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Heartland opens season with ‘Sondheim Cafe’

Americana, Christmas, jazz also on docket for group’s 36th campaign

Heartland Sings opens their season Oct. 29 at PPG ArtsLab with Sondheim Cafe.

Wheat Williams

Whatzup Features Writer

Published October 19, 2022

Everybody from lovers of grand musical theater to people who like a good song will enjoy a stop at a show called The Sondheim Café at the Parkview Physicians Group ArtsLab Theatre downtown, Oct. 29-30.

Fort Wayne’s unique and versatile professional vocal group Heartland Sings is back for their 26th season, giving us a casual and conversational revue of songs from the legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 91. Sondheim was renowned for musicals from West Side Story (1957) to Into the Woods (1987) and beyond.

Bringing Sondheim to Fort Wayne

Heartland Sings musical director Robert Nance, the group’s leader for 36 years, spoke with Whatzup about the show that starts with the concept of people hanging out at a café.

“Maybe Steven Sondheim was sitting in the corner playing the piano and weaving stories with all the people that would come and go in the coffee shop,” Nance said. “So that’s how we designed it. There are 16 singer-actors and 21 numbers. We’re pulling from a wide swath of Sondheim’s music. It’s one continuous stream. It’s a little bit interactive. Some of our audience can actually sit in the coffee shop (on the stage) with the actors.

“They’re playing artists and business people and friends just meeting for coffee and people by themselves. There is a variety of stories being woven, and we’re creating those in a very improvisatory way,” he said. “Each singer-actor has been given a persona, and they have to develop the story by themselves. The music assigned to them gives them a clue as to what the story is that they’re trying to weave. Our director, Katie Brandt, stages it beautifully. She has been able to pull the singers together and to focus on their characterization and what they need to do to bring the concept to life.”

The production is sure to offer something for everyone.

“We are focused more on ensemble singing,” Nance said. “Sixteen first-rate singers, and their goal is to combine as soloists. We have a variety of duets and solos. Some of them are directly right out of the (original) shows, with some variation. And I’m playing piano continuously throughout the show. I’m going to be the Sondheim in the corner.”

Also on the slate

Heartland Sings takes an unusual approach since this nonprofit performing arts group, with 32 professional singers, has a classically trained and academic foundation but also wants to bring popular music to people of all ages and walks of life across the region throughout the coming season.

Just around the corner is Heartland’s Spirit of Christmas concert, three shows Dec. 16-18, in the unusual venue of the rotunda of the Allen County Courthouse. Nance presents his own arrangements of traditional carols and original music, and the contemporary sacred music of British composers John Rutter and Will Todd, with 32 singers.

Nance gets animated talking about the group’s ambitious performance art project, An American Tapestry, March 19 at Plymouth Congregational Church. It’s still in development and he hasn’t settled on a list of pieces. The concept is that “the United States is a beautiful fabric woven together from the threads of individuals to comprise a glorious whole. When we come together as a community, we experience increased joy, peace, and support.” 

While the group sings music that spans everything from Native American songs through the variety of cultures that exist in our community, up to the work of contemporary composers, they will feature a textile artist who will invite audience members to participate in weaving an actual tapestry.

On June 22-24, they will bring in amateur and professional singers from across the region with their second annual Vocal Arts Conference at the Rhinehart Music Center at Purdue Fort Wayne. Foundations to Freedom: The Classical — Jazz Paradigm will feature one of the leading vocal jazz groups of the last 35 years, the world-renowned New York Voices. The conference will teach choral jazz and show choir music for adults and around 300 high school students.

Ever-expanding programs

Having founded Heartland Sings 36 years ago, Nance is amazed by the range of projects the members of his professional group have been able to develop in recent years. 

“We call it a vocal production company, a collection of vocal artists,” he said. 

In addition to 26 auditioned professional part timers, six of the singers are “teaching artists,” and Heartland Sings is their full-time job. These artists live in Fort Wayne, yet have performed with orchestras, operas, and musical theater companies all over the country and internationally. With backgrounds as music educators and college professors, they teach voice lessons to the public in Heartland Sing’s Vocal Arts Institute.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when it wasn’t possible to perform for audiences indoors, the group made a huge investment in what they call the “Art-V,” a large RV/tour bus they converted to their specifications, complete with a portable stage and a self-contained PA. A quartet of singers and two accompanists perform jazz, country, and musical theater shows. They have taken it all over the region and performed for all kinds of people, doing as many as 60 concerts each summer.

Nance and Heartland have even developed their own standards-based elementary-to-high-school educational program, taught by their teaching artists with advanced degrees. They have taken it to schools throughout northern Indiana. They call it LALA: Language Acquisition and Literacy through the Arts. It’s a program where students interact and improvise with the teachers to sing and tell stories and build literacy skills through themes in history and civics. It was building momentum before the pandemic, and now Nance is confident that the demand for their curriculum is going to grow to the point that Heartland will have to hire more vocal arts educators.

Thirty-six years on, Heartland Sings still strives to live up to their motto, “Changing lives through song,” whether it’s in a concert hall, a school room, or out of an RV in a parking lot near you.

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