Patti Smith Sings “People Have the Power” with a Choir of 250 Fellow Singers

…people have the power

To redeem the work of fools

—Patti Smith

As protest songs go, "People Have the Power" by Godmother of Punk Patti Smith and her late husband Fred Sonic Smith is a true upper.

The goal was to recapture some of the energy they’d felt as youth activists, coming together to protest the Vietnam War. As Patti declared in an NME Song Stories segment:

… what we wanted to do was remind the listener of their individual power but also of the collective power of the people, how we can do anything. That’s why at the end it goes, "I believe everything we dream can come to pass, through our union we can turn the world around, we can turn the earth’s revolution." We wrote it consciously together to inspire people, to inspire people to come together.

Sadly, Fred Smith, who died in 1994, never saw it performed live. But his widow has carried it around the world, and witnessed its joyful transformative power.

Witness the glowing faces of 250 volunteer singers who gathered in New York City’s Public Theater lobby to perform the song as part of the Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy Is Coming last spring.

The event was staged by Choir! Choir! Choir!, a Canadian organization whose commitment to community building vis-à-vis weekly drop-in singing sessions at a Toronto tavern has grown to include some starry names and world-renowned venues, raising major charitable funds along the way.

As per Choir! Choir! Choir!’s operating instructions, there were no auditions. The singers didn’t need to know how to read music, or even sing particularly well, as participant Elyse Orecchio described in a blog post:

The man behind me exuberantly delivered his off-pitch notes loudly into my ear. But to whine about that sort of thing goes against the spirit of the night. This was a democracy: the people’s chorus.

Director Sarah Hughes had been having “one of those theater nerd Saturdays,” and was grabbing a post-Public-matinee salad prior to an evening show uptown, when she bumped into friends who asked if she wanted to sing with Patti Smith and a community choir:

I'm working on playwright Chana Porter and composer Deepali Gupta’s Dearly Beloved, a meditation on productive despair for community choir, and have been having beautiful, enlightening experiences making music with large groups of non-singers, so I was curious about what this might be like. 

And it was lovely. Just singing at all is always very great, even though I am not "good at it.” Singing along with all the other people in the room felt especially good. 

The Choir! Choir! Choir! leaders were generous, had a sense of humor, and weren't afraid to tell us when we sounded terrible, which was refreshing. 

We learned our parts and then I ate my salad standing in the Public lobby while we waited for Patti. She took a longer time to arrive than they'd planned for, I think, but it was because she was at a climate crisis rally so we weren't mad. And she was just very fully herself. 

I'm not like a die-hard Patti Smith fan, but I sort of fell in love with her after reading her beautiful recounting of messing up while singing "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" at Dylan's Nobel Prize ceremony. This experience made me appreciate her even more—her humanity, her vulnerability, the strangeness of being famous or recognized or heroic to many many people. And she really did lead us, in this very special, simple, real way. It reminded me of how little we really need in the way of money or production values or even talent for a performance or public event to feel worth our time.

The film reflects that sense of the extraordinary co-existing gloriously with the ordinary:

An unimpressed little girl eats a peach.

Two young staffers in Public Theater t-shirts seem both sheepish and thrilled when the film crew zeroes in on them singing along.

Guitarist and Choir! Choir! Choir! co-founder Daveed Goldman nearly bonks Patti in the head with the neck of his instrument.

Also? That’s the Police’s Stewart Copeland playing the frying pan.

Next up on Choir! Choir! Choir!’s agenda is an October 13th concert at California’s Boarder Field State Park, with some 300 people on the Tijuana side and 500 on the San Diego side raising their voices together on Lennon and McCartney’s "With a Little Help from My Friends." More information on that, and other stops on their fall tour, here.

Sign up to be notified next time Choir! Choir! Choir! is looking for singers in your area here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 7 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Sir Ian McKellen Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Letter to High School Students: Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Author Kurt Vonnegut was possessed of a droll, unsentimental public speaking style. A son of Indianapolis, he never lost his Hoosier accent, despite lengthy stints in Cape Cod and New York City.

Actor Ian McKellen, on the other hand, exudes warmth. He’s a charmer who tells a story with a twinkle in his eye, altering his voice and facial expressions to heighten the effect. (Check out his Maggie Smith.) Vocal training has only enhanced his beautiful instrument. (He can make a tire repair manual sound like Shakespeare.)

