I wasn’t even aware UK universities had ‘show choirs’. They have choral societies, of course, but they are more geared towards Mozart than Motown, and while classical music performed live is often stunning and majestic, the Masters of Show Choir included a very broad selection of songs from almost every other genre.
But anyone looking for musical theatre tunes will have found themselves wanting – the closest we ever got to a show tune (the sort of thing you might hear, for example, on Elaine Paige on Sunday), was ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen, and even that is not (yet) technically a musical. Fortunately or unfortunately, we were spared a performance from AfterParty, to have taken place while the judging panel deliberated, so the only course of action available was to insert a second interval to allow the judges to make their mind up. The Arts Theatre auditorium soon became rather like that courtroom scene in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, with everyone sitting around in a too-warm environment, patiently awaiting the verdict.
Director Angus Wyatt wasn’t satisfied with just chart music (for which read ‘pop’ and ‘rock’), and rightly so, asking each choir to include at least one Motown tune; their ‘Challenge Genre’ for this year – plus a section of a cappella, though there was nothing, as far as I could tell, to stop a choir from combining the two stipulations, thus forming an a cappella Motown number.
Based purely on actual Motown content, however, without even having considered anything else, the University of Kent’s Glee Club wins hands down. There were only three songs in their medley, all full length, two of which were ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ from The Supremes and ‘Respect’, made famous by Aretha Franklin (I understand it was composed by Otis Redding). In any event they managed to bag the Best Soloist award, even if I thought it was an odd choice for a category in a choral competition. I would have given Best Soloist to a man from Warwick Glee (2013 winners), who single-handedly raised the roof in a Jackson 5 number.
Elsewhere, there were up to 11 songs crammed in (or ‘mashed up’, to use the proper colloquial phrase) to a ten-minute slot. Agreeing that less is more, the judging panel, in the end, plumped for the Swansea University Choral Society as the overall winners (last year’s winners, the Cambridge University Show Choir, was this year’s runner up). Swansea, like Kent – and the University of Sussex Show Choir (2014 winners) – went for three full songs instead of excerpts and extracts from several more.
One of Swansea’s leading ladies found most of the audience in support of her continuing to perform despite an acute problem with her knee: the very likeable host, Jonny Meah, immediately returned a crutch she chose not to use for the performance as soon as Swansea’s routine was over. I suspect she defied medical opinion to travel to London, and I remain unsure as to whether she was brave or foolish to have danced in such a condition. She was clearly very uncomfortable; I can only wish her the very best for a full recovery.
Perhaps my relative unfamiliarity with chart music meant I may have enjoyed the novelty of consciously hearing some of these tunes for the first time in the first place. Not having a clue who some of the original artists whose songs were performed in the competition led to some frantic search engine browsing at the interval. I know who Cher is, for instance, but Alt-J sounds like a keyboard shortcut for something in Microsoft Excel, and a quick search for somebody called Sia (her stage name does not utilise a surname, like Cher, I suppose) only brought up the Security Industry Authority and the Spinal Injuries Association. (And, according to the University of Portsmouth Show Choir, Backstreet’s back, yet again. To use the vernacular of social media, ‘LOL’.)
Everyone did well, our judges empathetically said. I’m afraid I cannot agree, at least not entirely. One show choir leader even admitted to their choreography being ‘random’ (it very much was), and one poor soloist, bless her, completely mistimed herself. Sound levels weren’t always perfect, with the strength of a choir’s collective background vocals occasionally drowning out a lead vocalist completely.
The judging panel were as pleasant and diplomatic as they could possibly be – one couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant trio than Nick Barstow, Jodie Jacobs and Sophie Austin – but even they had to admit there were some choirs that didn’t engage the audience as well as others. I would like to add that the harmonies weren’t as smooth as they could have been in places. The ‘house band’, led by Matt Abrams, were excellent.
Swansea have set the performance bar quite high, and I believe the panel have judged correctly in crowning them winners of Masters of Show Choir 2016. I hasten to add that a number of fellow audience members felt Voices of Holloway should have been given at least runner-up or even winner.
My point, however, is this: if a show is going into a West End theatre, even as a standalone event, it’s a West End level of standards that I require from those performing on a West End stage. Overall, there’s some way to go yet. I must, however, also take into account that these are not professionally trained actors, but university students studying subjects in a range of disciplines, and adjust my star rating (upwards) accordingly.
The main thing is that the 130+ choristers appeared to have enjoyed themselves, and even if not all the performances were to my liking, personal taste should not preclude me from being grateful for all their collective efforts. It was quite an experience to hear some of these songs, often sung by a solo artist, performed by a choir. Or to be more precise, seven choirs.
by Chris Omaweng
Masters of Show Choir – the 5th year of the annual competition.
Performers: Cambridge, Royal Holloway, Kent, Warwick, Swansea, Portsmouth, Sussex.
Runners-Up: Cambridge Executive Producer & Director: Angus Wyatt
Production Designer: Tom Kitney
Sound Designer: Charlie Simpson
Musical Director: Matt Abrams
Host/Compere: Jonny Meah
Judges: Nick Barstow, Jodie Jacobs, Sophie Austin
Masters of Show Choir is proud to be supporting Theatre MAD (Make A Difference Trust) to help fight HIV & AIDS one stage at a time.
Performance: Sunday 6th March 2016