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Brooklyn tradition turns 70, SING celebrates a milestone year

February 22, 2017 By Ellen Levitt Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
1971 SING cover artwork by Roz Chast

One of Brooklyn’s most enduring educational and cultural traditions has just reached its 70th anniversary. SING, the annual high school theatrical performance that consists of student-developed theater, music, dance, art and costuming, was recently performed for the 70th time at Midwood High School, where it all began. Held at Midwood during the second weekend of February, the Senior team won with their show called “Prom Night of the Living Dead.”

SING was also recently staged at other area high schools: at Edward R. Murrow High School it was held the first weekend of February and the Junior-Sophomore team won with their show called “The Thief.” James Madison High School’s recent SING production winners were the junior-freshman team. FDR High School recently staged a one-night version of sing, which was run by the English Department. John Dewey High School did SING for the first time this year, aided by a grant given to the Department of Education by singer Taylor Swift, and the Sophomore-Junior team won. Leon Goldstein also has its SING each year.

SING is still wildly popular at Midwood, as well as at a handful of other schools in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens, but was more widespread (especially in Brooklyn) in past decades. Is its heyday now past? Will it be revived at more schools?

In brief, SING is a particularly New York teenage phenomenon. Based on summer camp color-war competitions, as well as varsity and variety shows, SING is a yearly student-run musical competition that pits grades against each other for best original show, and with awards granted in different categories. A signature of the SING show is the use of song parodies; students borrow the tune of a familiar song (from pop, rock ‘n roll, Broadway, folk, etc.) and write their own lyrics. Students write the scripts, create the sets and costumes, choreograph dances in various styles, lead bands, promote the shows with playbills and advertising and more. There are roles for every type of student: lead actors as well as group choral members, dancers and musicians, artists and stage hands, and at some schools there are even positions for “Central SING” organizers who oversee the performances as a whole.

In some schools the freshmen and sophomores are paired together, while the juniors and seniors field their own teams. In Murrow, Goldstein, Dewey and a few other schools the 12th graders and 9th graders are paired while the 11th and 10th graders pair up; at Madison the 9th and 11th graders join together versus the 10th and 12th graders. Thus there is a system of mentorship involved.

Midwood High School birthed SING and so, with this year’s performance the students paid tribute to its 70th anniversary with the design of their Playbill cover art, as well as each team’s T-shirts. Other area high schools have also staged SING shows for many years, including Murrow with its 39th year of participation. But it all began at Midwood, when a group of students floated the idea. It was then developed by a Midwood music teacher named Bella Tillis, who taught there for three decades. Other schools adopted the annual performance as well, and thousands of students at several schools have participated, and many more have enjoyed (or agonized over) the shows and the results.

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The basics of SING have continued over the decades but there have been a number of changes and innovations added on or set aside. Some school SING performances feature a standard school alma mater song that is sung by all participants (as with Midwood), while other schools craft a different alma mater each year (as at Murrow). Typically each team produces a yearly banner and T-shirt but they display them in different ways: for instance, at Midwood the three team banners hung right outside the school auditorium but in Murrow, each team displayed its banner toward the end of each performance. Indeed, as Amy Zimmer wrote in an article for DNAinfo.com in late 2015, “SING has a deep history in some city high schools.”

Each team SING performance usually features a band overture, an opening number, a plot dilemma number, an alma mater and a victory song, as well as other songs and instrumentals. At some schools there is a tradition for each team briefly to “borrow” a gimmick or even a team member from the other group. Some schools have multiple dance numbers (Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High features swing, belly dancing and other styles) and many schools in recent years have a spotlighted step number that can employ rigorous gymnastic moves or makeshift percussion. Rap and hip-hop have become popular alongside more traditionally sung vocal numbers. The scripts often employ school in-jokes or references to teachers.