These two lions may have come at their respective crafts from different angles, but Sir Ian did Vonnegut proud, above, as part of Letters Live, an ongoing celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence.

The letter in question was penned the year before Vonnegut’s death, in reply to five students at a Jesuit high school in New York City, regretfully declining their invitation to visit.

Instead, he gave them two assignments.

One was fairly universal, the sort of thing one might encounter in a commencement address: make art and in so doing, learn about life, and yourself.

The other was more concrete:

Write a 6 line rhyming poem

Don’t show it or recite it to anyone.

Tear it up into little pieces

Discard the pieces in widely separated trash receptacles

Why?

A chance for Xavier High School’s all male student body to air romantic feelings without fear of  discovery or rejection?

Mayhaps, but the true purpose of the second assignment is encapsulated in the first—to “experience becoming” through a creative act.

This notion clearly strikes a chord with Sir Ian, 17 years younger than Vonnegut but by the time of the  2016 performance, closing in on the iguana-like age Vonnegut had been when he wrote the letter.

Should we attribute the quiver on the closing line to acting or genuine emotion on Sir Ian’s part?

Either way, it’s a lovely rendition.

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana. 

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.

Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

(Ian McKellen’s other Letters Live performance is a fictional coming out letter from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, from a gay character to his Anita Bryant-supporting parents.)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

High School Kids Stage Alien: The Play and You Can Now Watch It Online

Several weeks back, Colin Marshall told you about an enterprising group of high school students in North Bergen, New Jersey who staged a dramatic production of Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien. And they did it on the cheap, creating costumes and props with donated and recycled materials. The production was praised by Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver alike. Now, above, you can watch a complete encore performance made possible by a $5,000 donation by Scott, and attended by Weaver herself. Have fun.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

h/t azteclady

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Trivial Pursuit: The Shakespeare Edition Has Just Been Released: Answer 600 Questions Based on the Life & Works of William Shakespeare

"The standard thing to say is that each age makes a Shakespeare in its own image," wrote The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik on the the Bard's 440th birthday. But over the centuries, the biographical and critical portrayal of the playwright of HamletRomeo and JulietOthello, and King Lear has remained remarkably consistent: "He was a genius at comedy, a free-flowing natural who would do anything for a joke or a pun, and whom life and ability bent toward tragedy." He evolved "a matchless all-sidedness and negative capability, which could probe two ideas at once and never quite come down on the 'side' of either: he was a man in whom a temperamental timidity and caution blossomed artistically into the nearest thing we have to universality."

But today, on Shakespeare's 455th birthday, we might still wonder how universal his work really is. As luck would have it, the Shakespeare Birthday Trust has just come up with a kind of test of that proposition: an all-Shakespeare edition of the popular board game Trivial Pursuit.

"Devised by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the independent and self-sustaining charity that cares for the world’s greatest Shakespeare heritage sites in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, in partnership with games company, Winning Moves," Trivial Pursuit: The Shakespeare Edition (which you can buy on the Shakespeare Birthday Trust's online shop) offers "600 questions across six categories — Comedies, Histories, Tragedies, Characters, Biography and Legacy," all "carefully crafted by Shakespeare scholars Dr Nick Walton and Dr Anjna Chouhan."

One might assume that Shakespeare buffs and scholars will dominate this game. No doubt they will, but perhaps not as often as expected, since its questions give anyone with general cultural awareness a fighting chance: "As well as questions about Shakespeare’s life and works, there are others that link him to popular culture such as the Harry Potter film series, TV shows Dr. Who and Upstart Crow, as well as actors Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Keanu Reeves, and the Bard’s lesser known influence on the likes of Elvis Presley and even the classic cartoon Popeye." As Walton puts it, "there are all sorts of paths to Shakespeare," not least because of his work's still-unchallenged place as the most drawn-upon texts, deliberately or inadvertently, in the whole of the English language. As for Shakespeare himself, he remains "the reigning poet of the language," in Gopnik's words, as well as "the ordinary poet of our company" — and now we have a game to play to keep him in our company.

Pick up your copy of the game here.

