Dallas — Full disclosure: I was in an a cappella singing group in college. You know, those small ensembles that run around in tuxes (or in our case white tie and tails) to women’s colleges performing fussy multipart harmony renditions of everything from Cole Porter to the Beatles. The ones that sing with no accompaniment except their own voices. Or as an overzealous announcer once said of us on a tour of Bermuda, “They sing without music.” Regardless of any implied musical criticism, this activity was once considered suave and urbane.
A cappella has grown quite a bit since those sainted days so many millions of years ago. Collegiate groups are still plentiful (in fact there has been a rapid proliferation of campus singing groups in the last 20 or so years), but the genre has exploded out of the cozy confines of quads and freshman mixers. Rising from the spectacular roots of Rockapella, prodigious as one of the first commercially successful a cappella groups worldwide (think “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego”), a cappella jams concert halls and at international music festivals, appears in reality show competitions and is even a staple of seasonal television commercials. Professional groups like Straight No Chaser are now YouTube sensations. And at the pinnacle a group like Pentatonix (which formed in Arlington) can collect download and streaming numbers that compete with any popular music performer in the business today.
Driving this burst of popularity has been a change from the mild but amusing collegiate capers to a streetwise and hardened shell. The harmonies have remained sinuous and complex. The music still holds at least some of its goofy nerdiness. But the willingness to take on a harder sound and the addition of driving rhythms mouthed by a human percussion machine, called the Beatbox, has given a cappella the edge and credibility that has allowed it to shoehorn into our listening consciousness. You need no longer be an aficionado of the Great American Songbook or early Folk Rock to love the a cappella sound. Groups now tackle Radiohead or Drake with equal aplomb.
Which leads us to the next world for a cappella to conquer: the theatrical stage. There have been many Broadway shows with unaccompanied songs featured in them, usually as parodic or nostalgic glances at barbershop (such as in The Music Man) or of collegiate harmonies as featured in several Cole Porter musicals. But to make an entire musical set in the unaccompanied human voice was a challenge with little precedent, the exception being the Broadway musical In Transit, which ran in early 2017.
Enter Nic Doodson, creator and executive producer of the show Gobsmacked! which arrives in Dallas as part of its American tour on Nov. 21 as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off Broadway on Flora Series. For 20 years Nic was a founding member of the English a cappella group called the Magnets (further disclosure, I saw and adored the Magnets at an Edinburgh Fringe Festival years ago, driving this column further into the realm of fandom). One of the compelling aspects of the Magnets’ 30-minute program was the sense of organic flow from song to song. Without having either a real plot or defined characters, they were always telling a cohesive story.
“I wanted to take the process a step further,” says Doodson in a recent conversation. “I wanted to put together the greatest a cappella talents that were available and tell the story of putting it together as a narrative show.”
The result is Gobsmacked!, an a cappella musical comedy in two acts.
“Originally, we told some of the story of the formation but really just presented a great a cappella concert on a theatrical stage. But the characters were so interesting as we developed the show that we included more of their back story.”
The first act involves putting the band together. The second presents a more traditional a cappella concert, but maintaining the storytelling flare that the Magnets and other great groups used in their shows. “We always tried to give out singers real personae when they were singing their songs. Now the audience has seen the characters develop, knows them before the concert is shown, and so can appreciate what they are bringing to the performance.”
He culled his singers from surprising places. “We didn’t just have singers from the a cappella world. When we auditioned there were a lot of folks from the West End (London’s theater district). It turns out that a lot of traditional musical actors not only have the skills for a cappella singing but have a lot of experience in it as well.”
And the all-important Beatbox? “The Beatbox is really the driving force for a lot of a cappella music. It gives the music its heart. There was always one person we wanted to cast in the show and we were happy enough to be able to get him.”
The Beatbox in Gobsmacked! is World Champion Ball-Zee. The fact that there are international competitions for Beatbox demonstrates how far the art has progressed. And Ball-Zee stands out as a master of his art. It is not possible to describe in words the uncanny rhythmic skills that he brings to his performances. His Beating is almost a tangible force in accompaniment, but at the same time is exceptionally lyrical in its composition. He uses a dynamic range that allows him to maintain a rhythm section feel to even the most balladic of pieces but then can drive forward in virtuosic and gymnastic explosions of sound. If you want a unique treat, take the time to lose yourself in some of his solo work available online.
The most important thing for the Dallas audience is to understand that Gobsmacked! will not be in any way a static production. The audience needn’t fear that they will be forced to listen to hours of nattily dressed ingénues singing “Night & Day” (although I can think of worse ways to spend one’s time). If the performances of Rockapella or the Magnets are any guide, the show will be heartfelt and fun, rich in variety and skill. I look forward to seeing how my beloved a cappella has grown.