As much as SING has become a tradition in certain schools and continues to be a highly anticipated student activity each year, some schools have dropped SING from their repertoire. Some of those are large neighborhood schools that were closed and reorganized into smaller units: among them are Erasmus Hall, Tilden, Lafayette, Sheepshead Bay, Canarsie, South Shore and Wingate. Lincoln used to run an annual SING but discontinued it a while ago. However, the John Jay High School Campus has revived its SING and the smaller schools that are co-located there do participate (Park Slope Collegiate, Millennium Brooklyn, Journalism and Law).

High schools in other boroughs also stage SING performances. Staten Island’s Tottenville, Susan E. Wagner, Port Richmond and New Dorp High Schools are among them. In Queens, Forest Hills and Bayside are among those that currently hold SING. Stuyvesant in Manhattan and Bronx Science also participate. There have even been intermittent Inter-SING competitions, which pit the winners of a few schools against each other. (For instance, the “Three M’s” of Midwood, Madison and Murrow competed in 2015 and 2016, and in the past other Inter-SINGs included Sheepshead Bay and Lincoln.) And at least one Catholic school, St. Brendan’s, held SING at some point.

Students and graduates who participated or watched SING performances often look back fondly on their experiences, but many other New Yorkers have little or no idea what SING is and how much work it entails. Some people know about it because of the 1989 film “Sing” that starred Lorraine Bracco, Peter Dobson and Patti LaBelle. YouTube offers a number of SING performances (whole or partial) from several New York City schools. While many of these are from the past two decades, you can even find recordings or faded films of performances from the 1960s and 1980s. Walk the first floor corridor of Midwood and you will find painted tributes to the winning teams of each year.

Now let’s hear from people who participated in SING over the years. Overall they enjoyed themselves and had immense praise for the skills they learned. Their memories point out the quirkiness of student-run productions.

Beverly Beck: I was in SING in 1972 at James Madison. Our theme was about the stomach. I still have the songs we sang and the record album.

Jeanne Faulk: (Wingate, 1963-67) I was a chorus member and costume maker. During my freshman year, we were practicing for SING when we got the news of President Kennedy’s death.

Harry Brudka: I was SING Chairman at Lafayette in 1968 and 1969. In 1967 our theme was Army. In 1968 our theme was Born Free, and we won.

Donna Lorenzo Germano: In 1973 at Lafayette our theme was the Fabulous 50s. The closing song was to “A Summer Place.” Senior SING was great. We capitalized on the Spirit of ’76. We even had a Liberty Bell.

Barbara Robbins: SING was an amazing time for those of us who participated. I was in the chorus for three years at Lafayette (1972 grad). I still have the fondest memories of rehearsals, costumes, the backdrop, Jahn’s and so much more. [Note: Jahn’s was a legendary ice cream shop and casual restaurant chain.]

Eric Steinhardt: I was on the A/V squad for Sheepshead Bay SING 1981-83. We all seemed to forget about school for a month or so prior to our performances. We were laser-focused on SING for those weeks. Some of the best years of my life. We used (for songs) LOTS of Manilow, Yes, Survivor, stuff from “Pippin,” Aerosmith. I also realize how much we got away with back then that wasn’t exactly politically correct, but it was funny.

Paula Tauber: I remember the massive outcry the year the juniors won at Lincoln! It was a given that the senior class would always win. (late 1960s)

Emily Pariente: I was a chorus leader one year for Lincoln SING (late 1960s) and it was sometimes a thankless task. Some kids really couldn’t sing. But it was still a lot of fun!

Eric Glazer: I was in Sheepshead Bay SING in 1981-84. We won as juniors and seniors and each time in Inter-SING against Lincoln and Midwood. I was the drummer in the band and it was a happy and fun experience. Great memories.

Merryl Bussell Marshall: I participated in Tilden SING in 1972-75. Those were some of the finest memories of my life. I truly grew from those experiences. I learned teamwork, used creativity, felt pride and made friends.

Ellen Seckler Bailin: I graduated in 1963 from Erasmus and have wonderful memories of participating in SING for three years. The song parodies, costumes and creativity were unbelievable! I hear a random song and the words we substituted come right back.