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

High School Kids Stage Alien: The Play, Get Kudos from Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver

High school drama departments tend to work from a pretty standardized repertoire, which makes sense given the strict limitations they work under: short time frames, school-sized budgets, teenage actors. The elaborate, Hollywood film-like productions staged by Max Fischer in Wes Anderson's Rushmore speak to frustrated high-school theater directors and their fantasies about what they could put on stage with a bit more in the way of resources. But just this month, a real high-school drama club put on a show that out-Max Fischered Max Fischer, drawing not just the astonishment of the internet but the respect of one of the most eminent filmmakers alive.

"A New Jersey high school has found itself the unexpected recipient of online acclaim and viral attention for its recent stage production of Alien, the 1979 science-fiction thriller," writes the New York Times' Dave Itzkoff. "Alien: The Play, presented last weekend by the drama club of North Bergen High School, starred a cast of eight students in the film roles originally played by Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt and Ian Holm. Whereas the movie had a budget in the range of about $10 million, Alien: The Play had costumes, props and set designs made mostly from donated and recycled materials." Or as North Bergen student Justin Pierson put it in NJ.com's video on the surprise hit: "This is going to sound really funny but (the set crew) used garbage essentially."

With that "garbage" — "just anything that was lying around, like cardboard and metal" — they built not only a set that convincingly evokes the dark claustrophobia of the space ship Nostromo, but a shockingly accurate-looking alien, the terrifying creature originally born from the mind of Swiss illustrator H.R. Giger.

The young cast and crew get into detail about how they did it on Syfy's Fandom File podcast: "Much of the attention has highlighted and embraced their DIY approach," writes host Jordan Zakarin, and "they were endlessly creative in building the sets, with hand-puppet aliens, egg crate walls, a stuffed cat (the stand-in for Jones was a particularly ingenious idea), and other sweded props."

Responses to the video clips of Alien: The Play that have circulated on the internet include a personal congratulatory message from the original film's star Sigourney Weaver as well as a letter from its director Ridley Scott, which Alien: The Play's director, North Bergen English-teacher-by-day Perfecto Cuervo, posted on Twitter. "Limitations often produce the best results because imagination and determination can surpass any shortfalls and determine the way forward — ALWAYS," writes Scott, who has built his reputation in the film industry on taking firm and decisive action in the face of any and all production difficulties. He also offers both the funds for an encore production as well as a suggestion: "How about your next TEAM production being Gladiator." No doubt Cuervo and his enterprising players are feeling pretty vindicated in their decision not to do Our Town right about now.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Leonard Bernstein Awkwardly Turns the Screws on Tenor Jose Carreras While Recording West Side Story (1984)

What have we here?

Evidence that the Maestro is a monster?

Or a behind the scenes reminder that Arrested Development’s wannabe actor Tobias Fünke is not too far off base when he says that to make it in “this business of show, you have to have the heart of an angel and the hide... of an elephant.”

Both? Neither? Any way you slice it, the recording session above is not for your typical cast album.

West Side Story, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, opened on Broadway in 1957.

The film, starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony, came along four years later.

After which it’s been an endless round of community, college, and high school productions.

Are you a Jet or a Shark?

The celebrated tenor José Carreras does not make a particularly believable Jet.

While untold numbers of white kids have attempted Puerto Rican accents to play Maria, Bernardo, Anita, and Chino, that knife has seldom cut the other way.

Perhaps a dialect coach could have transformed Carreras’ thick Spanish accent into Tony’s New York street punk vernacular, but the prep time for these September 1984 recording sessions was minimal, and not tied to any actual production.

Carreras was also, at 38, a bit long in the tooth to be tackling the part.

But what might have been deal breakers for a Broadway revival were permissible for this weeklong special event in which world-caliber artists, "whose main reason for existing,” according to Bernstein, was their singing, would be laying down the score in the studio, backed by a full orchestra.

As he told his associate and eventual biographer, classical music television presenter Humphrey Burton:

l'd always thought of West Side Story in terms of teenagers and there are no teenage opera singers, it's just a contradiction in terms. But this is a recording and people don't have to look 16, they don't have to be able to dance or act a rather difficult play eight times a week. And therefore we took this rather unorthodox step of casting number-one world-class opera singers. I suppose the only foreseeable problem was that they might sound too old—but they don't, they just sound marvelous!

Bernstein’s approving mood is nowhere in evidence in the above clip, in which he hectors Carreras for screwing up the tempo, as the instrumentalists and sound engineers squirm.

