New York, Nu York: The Joy of SING-- 60 years in the making

A tradition particular to New York City public high schools is their annual SING performances.  A number of high schools throughout New York City hold these theatrical competitions which bring together theater, comedy, singing, dancing, music, art and promotion-- all generated by the students themselves. SING was created by a teacher at Midwood High School named Bella Tillis in 1947, and it is a spin-off from summer camp color war competitions mixed with elements of varsity shows. The American TV show "Glee" has certain aspects of it as well. But among the hallmarks of a NYC high school SING production are the tradition of taking existing songs (pop, folk, Broadway, commercial jingles, etc) and students writing their own lyrics to fit a theme for a full-fledged show that also includes student choreographed dance, student-written scripts and jokes, student-made props and sets and costumes, and even promotion (via playbills, fliers, T-shirts and signs). Also significant to SING is that it usually pits different grade levels against each for winning via point ratings.
When I attended Brooklyn's Edward R Murrow High School in the 1980s, our school grouped as by Soph-Fresh (sophomores and freshmen), Juniors and Seniors. Some participating high schools still use this system, but in recent years Murrow has instead pitted the Seniors and Freshman together, versus the Juniors and Sophomore. James Madison High School groups the 12th and 10th graders together, versus the 11th and 9th graders. Among the other traditions that have sprung up are creating and performing alma mater songs (typically reflective ballads), victory songs (pep-rally cheer songs), dilemma songs (the turning point song in the plot), and as far as the dancing, in recent years at least one number features step formations (which can be paired with gymnastics). Each team also creates a sign or large banner for itself with the year.
I had been thinking about SING for the past few months, not only because for the first time both my daughters participated, but also because several months ago I visited the Museum of the City of New York to see a retrospective of the cartooning and art of Roz Chast (best known for her work in The New Yorker) and one piece displayed was Ms Chast's cover drawing for a Midwood High School playbill from 1971. (Note that much of her work has Jewish themes and buzzwords, but her SING drawing was of a mustachioed man with a big top hat and cane, not really ethnic in nature.)
This past Saturday night my husband, mother in law and I joined several hundred people who watched Murrow 2017 SING and it was a boisterous, spirited scene. Our older daughter Jessica played guitar with the Junior-Soph band; our younger daughter Michelle was a stagehand who moved around props for the Senior-Fresh show. (She had also created props for both shows and worked on the backdrop for her show.) Both performances were enjoyable, funny, adorable, imperfect and so very teenagey in nature. Corny jokes abounded, a few snarky swipes were made at each other's team, and there was so much talent in evidence. There were some references to recent news events and people, including a boy with a white wig who played a character named Bernie Handers (a spoof on Senator Bernie Sanders). Who won? This year the Junior-Soph team won (apparently by one measly point) for the first time in a few years.
But it was a bittersweet time as well for many of the students, especially the seniors who had participated in each year of their high school careers. Many were openly weeping while singing their alma mater, as well as during the joint-team alma mater. This is a newer tradition; we did not do this when I was a student and I am touched by the camaraderie of the effort. And I did think back to my time as a SING participant. I had joined in 10th grade but then dropped out (I don't recall why other than I was disappointed by something) but I did attend a performance and cheered on my grade. And in 12th grade, as a senior, I joined the show and played piano for the band. I am still friendly with a member of that band and remember that we played such the music to "Sister Golden Hair," "Johnny B Goode" and "The Pink Panther Theme."
Can I conclude with a link to something Jewish? Well, there have been some famous Jewish performers who participated while in their high school years-- among them are Barbra Streisand, Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond. There is a definite Borscht Belt quality, to some extent, to SING performances. The Murrow SING of 2017 did feature many Jewish kids (not just my own). But SING is one of those activities that brings together all kinds of kids, girls and boys, artsy and athletic, with a variety of talents or at least some ambition and desire to be part of a theatrical team. There is plenty of "ruach" and spirit in a typical SING.