot camp for elementary school kids — throughout the year.
But Pierson says it’s the “nature of the beast.” To be competitive, City Lights has to have professional choreography, costumes and set pieces. Money also goes into travel to competitions and festivals, entry fees and buying the rights to the songs.
Pierson admits it’s a pretty serious business. “You can look around the (choir) room out there and see the trophies,” he says. “Most of those are for show choir.”
They have six months until the regional competition.
A few weeks later, the choreography has been learned and rehearsals are scaled back to every other morning before school and a few hours on Tuesday nights.
This doesn’t mean City Lights has time to slack off.
At the beginning of rehearsal, they run through the mambo number, so Pierson can see what they need to work on tonight. The routine is a far cry from the sharp and precise moves in “Saturday Night in the City;” it’s all hips and shoulders and smooth lines, which is to be expected in a Latin-inspired performance.
“Again!” Pierson says after the kids finish.
“I know we haven’t done it in a while, but the style we talked about this morning doesn’t change. Anybody seen Dirty Dancing?” He demonstrates the kind of stiff upper body and arm placement that Johnny teaches Baby.
The choir runs “Hey Mambo” one more time and then works backwards from the end to clean small sections one at a time. Cleaning is essentially polishing the minute, insignificant-seeming details until everyone is in sync. The first rehearsals focused on simply memorizing the steps, but these are about minor adjustments that will take the show from inchoate to performance-ready.
At one point, for example, their hands connect in an arch overhead, the right hand holding the left hand. It's not the other way around, Pierson tells them. Everyone fixes it — some didn’t even realize they were doing it wrong — but when the music is on, a few of them still unconsciously repeat their mistake.
The choir stumbles on a part that calls for shimmying. Predictably, most of the girls make it look fairly natural and most of the boys look ridiculous. Their shoulders are either moving out of control or barely moving at all.
“Boys, boys, boys,” Pierson laments, half laughing, his head in his hands. He works with them a few minutes. Minimal progress is made.
Pierson decides it’s time to step up the rehearsal and get the kids to focus more.
“Oh no, he’s gonna get the ruler, be quiet!” one of the students says facetiously as Pierson ducks into his office. Instead, he returns with a whistle. “I really didn’t want to play Coach Pierson tonight, but I’m going to have to,” he says, and the choir resumes cleaning.
They have six weeks until their first performance. Five months until the regionals.
Thirty-one sophomores, juniors and seniors make up City Lights. One of the girls, a senior, has pale skin that’s offset by a surge of black curls that she often ties up for rehearsals. Hannah Overfelt's smile is striking — it’s real. Even when she makes a mistake, playfully reprimanded by her partner, a wispy blond named Kyle Sherman, she’s genuinely having a good time.
This year will be her last in City Lights; she’ll be graduating from Rock Bridge in May. “If you could pick a year to go out, I think it’d be this one,” she says, referring to the try for nationals.
Hannah is a natural leader in the choir, partly because there aren’t as many seniors this year. The choreography and the singing are more difficult than in previous performances she’s done — “we’re vocally and physically exhausted by the third song” — but it’s part of competing at a higher level than before. Fortunately, she says, she’s at an advantage because she’s done this twice before.
Music is what Hannah spends most of her time on, and she met most of her closest friends through choir. They are together almost all the time in music and theater classes and before and after school rehearsals.
“I never regret spending so much time on it because it’s my element and the people that I love the most,” she says.
Ian Meyer, a sophomore, on the other hand, is participating in his first year of show choir. He’s tall and long-limbed in the way adolescent boys often are, with sandy hair and a hint of sideburns. Enthusiastic and effusive in person, he is deliberate and even serious during rehearsal.
Ian auditioned for City Lights in mid-summer, a few weeks before school was to start. His ninth-grade choir director helped him prepare a song, “Corner of the Sky” from the musical "Pippin."
At the audition, Pierson sat in the front with a CD player and his score sheets. One by one, the would-be choir members stood up and sang their prepared song in front of everyone, veterans and newbies.
“Everyone gets stage fright,” Ian says, “but you should be able to present in front of people fairly well. That was definitely deliberate on his (Pierson’s) part.”
It certainly wasn’t Ian’s first time performing for an audience; he’s been doing theater and musicals since fourth grade. Still, he got nervous waiting his turn, the anticipation building with each song that went before his. Finally, Ian volunteered, and within a minute or two it was over.
A week later he was at his first rehearsal as a member of City Lights.
“I wanted to join to become a better vocalist, and I’ve definitely improved. I’ve grown more (here) than any other class I’ve ever taken,” he says, and it seems as if he isn’t only referring to his singing.
Rehearsals become more frequent as the important competitions loom near. Although City Lights has gotten a little more recognition this year, Ian says most people still don’t understand what they do.
“It’s not popular," he says. "It’s not a big deal to most people, but the people in it are dedicated. They’re there to win and learn."
Still, City Lights performed at a school assembly — the first time in front of the student body. And there's the success of "Glee" and its fictional director Mr. Schuester.
“It’ll be kind of a bummer if we don’t make it to nationals,” Hannah says, “but at least we’re all working together."
It's a very Mr. Schuester thing to say.
On a chilly February evening, the kids are huddled around a large black TV on a cart in the choir room. Some sit in chairs, some stand, most sit on the floor. A rack of costumes from “Cuban Pete,” ruffled multicolored conga sleeves, stands against the mirrors; off to the side a rolling whiteboard reads “Congrats Show Choirs!”
Pierson presses play on the VCR, and a recording of a recent performance flashes onto the screen, starting with “Saturday Night in the City.” The performers look for themselves to see if they made any mistakes, gently teasing each other when someone does. Pierson stares intently at the TV with his hand at his mouth. He occasionally makes comments, but it’s hard to tell how many of these they are retaining.
“Why are you guys not in the center?” he asks. “The mic was set, so that’s not an excuse.”
They respond, however, when he refers to specific people as the show progresses. “If you lock that jaw on the ‘waaaay,’ it flats the pitch. I don’t know what’s with those faces there,” he says. A girl on the floor offers an inaudible but apparently satisfactory explanation.
“Watch your faces, guys. Make sure you’re facing the audience.” He even demonstrates how much farther one boy should be sticking his leg out.
At one point during “Cuban Pete,” the whole room erupts into laughter, including Pierson, at something indiscernible to the outsider.
After it’s over, the performers discuss the show with Pierson. Then he claps once loudly. “Let’s go clean!” he says, and everyone jumps up and heads into the theater, ready to work for perfection.
They have about two months until the regionals.
The night before City Lights leaves for Branson, the music has been memorized. The choreography is near perfect. Energy and showmanship is what will take the performance to the next level.
“It’s not gonna be enough to simply do the movements. You have to do every step with every fiber of your being,” says assistant director Tammy Walker. “Even when you’re just standing there singing, you have to put energy in every pore.” The kids take this to heart, singing and dancing with an intensity that wasn’t quite there before.
“The very first sound — blow me away,” Pierson says. A voice from the back shouts, “Is that a challenge?”
Pierson doesn’t even hesitate.
After performing Saturday morning in Branson, City Lights made it into the top six during the preliminary round of the regional competition. They placed second overall at regionals, which advances them to the national competition on April 30 in Indianapolis.