Pensioners singing rock numbers is more than just a cute idea. The Young@Heart group is a world-touring sensation, singing mind-altering, floor-shaking versions of Rolling Stones, Radiohead and Outkast songs. Belinda McKeon saw them rehearse for their Iri
IT looks like every community centre in the world. On the corner of two busy roads out of Florence, a suburb of a suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts, it sits with its windows and doors open to the neighbourhood – and most of the neighbourhood speeding past it. It looks worthy and worthwhile, but also a little bit dull with mommy-and-me groups, decoupage sales and old people shuffling around, doing old people things.
In fact, today there are some old-seeming people sitting in groups inside the windows, standing beside an upright piano, looking like they’re getting across a good volley of grumbles in between whatever gentle numbers they’re croaking their way through.
And then a roaring blast into David Byrne’s Road to Nowhere breaks onto the humid morning air, a blast of energy so loud and so potent that it’s utterly startling and not a little unsettling, and all notions of the fusty and the innocuous are vanquished. These folks sure aren’t playing bridge. Charged and visceral and forceful, Byrne will segue into the Stones, into the Ramones, into Radiohead and Sonic Youth and Outkast. The floors will thud. The walls will shake. The innards of that old piano will take a licking they’ll never forget.
The Young@Heart Chorus is warming up. By the time they get to Ireland next month for their performances at the O’Reilly Theatre in Dublin (as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival) and at Glór in Ennis, they should be truly on fire.
“My kids say, Mom, you’re not doing that song!” says Jéan Florio, 85. “They say, get out of here, you can’t be doing The Clash. And we say, oh yes we are.”
“In the old days we would have just turned these songs off the radio,” says Jack Schnepp, 77. “We would have just turned down the noise. Now we know the words. We know there’s always a good beat in them. Now we enjoy them; they’re all good songs.”
“Well, the only thing I won’t listen to is hip-hop,” says Jéan. “I don’t care for that.” “Or hard rock,” adds Jack. “No, no, some hard rock is pretty good.” Pensioners singing pop and rock numbers – that’s a cute idea, but in itself it won’t carry far beyond the initial dose of cuteness. The Young@Heart Chorus has been going strong since the early 1980s and has grown to become one of the biggest deals in international theatre, touring the world and filling venues, winning delighted, astonished ovations wherever they go. Young@Heart shows go far beyond a set-list, even though the performances of the songs are mind-altering, riveting and moving.
The concerts are theatrical visions, black-edged, intelligent and deep; complex in their choreography and provocative in their worldviews, demanding of the ensemble members that they brilliantly act as well as memorably sing, demanding from them a whole-body, whole-spirit, whole-life performance that is as uplifting as it is powerfully unsettling, as intoxicatingly funny and enlivening as it is poignant, beautiful, and profound.
The quiet desperation of Fake Plastic Trees, the jagged mania of Schizophrenia, the voltage of Springsteen, the insolent lunacy of Hey Ya . . . to watch all of this woven into a meditation – physical and musical and visual and emotional – on aging and existence and identity.
“What a drag it is getting old,” the chorus hollers on the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper. “I can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my brain,” they moan (Offspring’s I Wanna Be Sedated). “We’re one, but we’re not the same,” intones Louise in a version of the U2 song that would put Bono to shame. “They’re coming to take me away, hahahehegigagigagigagigagigagigagiga,” jabbers 87-year-old Len, in a reprisal of the controversial Napoleon XIV hit from 1966.
Never a dull moment. All those oh-myaching-back gestures, you quickly come to realise, are strictly for effect. This place is as about as stiff and creaking as a mosh pit.
Young@Heart had modest – indeed, po-
tentially dead-end – beginthink that really resonates.” nings; in 1983, a young “In terms of a theme, with this show, we council employee named were thinking about older people who just Bob Cilman was charged never get to stop working,” says Bob Cilwith responsibility for man. “And it’s a real phenomenon here; the local senior citizens’ there are just old people who never get to music group. All he had retire. You see them work in places like in mind at the time, he McDonald’s and those places, so that was says now (he remains the idea, of people who are sort of stuck in the company director) what they have to do all the time.” was “a way to kill the It’s something the cast understands; altime”. He gained, early though they’re all retired now, they on, an interesting sideworked long careers in jobs that must kick in the form of have sometimes seemed as though they Roy Faudree, an acwould never end. tor and director who “None of us were showbiz people,” says has long had a close Brock Lynch, 83, who has been to more association with the than a dozen countries with the chorus. Wooster Group; He even met the king and queen of NorFaudree’s own way on one trip. “We may have been congroup, No Theatre, nected with the theatre, but we never was local to Massamade a living at it. So the argument of amachusetts, estabteur versus professional is moot; we had to lished with Sheebecome professionals.” na See in 1974. The show will be performed by the cast When they got together to pool in various workplace uniforms, on a set their ideas, something unique – and decidwhich will be an exact reproduction of the edly avant-garde – was formed. community centre where they rehearse.
The first staged show came in 1984, a colThis is mostly to convey the “playfulness”, laboration with local breakdancers, and the “theatricality” of the rehearsal room, when an elderly singer performed a versays Faudree, where, according to Cilman, sion of Manfred Mann’s at all the most exciting things happen. It’s an Aids benefit a couple of years later, Cilalso partly, however, intended to offset man recalls, “the whole thing went crazy”. the physical risks and inconveniences Soon afterwards, Faudree arranged for the posed by an unfamiliar set to a mostly sepchorus to perform at a festival in Rottertuagenarian and octogenarian cast. dam, and a world touring sensation was The minimum age of entry to the chorus born. is 73. (Pat Cady, a retired police officer The group’s first major show was called who is the youngest of the group at 72,
a glimmer-in-the-eye celesays she lied about her age to get in, and bration of the riches of old age; the new you’re not entirely sure that she’s joking). show, does more than Its make-up changes regularly as new just celebrate. It questions, it criticises, it members join – and depart. Some of the reveals. voices that, on previous tours, made num-
“With the last show,” says Roy Faudree, bers like and magnifi“it came right down the middle, where sudcently their own are now silent forever, denly the audience was sort of caught off and these losses have to be accepted and guard and there no longer was any clownintegrated; the show does goes on. ing. This one flip-flops back and forth, from “It’s all like one family,” says Jack complaints about the problems of being old Schnepp, and the other cast members and the working situations of being old, to around him murmur in agreement. “You reflections on where you get your power lose somebody, they’re still there.” and your energy and your love for life. And “The spirit of the group,” says See, “is it keeps zipping back and forth on that.” about always moving and continuing on.”
“I think it’s interesting in that it gives And about shaking things up as it goes. the group a chance to be angry,” says sheena See. “You don’t get to see, I mean, old people are always so sweet, aren’t they nice, aren’t they cute, and here you get them seeing people who have problems and complaints that they get to voice with energy and with anger.”
The emphasis is not on vaudeville, on “gotta-make-’em-laugh”. “Even just hearing them singing about love lost, in a real serious way,” says See, “really has a different resonance than hearing some 20-yearold complain about his lost girlfriend. I
Road to Heaven,
Do Wah Diddy
Road to Nowhere,
Black-eyed, intelligent, deep: Young@Heart in rehearsal. Photographs: Tina Barney, courtesy Janet Borden Gallery New York