Michael McElroy Talks Broadway Inspirational Voices on Eve of Big Benefit
Over the course of his career, Michael McElroy has been nominated for a Tony award ("Big River"), a Drama Desk award ("Violet"), and even a Grammy award, for his arrangements on "Great Joy," the Christmas album by Broadway Inspirational Voices, a choir that he founded back in the '90s.
Broadway Inspirational Voices (BIV) is a diverse choir of Broadway artists united in the goal to change lives through music and service.
On February 15, McElroy brings BIV to B.B. King's in New York for a gala concert, featuring a bevy of Broadway stars offering solos: Billy Porter, Norm Lewis, Joshua Henry, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Telly Leung, Eden Espinosa, Marcus Paul James, Jarrod Spector, and Chad Kimball, among others.
EDGE spoke with McElroy about his career, Broadway Inspirational Voices, and the upcoming concert.
EDGE: I understand you are actually a preacher's kid from Shaker Heights, Ohio, and grew up in the Baptist Church. The gospel experience has stayed with you, so I'm assuming the experience was more joyful than repressive. Is that true?
Michael McElroy: Let me think about that. It was not without its challenges. The Baptist church is very steeped in a tradition. It wasn't on the really conservative side, but it wasn't on the liberal side either. There were aspects of it where I felt if I fully expressed who I was, it might have been tricky. The great thing about it was that I grew up in a family where there was a lot of love. But when you're young and growing up and part of a religious experience, it doesn't take someone telling you what could be the outcome of that to make you repress certain aspects of whom you are. Once I was out of that environment and able to fully step into who I am as an individual, my family became fully accepting of me and loving me unconditionally, and so I was very lucky. They are Christ-centered in the best way that I understand Christ to be, which is loving of everybody and accepting of everybody.
EDGE: You graduated from Carnegie Mellon. How important was having a good educational foundation for your career?
Michael McElroy: I can't say that it is for everybody, but for me being part of that conservatory program taught me to work hard and gave me a work ethic. When I got to New York, I knew how to work. There was no difference in how I worked there and how I engaged with the professional world. I was completely prepared to get out there and bring 150% every single time. In that way, I thought it was a wonderful experience. It was a painful experience in some of the things I went through emotionally. Something about that professional training was like boot camp. We endured it and got through it together, and it bound us together in such a way that nothing else has. You go through that for four years with the same people and it bonds you. But nothing I've done since then has been as difficult. Another really wonderful aspect of getting an education is the connections you make. I have friends now who are producers and casting directors, some who run theater companies. I have sometimes gotten jobs through them or recommended students for jobs. There are a lot of connections that Carnegie gave me that I'm still reaping the benefits from.
EDGE: You are now teaching full-time at NYU. Does that allow you to find time to audition or be seen for major roles?
Michael McElroy: Six years ago, I closed 'Rent' on Broadway and toured it for a year, and I remember very clearly thinking that I was ready not to do this anymore. Literally, the next day I got a call from Kent Gash from NYU, and he told me they were developing a new program and thought I would great for it. He wanted me to come in and meet with the search committee. Once again, connections -- Kent Gash is a Carnegie Mellon graduate. He directed me in a project at NYU in the early '90s. I went in and applied for it through all the levels.
At same point, I realized I could actually do this. That's when the panic started! I had to sit down and have a heart to heart conversation with myself to see if I was really ready to give this up. To be honest, even when I was doing it and loving it, there was a part of me that knew being an actor was not the end game for me. When this came along, it felt right. In order to do it, I'd have to let go of the professional acting part of my life in order to fully commit to developing this program and to these students. I work sometimes, but I pick and choose what I want to do. Something that won't keep me away from teaching for too long.
EDGE: That's a brave decision to follow that feeling.
Michael McElroy: I believe everybody's life has a journey to it. If you are open and prepared, you will be always be ready for the next thing that is put in place for you. I have not looked back with one regret. This has led me to become a really good teacher and allowed me to focus on my writing. I'm workshopping a new show right now. The opportunity came up to allow me to focus on what my passions really are, which are writing and teaching.
