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10.09.10

Fired From a Real-Life Glee

Performing in the Silver Lake Chorus, an L.A.-based glee club, was a blast—until fame came knocking, high-powered managers got involved, and I got the boot.

Performing in the Silver Lake Chorus, an L.A.-based glee club, was a blastuntil fame came knocking, high-powered managers got involved, and I got the boot.

It was the last rehearsal before our first gig. “I get a lot of drugs from Canada,” announced Sam, our choir leader—picture Glee’s go-getter Rachel Berry 10 years later, now a clinical psychologist. My ears perked up. “So, if anyone needs any beta blockers for the show, let me know.” Several of us looked at one another, befuddled. I laughed. “Seriously. I can’t perform without them," said Sam. "They make it so you don’t get nervous at all. I’m just sayin', if you need ‘em, I got em!”

There were 24 of us in the Silver Lake Chorus, a fledgling L.A. hipster choir, and we had all been working diligently for months on complex choral arrangements of songs by Beck, Sia, and Peter Bjorn & John. We had also partnered with Aussie balladeer Ben Lee and a handful of local L.A. indie musicians, all of whom would join us on stage for our debut at El Cid, a Mexican restaurant and alternating home to flamenco music and indie bands. Sam, who had founded the group, held the auditions, and gotten everything organized, was visibly stressed about her rookie choir’s maiden voyage.

It’s the kind of performance anxiety that regularly plays out on Glee, the musical theater phenom and Emmy juggernaut that began its second season last month on Fox. In fact, the show choir in Glee bears an uncanny resemblance to the Silver Lake Chorus: both are filled with warm, talented, hyper-ambitious, socially dysfunctional souls who all love singing their hearts out.

Until my recent firing, I was one of those people.

For me it all started in early February when I saw a friend’s Facebook posting that read, “First rehearsal of the Silver Lake Chorus last night—so fun!” So I inquired. I had sung in school choirs for most of my childhood, sung in bands since graduating way back in ’93, and was a frequent soloist in the Ebony Singers, Wesleyan’s gospel choir. (Yes, a white Jew singing about Jesus in a black gospel choir, but that’s another story.) At the time, I had never seen Glee, and I generally thought of a cappella groups as the pitiable refuge for Broadway dorks prone to persistent jazz hands. But I had watched some YouTube videos of college kids singing MGMT, and I had heard the Brooklyn Youth Chorus backing Grizzly Bear on their 2009 release, Veckatimest. It seemed like being in a choir of hipsters could actually be … cool.

I emailed Sam a link to the last video by my band Nous Non Plus and was quickly accepted.

My first encounter with The Silver Lake Chorus took place in a recording studio where we sang the opening theme for the box-office mishap,  MacGruber. The group seemed ironic and fun, but professional—all things I appreciated.

What I didn’t know about Sam’s clipboard agenda that night was that item #5 was Fire Dan Crane.

Typically, our two-hour Monday night practices ended with Sam reviewing a series of bullet points, from critiques to choir news. In addition to item #1, Beta Blockers, tonight’s agenda also featured item #2, Shushers, and #3, Hangers.

For our coming-out performance, Mikey, our musical director (imagine a young, stringy-haired, Cali-hippie comedic version of Glee club leader Will Schuester sporting tight tan corduroys) had suggested that professional “shushers” lurk in the audience to quell any talking or loud noise that might distract from our harmonizing. Several choir members enthusiastically volunteered their friends. “Can they be on the guest list?” they asked. “I think that should be fine,” said Sam, officiously making a note on her clipboard.

Sam could be a bit of a Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) at times.

“Also,” said Sam, nervously chewing the butt-end of her pen as she reviewed her checklist, “does anyone have any nice wooden hangers for the merch? All I have are those horrible wire hangers.” Was I the only one making the Mommy Dearest connection? Several singers raised their hands and promised to bring high-quality hangers for the numerous hand-screened t-shirts they hoped to sell at the show.

Days later, thanks to great PR, a healthy online buzz and an early morning performance on Good Day LA, The Silver Lake Chorus’ inaugural concert was massively oversold. The line snaked out the door, leading one shutout friend to Tweet: "Stuck in a hipster clusterfuck.”

Unlike Glee, where, after mere seconds of rehearsal, songs magically come alive with a polished, coruscating finish—and snazzy choreography to boot—our performance was less than stellar. The stage was way too small for such a mass of people, the lighting was a terrible flood of harsh white, we couldn’t hear ourselves through the monitors, and the sound just never seemed quite right. The whole thing felt awkward.