Carreras’ discomfort and chagrin is so palpable that you can find the sequence on YouTube under the title “Tenor Keeps Screwing Up while Bernstein ConductsAwkward Sequence,” as if he were some weedy upstart, still wet behind the ears, when in fact, he had just flown in from Verona, where he’d been appearing as Don José in Carmen.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Carreras’ Maria, supplied a taste of what it was like to sing for the composer:

He's a man of many emotions. You can see his moods, his frustrations, his happiness, his wanting to perform to people. That's the thing that makes the man interesting. One is constantly trying to read him, but he's on another planet!

In the end, Bernstein declared himself pleased with what had been accomplished, or at least with the enduring power of the material.

But readers with an anti-authoritarian streak may not feel satisfied until they’ve seen the clip below, in which a rogue BBC Orchestra trumpet isn’t quite so deferential in the face of the Maestro’s criticism.

Listen to the 1984 recording of West Side Story for free on Spotify.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain in New York City this April. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda Perform the Earliest Version of Hamilton at the White House, Six Years Before the Play Hit the Broadway Stage (2009)

Another immigrant comin' up from the bottom

His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him… 

Holler if you can remember a time when few Americans were well-versed enough in founding father Alexander Hamilton’s origin story to recite it in rhyme at the drop of a hat.

Believe it or not, as recently as the summer of 2015, when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hamilton: An American Musical exploded on Broadway, Hamilton the man was, as the Tony award winning lyrics above suggest, largely forgotten, a relic whose portrait on the $10 bill aroused little curiosity.

Back then, Hamilton was perhaps best known as the hapless soul embodied by Michael Cera in the web series Drunk History.

Ron Chernow’s 2005 biography served up a more nuanced portrait to readers with the stamina to make it through his massive tome.

That’s the book Miranda famously took along on vacation in the period between his musical In the Heights’ Broadway and Off-Broadway runs.

The rest, as they say, is history.

As is the above video, in which a 29-year-old Miranda performs The Hamilton Mixtape for President Obama, the First Lady, and other luminaries as part of a White House evening of poetry, music, and spoken word.

There’s your Hamilton (the musical) origin story.

Its creator initially conceived of it as a hip hop concept album in which celebrated rappers would give voice to different historical characters.

Music director Alex Lacamoire’s jubilant expression at the White House piano confirms that they had some inkling that they were on to something very big.

A few months later, Miranda reflected on the experience in an interview with Playbill:

The whole day was a day that will exist outside any other day in my life. Any day that starts with you sharing a van to the White House with James Earl Jones is going to be a crazy day! I was the closing act of the show and I had never done this project in public before so I was already nervous. I looked at the President and the First Lady only once and when I looked at him he was whispering something to her and I couldn’t let that get to me. Afterwards, George Stephanopoulos came up to me and said, "The President is back there talking about your song, he’s saying ‘Where is (Secretary of the Treasury) Timothy Geitner? We need him to hear the Hamilton rap!’" To hear that the President enjoyed the song was a real dream come true. 

The Obamas enjoyment was such that they appeared in a pre-taped segment to introduce the Hamilton cast at the 2016 Tony awards (a tough year for any other musical unlucky enough to have debuted in the same period as this juggernaut).

They also hosted a Hamilton workshop for DC-area youth, for which the Broadway cast traveled down on their day off, performing the opening number out of costume. Biographer Ron Chernow was in the front row for that one, as Obama remarked that “Hamilton is the only thing Dick Cheney and I agree on.”

(“Dick Cheney attended the show tonight,” Miranda tweeted after Cheney's visit. “He’s the OTHER vice-president who shot a friend while in office.” Current Vice President Mike Pence also took in a performance shortly before his swearing in, though his appearance was met with a much less pithy response.)

As for The Hamilton Mixtape, many of Miranda's dream rappers turned out for its recording, though the tracks they laid down diverge from the one performed live for the Obamas in 2009, which legions of adoring fans can chant along to thanks to the musical's overwhelming popularity. Instead, this mixtape’s contributing artists were invited to reimagine and expand upon the themes of the play—immigration, ambition, and stubble—placing them in an explicitly 21st-century context.

Listen to The Hamilton Mixtape and the original cast recording of Hamilton for free on Spotify.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She has yet to win the Hamilton lottery. Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this March. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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