EDGE: Do you notice a difference in the students today than when you were in college?
Michael McElroy: [Laughs.] Oh yes! Now you are leading me down the path! I just applied for a promotion at school and I had to write a paper, and one of the things I wrote about was the influence that the internet and television has on the students today. There are many positive things, but there two aspects that I think have had an adverse effect on students. One thing is, they've been raised on these TV reality shows where they are being fed on this idea that they can become Miss Thing immediately. The internet also makes them think they can get everything yesterday. So how do as teaching artists get them to understand that in order to have a real career and journey as an artist, it is something you develop over time. It is not for immediate gratification. You have to work hard at it consistently. That is what gives you, hopefully, a career of longevity. There is something to be said for putting in the time and concerted effort to build a foundation for something that is lasting. Everywhere they are getting messages that they can have it right now-and not only that they can have it, but that they deserve it and are entitled to it.
EDGE: Let's get to BIV. I was surprised to learn that it started as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Michael McElroy: That's right. Back in 1994, and it was at the height of the AIDS epidemic and it had swept through the theater community. We were really hungry to do something because we felt so helpless, and also we needed some kind of emotional understanding of what was happening. It was when Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS were at the beginning, and two separate organizations. At the time, a lot of actors were doing solo cabaret benefits to raise money. I did two solo cabaret shows to raise money for BC/EFA and then the third year I wanted to do something different. I knew from being raised in the church that gospel music was giving me a sense of peace in the midst of a time that had no rational understanding. So I got eleven of my friends, including Billy Porter, Adriane Lenox, Alice Ripley, and others, and we did a gospel concert. It was a huge success. Over the next few years, it grew from eleven people to sixty. Around 2000, we became a non-profit and started building our program and making it a full-time organization.
EDGE: How do people get into the choir?
Michael McElroy: So much of what we do as artists is audition and I didn't want that energy to be a part of what we do. So I would see shows and then invite people. Now we have a membership committee. So when they approach someone, they tell them what it's about, what the time commitment is, and what is expected. If they say yes, we send them all the information and then they talk with the committee, and then we invite them in. People need to understand that it's not a status thing, but that it's a full-time commitment. We are not only committed to the power of this music, but we're committed to the service of giving back. We are here because people inspired and motivated us, and we feel it is essential that we give that energy back, to inspire the next generation of artists or even theatergoers.
EDGE: The theater community is also full of LGBT people. Is it also important to you to show that they, too, can participate in the faith journey in some way?
Michael McElroy: It is essential to me that when I started the choir I wanted it to be people of all different races, background, sexual orientation, and faith beliefs. Everybody is welcome. If you look at what Christ did, he wasn't hanging around religious people. He was hanging around the people who were shunned. There was a message being given that everybody was welcome at the table. It was essential to me that the choir looks like the world in which we live. Everybody has the right to sing this music. A lot of people in the choir and the people who come see our shows are people who felt rejected by the church. They can find a place in the spiritual experience.
EDGE: This incredible lineup you've assembled for the concert shows that you have a broad reach in the community.
Michael McElroy: People like Norm and Eden and Renee are members of the choir! As for Josh Henry, I directed him in a production of 'Violet' in 2003, so I've known him since he was a sophomore in college. Again, connections. The music we're doing that evening is mostly musical theater pieces that lean toward gospel, pop, and R&B. We're trying to re-establish our connection to Broadway. We want to keep strengthening our Broadway support as well as the spiritual side of it. Our guests are singing inspirational songs, backed up by the choir, and sometimes groups of three or six or nine.
EDGE: Is there a kind of theme for the night. What else we can expect?
Michael McElroy: It's all musical theater songs that inspire, bring hope and joy. And all the proceeds go to our outreach program also.
Broadway Inspirational Voices comes to B.B. King's on Monday, February 15, 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:00). For information and tickets, go to www.bbkingblues.com.