Later that night, my wife told me she was shushed several times during the show, and jokingly (sort of) vowed to never attend another concert.

It was around this time that the irony quickly evaporated—along with the fun—as big-time managers and agents started expressing interest in the band. Despite our lackluster showing at El Cid, rumors of record deals were already looming. Ben Lee had agreed to come on board as producer for our first record (which, it was decided, would be covers of unreleased demos by indie artists) and there was even talk of producing a mini-documentary for an influential online music site.

As Mickey Rapkin chronicles in his book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, thanks to the Internet and the rise of collegiate competitions, glee clubs have become big business. "In the mid-'90s, collegiate a cappella exploded from an Ivy League curiosity to a full-blown coed pursuit." Glee triumphantly capitalized on both the massive popularity of college a cappella groups and the enormous success of American Idol. One need only watch the trailer for The Social Network, which hinges on the haunting choral cover of Radiohead's "Creep" to see why someone like Danny Goldberg, who once managed the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth, might be interested in The Silver Lake Chorus. A choir of trendy, fashionable folks doing indie rock covers was clearly ripe to capitalize on the musical zeitgeist!

Everything was suddenly getting very serious, and the atmosphere of the group changed. Some of us began to fear our positions in the group might be at risk after an email from Mikey ominously warned: “In order to be ready for the recording, we need to really get the tenor section set, which means 1. working together on blending and choral tone and/or  2. possibly adding or subtracting some voices.” 

On the agenda for one of my last rehearsals with the band was, incredibly, Sam’s bullet point #3: Legendary manager and label president Danny Goldberg might be interested in managing the group.

What I didn’t know about Sam’s clipboard agenda that night was that item #4 was Hire new tenors. Item #5? Fire Dan Crane.

Roughly 10 weeks after the El Cid show, and six months after joining The Silver Lake Chorus, I got a phone call from Mikey telling me I was no longer in the choir. Two other tenors would be ousted as well as the section underwent a gut renovation intended to achieve what Mikey described as a “truly well-balanced choral sound.” Our replacements had already been hired, in fact—a couple of ringers, both coming off Broadway stints in a musical called Bombay Dreams. They certainly weren’t denizens of Silver Lake. They didn’t wear skinny jeans or have kooky facial hair. They didn’t even live on the East side!

I was disappointed and relieved. I had never been kicked out of a musical endeavor or told my voice didn’t blend in, but I wondered if my expulsion was because I didn't drink the choral Kool-Aid. I never took to our touchy-feely massage circles, and was always visibly embarrassed when we had to scrunch our faces, or shake our legs and shimmy our butts around during warm ups.

Either way, I wasn’t as upset as Lenny, one of the other ejected tenors. He received the call at his aunt’s funeral. "It was like a baseball bat to the stomach," he said. Lenny was told, “The chorus was going in a new direction, and I had a beautiful voice but it was meant for soloing and they’re going to have to let me go.”

Why kick us out and replace us with pros? To me, the whole point of The Silver Lake Chorus was that it was a ragtag gang of scruffs, like the Bad News Bears, or, well, like the characters on Glee (and not the trained actors who play them).

“I feel like Sam thought ‘Oh God, we might start to be famous or get successful so we have to add professionals,’” said Lenny. “It reminded me of American Idol: it used to be random raw talent from small towns who had good voices, but in the last couple of years they started adding people who used to have record contracts and making them famous. That’s not what people liked about us. They liked that we were a bunch of random people from L.A.”

A couple of days after our expulsion, the leaders of the choir posted beaming photos of themselves on Facebook inking a deal with their new lawyer who would draft the agreements between themselves and the rest of the singers, laying the foundation for what membership in the chorus would mean financially to everyone involved.

Another few days passed and Will, the third exiled tenor, wrote a goodbye email to everyone saying he’d miss them and had enjoyed his time with the chorus. He closed with a line offering a tongue-in-cheek warning to those that remained: “Don't take the Beta Blockers, just be you! :)”

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Dan Crane starred in the award-winning documentary Air Guitar Nation and his memoir, To Air is Human, was lauded by TimeOut New York as doing for the air-guitar world “what George Plimpton’s gonzo-journalism Paper Lion did for football.” He is also a journalist, and a musician and comedic actor.