OK, let’s say you work for a member of Congress. (Maybe you do work for a member of Congress. It’s hard for me to tell from here. But if you don’t, just pretend.) You work ten hours a day keeping American Democracy safe – sometimes from your member. You read tax legislation and budget reports and angry constituent letters until your brain tries to escape your skull by running out your ears. What do you do to blow off steam?
Well, all right, heavy drinking. But what after that? As it turns out, a surprisingly large number of Congressional staffers have a profoundly creative side. You probably know about the staffers who turned into comics and became The Capitol Steps. But what of those staffers who preferred harmony to hee-hee?
They became the Congressional Chorus – a 170-member choir which is, on June 6th, going to go all Stephen Sondheim on Washington.
They didn’t start out this big, of course. Twenty-eight years ago, an even dozen staffers got together to sing away their stresses. They sang the old songs, from Broadway: Rodgers and Hart. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jerome Kern.
They discovered they liked doing it. What’s more, they discovered they were good. People liked listening to them. They gave concerts, and got big crowds.
Politics being the unpredictable business that it is, many of these staffers eventually found themselves to be former staffers. They stayed in the Congressional Chorus, though.
The Congressional Chorus eventually hired a music director and an executive director. They opened membership to non-staffers. They hired an Artistic Director, David Simmons. They did newer Broadway musicals – In the Heights, A Light in the Piazza, Spring Awakening. They subdivided, and subdivided again, until they were five groups – The Congressional Chorus, The Congressional Chamber Ensemble, The American Youth Chorus (two divisions) and the NorthEast Senior Singers. Simmons estimates that up to 30% of the choir are still Congressional staffers or former Congressional staffers.
Simmons is one of them. He is a lawyer who worked for the late Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz, a moderate Republican and a good man who was tragically killed in a plane crash. But Simmons also taught choral music to elementary and high school students for fifteen years. And he worked in the outreach education programs of several choirs, including the Choral Arts Society of Washington. He conducted choruses for the Washington National Opera.
And he loves Sondheim. “I wanted our younger singers in the adult chorus and the members of our youth chorus to be exposed to Sondheim’s incredible works,” he told DCTS’ Lorraine Treanor. “When I heard, almost two years ago now, that Into the Woods was being made into a movie, I realized that it would expose a younger audience to Sondheim for the first time.”
SONDHEIM, SONDHEIM, SONDHEIM:
A Choral Celebration of an American Master
June 6 at 7:30pm
Congressional Chorus at
National City Christian Church
5 Thomas Circle, NW
Washington, D.C. 20005
Details and Tickets
Simmons breaks the upcoming concert down this way: they have 100 adults on their Congressional Chorus roster (90 will be in the Sondheim concert); 50 young people (8-14); 20 Seniors, and an 11 piece orchestra.
He promises that attendees will hear Sondheim as they’ve never heard him before. “What is so amazing about this concert is that it will enable the audience to hear many of their Sondheim favorites in a whole new light. Songs that are normally sung by anywhere from one person to a cast of maybe 20 to 35 people in stage versions of Sondheim’s shows will now be performed by anywhere from 12 (‘Ladies Who Lunch’ and ‘Agony’) to 150 choristers at a time (“Being Alive”) and will employ new and exciting harmonizations.”
And Simmons is wild about the concert’s venue – the National City Christian Church (5 Thomas Circle, near 14th and Massachusetts NW), a marvelous piece of architecture designed by the same guy (John Pope) who designed the Jefferson Memorial.
“The acoustics…are stunning. It is a beautiful place to hear a concert version of Sondheim’s works. ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ will be overwhelming in those acoustics. It will literally be hearing and seeing Sondheim in a whole new light!”
The Congressional Chorus will surprise you.
Postscript. The Congressional creative impulse is not limited to staff. Who can forget The Singing Senators? Alas, this group, like, say, Jim Morrison and the Doors but unlike the Congressional Chorus, had a dark side, as this Washington Post article limns.