Ken Arstark: Memories fade, but I played Mr. Turtle at Erasmus in “Alice Through the Arch” in SING 1964.

Irving Sovern: At Sheepshead Bay, I was the stage manager for all three years. I built props and had a speaking role in one show. I still have friends and the greatest memories from SING.

Sharon Greenspan Buxbaum: I lived and breathed SING each year at Sheepshead Bay! The costumes took over our apartment since my mom helped with the sewing.

Ellen Ruth Topol: As juniors and seniors, we won at Sheepshead Bay. My sister had the same experience.

Claudine Ohayon: At Midwood it was an amazing experience each year. Being invested in something from inception to creation to execution was powerful. We practically lived at school for all those months.

Jacqui Hrivnak Elkayam: My older son was in SING at Stuyvesant (a few years ago). In junior year his class chose Egypt as a theme. Jeremy played an Egyptian soothsayer. In senior year, his theme was horror — he played an evil clown. It was kind of macabre, but with really cool songs and dances.

Sharon Pardo: At Sheepshead Bay I did costume work in my freshman year.

Gabrielle Weinblatt: At Forest Hills our Junior year SING finale song was “Come Together Junior SING” (a take-off on the Beatles song “Come Together”).

Richard Spettell: While I was always just in the chorus for three years and helped build props, SING really helped me get out of my comfort zone and meet a lot more friends. And the SING parties were the best!

Wendy Delano Rosenthal: In Midwood Soph SING I sang a song to the tune of “Give My Regards to Broadway” and I wore pink satin shorts and a matching jacket. We also did a version of Southside Johnny’s “Talk to Me.”

Tricia Seigne: Soph SING at Midwood (1980) was about mannequins that came to life. Junior SING was set in the jungle and was a love story. Our senior SING was futuristic.

Erik Clark: I remember jimmying the back door of Midwood so a group of us could reenter in the evening, anticipating pulling an all-nighter to complete the sets. (A Brooklyn College guard caught them.) We were taken into custody! Parents had to come pick us up at the local precinct.

Ben Levitt: At Murrow, it didn’t matter what social group you belonged to, what you studied or your acting/singing ability. The only thing that mattered was commitment to come to the rehearsals and just have fun.

Remarkably, pop star Taylor Swift, who did not grow up in New York City but now lives here, donated proceeds from her song “Welcome to New York” to the NYC public schools, and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has earmarked much of that money for use in expanding SING to more high schools throughout the boroughs. Bayside, Flushing, Bowne, Van Buren and Edison High Schools in Queens, Fashion Industries and Frederick Douglass Academy in Manhattan and Celia Cruz High in the Bronx were recipients of funds to create SING programs.

As for myself, I began in the chorus in soph-fresh SING at Murrow in 1980 but dropped out; I don’t recall why and do regret it. But I came back for my senior SING in 1982 as a band member, playing the piano for most numbers and singing with the chorus during the victory song set to the tune of Chuck Berry’s “Go Johnny Go.” I had a great time, although some rehearsals seemed grueling and I had to nag the sound crew to be mic’ed better. One time our band leader and another band member got into a fight but it broke up when everyone else fell into hysterical laughter. Our opening number was set to America’s “Sister Golden Hair” and the overall theme was a parody of the early President Reagan years in Washington, DC. (We featured a character named “Plague,” an exaggerated take-off on Alexander Haig.)

Now, as a parent I have enjoyed watching my daughters and their SING performances at Murrow. My older girl has played the guitar three years in a row for her shows, while my younger girl worked on sets, props and as a stage hand during the performances.

SING has proven to be a fantastic extracurricular activity for students with various interests. It promotes school spirit and helps teens explore the world of the theater and its many aspects. Audience members can enjoy the show and root for their family and friends. And it’s all thanks to Midwood High School and the late Mrs. Tillis, as well as to the many students who have participated, the teachers who acted as faculty advisors and the adoring and boisterous crowds. Long live SING!

 

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