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New Yorkers sing just for the joy of it


Michael McElroy likes watching the Catholic members of his choir. Having grown up in congregations with unenthusiastic singing, they don’t quite know what to do when they are hit by the power of his Baptist-based gospel music. But it doesn’t take long before they are converts, musically at least.

“Hearing this kind of music from a black Baptist tradition brought an intensity I had never experienced before,” Bertilla Baker said. “It just calls in the presence of the Holy Spirit, which is palpable, real and intense.”

Baker is one of about 50 members of Broadway Inspirational Voices, a gospel choir of New York singer/actors founded and directed by McElroy, who is currently appearing in the Off-Broadway blues musical “Thunder Knocking on the Door.” The choir, which performs for charities and is largely unpaid, recently released its first full-length CD, “Grace.” Its 11 hymns were sung by 43 singers from more than a dozen Broadway shows.

McElroy, 35, is thrilled to see the change come over those who have not grown up with gospel music. “You can’t fake it and there’s nothing you can do to make it happen,” he said. “It comes from a sense of being vulnerable, open to the Holy Spirit moving in you. We all have different vocabularies of how we worship. It’s interesting to see them wrestling with how to handle it when an experience comes over them. Sometimes they jump up or let the tears flow.”

It wasn’t part of Baker’s experience. Although she grew up Catholic in Watertown, N.Y., Baker lost interest in that tradition after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965 and music standards plunged to what she calls “truly wretched.”

As a member of Broadway Inspirational Voices, Baker sees the power of gospel music enhanced by McElroy’s direction. “Michael has the ears of life and he hears everything, the notes and the inflections,” she said. “It’s like decorating a hall for the Holy Spirit to come in.”

McElroy’s grandfather was a minister at the Harvest Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland and later his stepfather was a minister there. His grandmother played piano and directed the choir, in which he sang with his mother, brother, sister, aunt and uncle. “Our family was the heart and center of that church and also the musical center,” he said. “I had a strong sense of music, especially gospel music.”

As a student at Shaker Heights High School, he formed a gospel choir of multiethnic, multiracial singers, called it Mixed Emotions, and took it on tour around Ohio for two years. He again used music to bring people together as a student at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was director of its gospel choir.

In 1993, three years after he arrived in New York, Nephi Wimmer, a friend and fellow actor, died of AIDS. It was McElroy’s first experience of losing someone to the disease, and he was devastated.

He sought out the healing power of music. “I wanted to do gospel. That sustained me. My connection to God I find through that music.”

He asked 10 other Broadway actors to do a gospel concert with him. They decided to do it for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a nonprofit fundraising and grant-making organization. The response was overwhelming, McElroy said. “We decided to make it a yearly event. It grew in importance to the community.”

Gospel music is universal, he said. “It was a joy to me to watch people discover for the first time the feeling of the inclusive power of the music. You can’t escape the power of this music whether you’re Jewish or Muslim.”

Its power gave Christopher Zelno a sense of community he never found in the Catholic church. “As a gay person, I never felt welcome or that I was OK with them. I went through some personal problems a few years ago and it was a time of real darkness, but I didn’t feel I could turn to the church for help.”

Zelno, who has appeared on Broadway and the 20th anniversary tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” had eight years of Catholic education, four years of after-school high school religion classes and was an altar boy at St. Margaret’s Church in Narbeth, Pa., where he still attends Mass with his family when he goes home for holidays. “There was a period in the early ’90s when I wasn’t sure I believed in anything,” he said. “Through my work in the choir it’s only been in the past seven years that I feel I’ve developed any conscious contact with God that works for me.”

The music “goes right through me to my soul, the very base of my soul, and strikes something. Something happens and it becomes good and right and effective,” Zelno said.

He calls it a huge difference from the “deadly” music of his home parish, where few people bothered to sing. “I’m fortunate now from the music standpoint and the spiritual standpoint,” he said.

Zelno, 35, said the exception he found growing up was in the folk Mass. “It was the closest thing to being at all visceral or spiritual or effective. It wasn’t that great, but it had a contemporary bent. It was better than the high Mass where the choir sounded half dead.”

For Shoshana Bean, the difference from her childhood music isn’t just in the depth -- it’s in the faith as well. As a religious Jew, Bean, 24, now finds herself singing verses like “My life was full of sin, Jesus washed my soul within. Since Jesus purified my soul, I will rejoice he’s made me whole.”

“Being musically centered is what heals me,” said Bean, who is currently in the Broadway musical “Hairspray.” “It’s opening up body and mouth and letting something out that is beyond words. The style takes over.”

The choir is booked throughout the year, performing four major concerts and appearing at about a dozen events annually. Even though McElroy doesn’t get paid for it, he regularly sacrifices work if it interferes with the choir’s Tuesday afternoon rehearsals.

“I believe God put me here for a reason and gave me the gifts I have for a reason. That sustains me,” he said.

His belief and devotion have paid off. Broadway Inspirational Voices has performed at the Tony Awards ceremony in 2000, for President Clinton at OpSail 2000, the lighting of the Olympic torch in 2001 and recorded a CD with Bob Dylan titled “In the Garden.”

The choir continues its annual concerts for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; so far the choir has raised close to $200,000. This year’s concerts will be Oct. 6 and 7 at the Ethical Culture Society in Manhattan.

The choir is about 60 percent black, 35 percent white and 5 percent Latino and Asian. Besides the half-dozen Catholics, there are Baptist, Presbyterian, African-Methodist, Jewish and Buddhist members. McElroy said the music transcends their differences. “It was born out of a place of pain and hope,” he said.

McElroy took time choosing the CD’s title. “Grace is such a simple word, but it said so much. It’s the amazing grace God gives you that steps in and allows you to blossom. God’s grace allowed us to do this.”

Retta Blaney’s latest book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, will be published next year by Sheed & Ward.

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002