When the coronavirus shut down local theaters in March, Barry Austin didn’t really know what to do.
“I had been rehearsing ‘The Fantasticks’ at the Virginia Samford Theatre, and we were about a week away from opening,” he says. “I saw all of my friends, all of the world, really, so suddenly going through the reality of this situation. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to see each other, comfort each other, help each other. I just wanted to do something.”
So he did. Austin talked with Jan Hunter and Joe Zellner, and they came up with One Voice Birmingham, a group from the theater community joining together to sing a song together, albeit virtually.
That first video, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” has more than 9,000 views on YouTube, and One Voice Birmingham on Sunday released its second song, “One Voice.”
The new song has more than 30 participants from most every theater in Birmingham, more than three times the number in the first video.
“We had to convince Barry that we could not invite the 2,000-plus members of the Birmingham theater family, because that’s what he wanted,” Hunter says of the first video. “We decided to start smaller.”
The first video was a bit of trial and error, with singers – including Kristi Tingle Higginbotham, Carl Dean, Tam DeBolt, Lonnie Parsons and others – recording their parts at home and Zellner, a sound designer, editing the audio.
For “One Voice,” Parsons, who has returned to Birmingham after two years in Las Vegas, created an intricate vocal arrangement and sent it to the singers, who performed with a musical track created by Jay Tuminello. Again, Zellner edited the audio for the new song.
The sound editing was challenging, Zellner said, but he added “the process is very difficult for the singers.”
“We have a Facebook group we’re using to organize everything, and everyone talks about, ‘Oh, my God, I had to do 41 takes, and I sound awful,’” he says. “It’s hard for a singer to learn a piece of music without rehearsal and without having someone like Lonnie there to encourage them and give them feedback. For even the best of the singers in the group, it’s hard to learn it and perform it in isolation.”
Even more singers went through that process for “One Voice,” the song that Austin originally wanted the group to perform.
“I guess it was one that I could picture a lot of people doing, as many people as we could get,” he says. “I could picture the screen filled with Birmingham singers. And the message is similar to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ We’re isolated in our homes, but through our love of each other and music and performing, we’re able to communicate with each other and send a message of hope and love out there.”
That first video was more popular than anyone involved in the project thought it would be.
“It has really been overwhelming,” Hunter says. “When I open up Facebook, there are people from my childhood posting about it, and my college friends. Barry heard from someone in Africa who had seen it. We really did it at the right time. It was a warmth that everyone needed and a hug that everyone needed.”
“One Voice” may not be the end of One Voice, Austin says. He says there might be another song or perhaps, eventually, a live concert that would be a fundraiser of some sort.
“Some of this may depend on how long this situation lasts,” he says. “But this has been so fulfilling to me … Years from now, when we look back on all of this, we’ll have this association of at least a little joy and some hope.”