Author Archives: Houston Show Choir

Diane Benson’s Story (Music Director 1987-2016)

Diane Benson 2015I came to the chorus via a Leisure Learning advertisement. The director at the time was a University of Houston professor who decided to take a year’s sabbatical and only notified the chorus at the start of the season. The accompanist took over as the director and asked at the first rehearsal if anyone could play the piano. And that’s how I became the accompanist in the fall of 1986. In the spring of 1987, I was appointed as director when the former director unexpectedly left.

We had about 120 members of all skill levels at the time and were truly a mom and pop community chorus. We dressed in white blouses with long black skirts for the spring and in Victorian costumes for the holiday season. We used only piano accompaniment and songs were very traditional for the holidays. Spring songs were “old” favorites from Broadway shows, folk songs, patriotic pieces, etc.

Over time, the first thing to go was the Victorian costumes. Our first “enhancement” to the black and white outfits was to add red sequined belts and bow ties. Eventually we went with our first “show” outfit of a mid-length black skirt and a red faux sequined top. Men wore sparkly red vests.

The transition to show choir started gradually with memorizing a few pieces, performing more current numbers and adding some simple moves. The costumes also transitioned to full sequins, chiffon skirts and lots of glitz. Auditions were established about 20 years ago for all new members. Over time, the size of the group declined, but the quality of the singers rose dramatically.

We established a collaborative relationship with the Houston Concert Band under the then direction of Dr. Ken Dye, doing several joint concerts over the course of a few years. We performed annually for the July 4th celebration at AstroWorld, sang at the Republican Convention in Houston for George H.W. Bush and participated in the opening ceremonies of the Johnson Space Center. Other highlights included singing for Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Texas in 1991, a brief appearance on America’s Got Talent, performing for the Uptown Houston Holiday Lighting and Nutcracker Market and recently with Barry Manilow. We’ve sung for numerous private events ranging from a class reunion, 50th wedding anniversary party, Veterans Day celebration and a “happy divorce” party!

My artistic legacy is leaving a group that I now consider semi-professional. As I famously said on a TV news report, “WE do what WE do, and we’re the only ones in Houston that do what WE do!” And we do it very well! I am so proud to see how the group has grown in talent, both in the performance arena and in administrative support. Retiring from this position was certainly not an easy decision. I will most likely never again have the opportunity to work with this level of artistic talent, nor be able to perform with such an enthusiastic group of folks.

Many have asked what I will do with my “free” time. I still plan on working at MD Anderson a few more years but at this point, have no idea what passions I will explore next. It certainly will be nice for Ed and me to be able to travel any time we wish and not have it conflict with a Monday night rehearsal! The holidays will not be the same without an overdose of Fa La Las. I will definitely have to come out to the Nutcracker Market to get into the holiday spirit as that has always been the first show of the season, but this time I’ll just shop!

My immediate focus is to get us show-ready for this season and work with the new director to ensure a smooth transition. The friendships I have created with so many of you over the past 30 years will certainly endure, but at a different level. This is one of the things that I will miss most – and what made this decision so difficult.

This group has kept me young, kept me on my toes and certainly kept me up to date on current singers, top hits, technology, etc. I never expected to spend 30 years doing something that I so love. Thank you all for allowing me to lead you on this journey. I know that there are many new performance roads ahead of you!

A Day with Barry Manilow

It’s a Miracle, a True-Blue Spectacle…

—Phyllis Doran

It was a regular Monday rehearsal for Houston Choral Showcase, but instead of our music director Diane Benson telling us to pull out a piece of music from our spring lineup to sing, she said, “I have something to share that is very exciting.” She then proceeded to tell us that because of our great online presence, numerous YouTube videos and descriptive website, the organizers of Barry Manilow’s tour had invited us to sing with them.

The 46 folks in the room, who on occasion have been known to sing in unison, collectively and without missing a beat said, “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!”

And so began the four-week frenzy culminating in a night to remember for the 32 lucky members of the chorus who would be selected to sing back-up for a living legend. To help her make this difficult choice, savvy Diane used one of the most challenging passages of our spring show music as a test for who could prepare quickly for the Manilow gig. For two weeks you could find singers in odd corners mumbling the skat section of “Speak Softly, Love” from “The Godfather” – all those bah-doo-ways and doo-bee-ahs are like learning a foreign language. Once the singers were chosen we had two weeks to prepare for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sing with Barry Manilow.

Friends, families, acquaintances, and random people we met on the street all had similar reactions when we boasted of our selection: Wow…that’s great! How did you get that gig? The real Barry Manilow? Actually on stage? It was surreal. Nonetheless it was happening, and we had a lot of work to do.

Even though we were familiar with the songs – It’s a Miracle, Copacabana, and I Write the Songs – it was the arrangement as back-up singers that we needed to learn, and of course, having scoured the internet for videos of Barry’s “One Last Time!” performances from other cities, we knew we would also be in for some fancy footwork. We were each dedicated to “eat, sleep and breathe” these tunes so that we were as prepared as we possibly could be on February 17th, when Barry would be in Houston.

2016-02-17 22.10.24The day arrived and even coordinating the chorus to get to the venue as a collective unit was an undertaking in itself. Ten pre-determined cars formed a caravan from our home base and rehearsal location at Zion Lutheran Church to the Toyota Center, where we were greeted and escorted backstage by our newest best friend, Doug, who has the best job in the world.

The next two hours were spent reviewing the music and giving us an overview of what we would be asked to do with our arms, shoulders and feet. But it wasn’t until we made our way onto the actual stage and met with Barry’s long-time back-up singer and choreographer, Kye, that we would get our line-up and much more specific directions on where we would be and which way we enter, sway, swing, point, reach for the sky, clap and exit. Kye was also super funny, inspirational and helped to calm our collective nerves. When we were through with this mini stage rehearsal, he gave us a very heart-felt talk about how we should take it all in, sing our hearts out, and know that out of the millions of people in this great city of ours, that we were truly blessed to be a part of this event that would stay in our memories for a long, long time.

Empty Toyota Center

Kye and Doug backstage

After some down-time and photo opportunities with Barry’s “image” on the concourse of the Toyota Center, it was time for another round of rehearsing, to really get the details of the moves down pat and get fitted with our ruby red choir robes. Doug was a great mentor and directed us with the poise of someone who has done this many times and with much more challenged dancers. None of us was willing to take the chance of being seen on the Jumbotron mouthing the wrong words or going in the wrong direction with our “windshield wiper” shoulder rocks.

Barry Manilow singers

choir robes

And in no time at all, it was SHOW TIME!

We were led backstage, where we had the only opportunity to actually hear or see any of the concert. As we waited, the reality and excitement of this moment was almost overwhelming. We anxiously listened for our cue to navigate our way up the dark steps and onto the risers and hoped that no one would trip and cause what would surely have been a domino effect of singers dropping into the orchestra pit, as the space we had was so tight!

And there we were, lights bright, singing our hearts out, moving together as a single red ship on the sea of rhythm and rock and roll. Looking out at a true legend and performer who has for decades brought us music that will forever be in our collective consciousness and gazing even further into an arena filled to the brim with Fanilows and, of course, our very own families and friends, who said we missed a really great concert. Given this was the “One Last Time!” tour, I suppose we will just have to wait for the release of the concert DVD to see it. Perhaps they will even use the best darn choral group in Texas for that production.

Barry Manilow backup choir