Actress, singer, and Canadian Idol alum Elena Juatco will host the first annual Show Choir Canada Nationals tomorrow. Photo by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.
The scene inside the front doors of Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts couldn’t be more appropriate for a high school just days away from competing in the first annual Show Choir Canada Nationals. It’s lunch-time, and though nary a letterman jacket nor slushie facial is in sight among the students grouped around the front hallway, the unmistakable “ba ba ba” intro to Journey’s iconic “Don’t Stop Believin’” reverberates from the auditorium.
Wexford’s massive 70-student show choir is preparing a 15-minute performance for today and tomorrow, when 10 high schools—most of which are in the GTA, since this is the competition’s first year—will compete at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre for the title of National Champions (and an $8,000 digital grand piano). But as much as real-life show choirs might have TV shows like Glee to thank for their surge in popularity, arts schools like Wexford were doing just fine before Will Schuester decided to take on his rag-tag group of talented misfits.
“We’re the kids who would’ve been interested in show choir anyway,” says Eliza Musselwhite, who is preparing for her part in a provocative “Lady Marmalade” number with several other girls. The piece has been arranged as a mash-up with South Pacific’s “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” so that more of the boys can be included in the ensemble.
“The cool thing about Wexford is that they don’t really allow that diva behaviour. That’s the thing that’s really different [from Glee],” Eliza says. “There won’t be the same person getting the solos in everything. It’s spread out, and they work really hard to make it about team and not about ego at all.” (Hear that, Rachel Berry?)
Singers in Wexford’s show choir are nowhere near being underdogs—with their 500-seat auditorium and dedicated staff of music arrangers, choreographers, and a technical advisor—but that doesn’t make them any less endearing. Eliza may be performing a saucy part in Wexford’s opening number for the competition, but she got her start as a child performing “songs about eating your vegetables and things like that” for morning shows and folk festivals with her family band in Winnipeg—a childhood that could easily have been taken from the script of an Arrested Development episode.
Wexford student Elijah Manalo as Angel in the school’s production of Rent earlier this school year. Photo by Walter Korynkiewicz.
This school is clearly not lacking in guts, either, as their medley of songs from Rent will include an energetic performance from aspiring musical theatre star Elijah Manalo, who leads the choir in “Today 4 U” as Angel, in full Rent-style drag—funky Santa suit and wig included. He moves with complete confidence and expresses pride in the fact that homophobia doesn’t appear to be an issue in their group.
“It’s such a safe environment for all of us,” Elijah says. “For us to be artists, we have to have the liberty to express who we want to be. A lot of schools are very narrow-minded […] but the reality is that there are people like that in the world, and they just have to accept it.”
All 10 high schools will perform today, after which the top six will be chosen for tomorrow’s finals. On the final morning, those top schools will get the opportunity to participate in workshops with punny names like “Choral-ography” and “The Re-choir-ments of Being #1,” led by industry pros. George Randolph, co-founder of Show Choir Canada and founder of Toronto’s Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, explains that the workshops are all part of the competition’s mandate to provide unique learning opportunities for students. “It’s not just about giving away awards,” he says. “We focus on the process of getting from Point A to Point B, not just the product.”
The show’s host, Elena Juatco, will give these hopeful singers and dancers a role model they can learn from first-hand. The instantly charming Canadian Idol alum was active in choir and drama at her own high school, Vancouver’s Crofton House School, and has moved on to a full-time career in the performing arts—at the end of the month, she’ll appear in Sudbury Theatre’s production of the so-nerdy-it’s-cool play The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
“You don’t realize until you graduate how fortunate you are,” Juatco says. “And I’ve gone back to Crofton to tell them to get as involved as you can at this age, because not a lot of people have the opportunity. At Crofton, we had the resources, and you really get to appreciate it more and more as you realize not everyone has the same access to that.”
Show Choir Canada organizers don’t yet have set-lists for the schools’ performances, so there’s no telling what to expect from this open-format competition (other than a ballad that must be performed by each group). Will we see 10 different versions of the ubiquitous Journey anthem? Will one of the schools bust out a surprise wheelchair dance, or a touching number that incorporates ASL? Ann Merriam, the teacher behind those Wexford kids, is just grateful to keep her group off the streets and out of the malls.
“That’s why I always have too many kids,” she says of her 70-student choir. “I feel responsible that they’re not in the mall. They’re hanging out on a stage, a better place.”