By Sasha Nyary
Audiences will be transported to the 1940s on Sunday, March 6, when The Big Broadcast! returns.
The annual re-creation of a fictitious radio program, the show will feature some two dozen students in the Big Band, Vocal Jazz, and Chamber Jazz ensembles. The groups will perform well-known music from the swing era including tunes by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and the Andrews Sisters. Performances are scheduled for 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm in Chapin Auditorium of Mary Woolley Hall, and tickets are available now.
The event, now in its 11th year, is directed by Mark Gionfriddo, an instructor in the music department who oversees the jazz ensembles. Faithful to its time, the radio show also includes commercials from the era and an original radio play, all complete with sound effects that lend the feel of an authentic radio variety program on an imaginary station named WJAZ. The musicians add to the effect by taking stage names and wearing era-appropriate clothing, hairstyles, and makeup during the performance.
Gionfriddo plays conductor Matt Morgan, and the show is emceed by Fred Kelley as played by WWLP-22News meteorologist Brian Lapis. Gionfriddo first created the show for a small cabaret group he directed, and incorporated it into the College’s concert season in 2006.
“The 1940s was a wistful, melancholic time,” Gionfriddo said. “It was during the war and everyone was wondering if we were going to get sucked into this thing, and how it would end. But out of that came all this wonderful music. The Big Broadcast! has always been about the music.”
The music’s authenticity begins with the extensive research Gionfriddo and his students do starting a few weeks before the event. They listen to recordings of radio broadcasts from the 1940s and Gionfriddo tracks down or re-creates authentic musical arrangements from the period. He also summarizes each piece's history for the students and describes how it got its name.
“I pick pieces that will be interesting for students to play and fun for the audience to hear,” Gionfriddo said. “This year, for instance, we’re doing ‘Little Brown Jug,’ which was a folk tune Glenn Miller turned into a swing arrangement.”
A four-year veteran of the show, Sarah Read ’16 plays the trumpet in the Big Band and Chamber Jazz ensembles and she is looking forward to that tune in particular.
The lineup also includes less familiar music, such as a Gene Krupa song called “Massachusetts” as sung by Anita O’Day. Gionfriddo describes it as a travelogue of the commonwealth’s sights.
“We’re also doing an amazing rendition of Artie Shaw’s ‘At Sundown’ that was recorded on a radio show,” Gionfriddo said. “Shaw was the pinnacle of swing music. He was really, really talented, maybe even more than Benny Goodman—the high notes he could hit!”
In addition to replicating the singing and playing styles of the era, the students select and perform the commercials for products such as Camel cigarettes and Brylcreem. They also write the radio play.
“This year it’s another episode of A Blaze of Justice, which we premiered in 2006,” Gionfriddo said. “It’s Nancy Drew in the Old West. It’s about Frankie Blaze; her stallion, Lightning; and her kid sister, Suzie. And then of course there are the villains, Jed Redeye, a scoundrel, and Jimmy ‘Pistol’ McGee.”
Read was thrilled to be cast as Frankie.
“I think it’s really funny when she says, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead drinking anything pink,’ ” Read said in her character’s drawl. “That’s so me.”
A cowboy radio drama requires horses, and that’s where Cheryl Cobb, who teaches voice in the music department, comes in. Cobb serves as the show’s Foley artist, creating sound effects for the radio play and the commercials.
“The most fun are the sounds I produce myself, like whinnying,” Cobb said. “There will be some whinnying this year. And something new—I get to moo.”
Cobb also works with the vocalists and she’s particularly looking forward to hearing the Andrew Sisters songs. “Those spectacular harmonies,” she said. “The arrangements are authentic and they’re terrific.”
Shannon Cook ’18, a double major in biology and music who sings in the Vocal Jazz Ensemble, is playing Holly Haywood, one of the Haywood Sisters, a trio based on the Andrews Sisters. She also is the props master.
“Holly is the equivalent of Patty Andrews and she sings the melody,” Cook said. “We’ll be singing ‘(I've Got a Guy in) Kalamazoo’ and ‘Tico-Tico.’ I really enjoy getting to dress up and do my hair and makeup in a 1940s style.”
The historical setting of The Big Broadcast! appeals to people of all ages, Gionfriddo said, noting that in those days everyone listened to the radio to find out what was happening in the world.
“Our older audience remembers what it was like,” Gionfriddo said. “And the students think it’s really cool. It’s completely different from what they know, and they appreciate it.”
In addition to Mount Holyoke College, The Big Broadcast! is sponsored by Loomis Communities, New England Public Radio, the Republican, and WWLP-22News.
Regular tickets for general admission range from $15 to $20. Senior and student tickets are $10. They are available at the Odyssey Bookshop, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center box office, and at the door, subject to availability. For advance phone orders, call 413-545-2511 or 800-999-UMASS. Doors will open one hour prior to each performance.
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