The Swingle Singers premiere their West Wide Story project at The Pizza Express Jazz Club
“Tonight” with a human beatbox accompaniment à la disco style might not be a typical arrangement of one of West Side Story’s classic numbers, but then again The Swingle Singers rarely do anything by the book. Their latest project, “Romeo ♥ Juliet – An A Capella Story”, devised with American composer/producer Richard Niles, was given its first outing at The Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho last night. And the results were surprising, to say the least.
Since the 1960s, The Swingle Singers – named after their founder, Ward Swingle – have been mixing up jazz, classical and pop styles in their own inimitable fashion. More recently, they’ve taken the human voice’s capabilities to a whole new level, working with the mics to create breathtakingly original beatboxing effects and even inviting beatbox champion Shlomo to guest with them on occasion; this in turn has led to the group embracing an ever-increasing range of repertoire. Last night, we were treated to songs from their most recent album, “Ferris Wheels”, in the first half, before becoming the first-ever audience to witness four numbers from their West Side Story-based “Romeo and Juliet” project in the second half.
The opening number, a quasi-overture which incorporated many of the main themes from Bernstein’s musical, was rather hit-and-miss – it made almost impossible demands on the usually impeccable singers, and the fact that they needed music put rather a dampener on things. But then things picked up with a gorgeous, heartbreaking arrangement of “I have a love” by alto Clare Wheeler, a finger-snapping version of “Cool” complete with dance moves and then, to top it all off, a disco-style, samba-rhythm arrangement of “Tonight” – each number preceded by a reading from one of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. The hope is that, eventually, the group will arrange enough numbers to produce an entire theatrical production, such as has never been seen or heard before.
First impressions were good – West Side Story has been arranged in numerous ways but never, to my knowledge, for eight voices, which makes this a unique project to begin with. Add the Swingles’ flair for performing – and acting! – and this bears all the hallmarks of success. I look forward to hearing what they do with “America”, “Somewhere” and “Maria”, in particular. I just hope they resist the urge to make the arrangements too complicated – and that they’re brave enough to ditch the music stands…
Sarah Kirkup is deputy editor of Gramophone. She plays flute and piano, and sings with her local church choir. Sarah is a fan of ballet and contemporary dance, and attends as many productions - particularly at Covent Garden - as she can.