An uptown singalong

The Toronto Star
Nov. 12, 2001

An uptown singalong
Local amateurs croon favourites from the Great White Way
Janice Mawhinney
Life Writer

“I got rhythm.” The 46 singers are belting out the music with indisputable passion.

Some of them are off key, and a few straggle off the time.

It can’t be denied: They’re no Kiri Te Kanawa. In fact, they’re no John Denver. But they sure are enthusiastic.

“I got music. I got my girl; who could ask for anything mo-o-o-o-ore!”

This event is in the guise of a night school course. What it actually is, is a sensation.

The Avenue Road Arts School’s weekly two-hour singalong evening of Broadway show tunes has become so popular that the school opened a second section this term on another evening. School founder Lola Rasminsky says new people join the second group every week, and she’s prepared to start a third for the winter term if the numbers keep growing.

Getting together to sing “Oklahoma” and “Get Me To The Church On Time” clearly has appeal. The singing group fills the room with an extraordinary energy.

“It’s the best night of my whole life,” declares Pattie Goodman, in her ninth year with the Monday night group. “It’s such fun that it’s like a three-day weekend. I look at it as happiness therapy. We just laugh and tell bawdy jokes and sing the whole time.”

The course is a curious mixture of high tone and lowbrow, something like cosmic bowling for socialites.

On the surface, it’s all very uptown.

People from Rosedale, Forest Hill, Lawrence Park, North Toronto and the Annex gather in the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto building near Avenue Rd. on St. Clair Ave. They’re led by a team with impeccable theatrical credentials. Playing the piano without sheet music is David Warrack, who has been musical director of a number of productions in Toronto as well as the musical Shenandoah on Broadway. Musical comedy director Patrick Rose is deftly leading the group, and holding it all together with the force of his personality.

Seasoned musician Dewi Minden serves as administrative assistant and accompanist on found objects. (After 10 years touring internationally with the Robert Minden Ensemble, Minden is working on her second masters degree in music, this one in composing. Her first was in classical music performance on trumpet.)

But underneath the carriage trade veneer, the ambience of the gathering is distinctly down home. The room is full of rumpled casual clothes, uncombed hair and offhand banter. It’s obvious that no one is trying to impress. There’s a perceptible air of comfort and unpretentiousness.

One woman bounces in her seat as she sings. A few people get misty-eyed over pieces of music special to them.

Minden accompanies the singing of “I Got Rhythm” on the spoons: two teaspoons she found in the kitchen. She mugs, rolls her eyes, and taps the spoons on her thighs and even occasionally on her feet. Minden can sometimes be persuaded to play a trumpet solo for the group. She regularly makes eerie music by blowing on a turkey baster full of water, a feat she has also performed on Sesame Street. The highlight, which never fails to break up the group, is when she disingenuously squirts herself in the face.

Minden’s performance of “Blue Moon” on the turkey baster has people swaying and howling with laughter, and earns her a standing ovation.

“This is the most uplifting job I’ve ever had in my life,” Minden says. “It’s not about competition or judging. David and Pat are absolutely in love with this music, and it’s the love of the music that draws us all together from so many different professions.

“We struggle through every day at school or jobs or family life. Then one night a week, it’s incredible to have this place where you really can forget all your troubles and feel happy.”

Rose works the crowd like an evangelist, calling everyone by name, adeptly reining in individuals whose high spirits veer distinctly toward amok, and pumping up the energy level in others who seem to need it. He jumps around, waving his arms in cheerleader fashion. When he cups his hand around his ear, everyone sings much louder, evidently finding his high energy irresistible.

“I go home and collapse afterward,” he confesses. “But music is a wonderfully healing thing. It’s a great gift to share. It’s good for the soul.”

Warrack observes that the class takes him back to the element that drew him into the music business in the first place. “It’s a plain and simple love of music and seeing what it can do for people,” he says.

It’s a great show. And the non-professionals who are part of it every week love it.

It’s a physical release, say some, an emotional boost, and a social community.

“There’s something about filling your lungs and just singing it all out,” notes retired social worker Pat Snyder, who joined the class last year. “The physical sensation alone is great. And the feeling of singing in a group is wonderful. I love it. I do.”

Elizabeth Halligan comes to both the Monday and Thursday groups, paying the $270 fees twice “because it’s so good for me,” she explains. “I look at it as an investment in fun.

“If you try to explain it to anyone, they don’t get it. You have to be here to believe it.”

The Monday group, operating for nine years with some of its original members, has a wild and hilarious air. It’s led by Rose. The Thursday group, led by Warrack, is more about singing and appeals, suggests Minden, to “people who want to be in a warm space.”

A random sample of singers turns up an author, a teacher, an interior designer, a doctor, a hotel manager, two father/daughter pairs and a mother/daughter duo. They have little in common other than their love of singing and their interest in Broadway shows.

Conversation during the break often includes the interest they share. Class members planning a trip to New York get an enthusiastic recommendation from others to visit a little club called Marie’s Crisis, where everyone sings Broadway numbers until the small hours. One evening, a heated debate breaks out about whether or not Johnny Mathis ever sang the role of Maria in West Side Story.

At the end of the year, the group competes on Broadway trivia knowledge for the class Air Freshener Award and the Refrigerator Magnet award. “It’s tacky. It’s funky. It’s just fun,” says Rose.

The sense of community in the groups surprises everyone. When Warrack got married 18 months ago, the class had a big party for him and presented him with a quilt. Each person had made a quilt square. “I was amazed and touched,” he recalls.

When longtime class member and Canadian Cancer Society CEO Dorothy Lamont recently died of cancer, she left instructions that she wanted her fellow Broadway show tune singers to perform at her funeral. As per her request, they sang Irving Berlin’s “You’re Not Sick, You’re Just In Love” and “If We Only Had Love” by Jacques Brel.

Rasminsky dreamed up the idea of the class and when she opened the school in September, 1993, she included Broadway tunes for personal reasons as much as anything else.

“I desperately needed to relax – you know the stresses of starting a new business,” she recalls. “This is the fix I needed every week. It’s my shot in the arm, my energy boost.”

There were a few early years when the Broadway tunes class drew only sparse enrolments. But Rasminsky persisted, offering it again every year as enrolment built up. Now it seems there’s no stopping it.

She still enjoys dropping in and singing along. On a recent evening, Warrack greets her by swinging the piano music smoothly into “Whatever Lola Wants” from Pyjama Game. Rasminsky slides into a seat near the back and gamely sings along. She brightens perceptibly while crooning “Singing in the Rain.”

“I had a terrible day,” she whispers a few numbers later. “I came in here in the worst mood. But I feel great now. Somehow singing these songs just does that.”

She’s not going to get any argument on that point from the other class members.

“Any tensions you have just vanish,” says Morna Wales, who is in her seventh year with the group. “I always walk out of here happy, no matter how I felt coming in.”

It shows. After the class ended on a cold, rainy black night this fall, one woman paused at the end of the corridor and nudged another woman, pointing back to the emptying room behind them.

“Look,” she said. “Everyone who comes out of that room is smiling.”

They watched together for a while. It was true.