Sunday’s performance on the Ryan Seacrest-hosted E! Grammy pre-show coverage will likely be the Newtown Music Project’s final one. “It wasn’t meant to be a road show,” said Tim Hayes, the New York-based producer who conceptualized the choir. “It’s our expectation that this project has run its cycle,” he said, and it’s time for the children to get back to their childhoods.
Still, the choir, comprising 20 elementary school-age children from the Newtown, Conn., area, has had more exposure in its month-long existence than most professional adult musicians.
On Jan. 15, the Newtown Music Project released an iTunes single covering “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” launching the song with an appearance on “Good Morning America.” Several days later, the singers appeared at Ridgefield Playhouse, a Connecticut theater, for a benefit concert that also featured Paul Simon. On Feb. 2, the children sang the national anthem at a Knicks game.
Eight weeks after the shooting tragedy that killed 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the concept of a “Newtown kid” has raised questions about the slender line between remembrance and commodification.
On Sunday, in a live broadcast streamed from Connecticut to the Hollywood red carpet, the students have been invited to perform an as-yet-unidentified song. (Previous reports that the song would be Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” were premature.)
To many viewers and commentators, the choir’s presence at these events is inspirational and reassuring, a symbol of hope and healing. Hayes said he originally intended the Newtown Music Project’s signature song to be heard as “a prayer,” something solemn and moving, and that he hopes the Grammy Awards performance will be a “lighthearted distraction” for the town.
Others have accused the entertainment industry of exploiting the children and the audience they sing for. Is there something uncomfortable about widespread recognition being born of horrible tragedy? In crassest terms, are Newtown children the living embodiments of cause ribbons worn on lapels?
The chorus scheduled to perform at the Grammy Awards, it should be noted, is an entirely different chorus than the one that performed at the Super Bowl with Jennifer Hudson. That one was made up solely of children from Sandy Hook Elementary. Their travel was funded by an anonymous donor, Connecticut’s News-Times reported.
When asked how the Super Bowl performance came about — whether the NFL extended the invitation or whether it was arranged by the anonymous donor — Brian McCarthy, an NFL vice president of communications, said he couldn’t discuss that, adding that the NFL needed “to be able to protect a couple of different constituencies.” A call to the Newtown school superintendent’s office about the Super Bowl choir was not returned.
The Newtown Music Project is a private endeavor with students from several Newtown area schools, including Sandy Hook. “We get a lot of requests, and we say no to almost everything,” said Hayes, estimating that he’d turned down 95 percent of offers for public performances. “When the team from E! contacted us,” Hayes said, “it sounded like they cared about the right things.”
When asked for the names of other broadcasts the group had turned down, he mentioned “The Couch,” a New York morning talk show. A producer from “The Couch” confirmed that they had corresponded and said she was still hopeful the choir might come on the show.
“They want to do this,” said Sabrina Post, the musical director of the Newtown Music Project, discussing the excitement of the choir’s children, who were not made available for comment. “We’re all on the same page with trying to keep the kids engaged with healing activities.”
Hayes is a New York-based producer. He’s a part owner of CBGB, a music festival named after the renowned Manhattan music club, and he also runs Productions New York, a company that builds stages and produces television spots and promotional videos.
He said that his own child’s health scare last year — a serious head injury — helped him grasp the fragility of life. When he learned about the Newtown tragedy, he decided that a song sung by Newtown students could be both cathartic for the participants and monetarily beneficial to local charities.
After first contacting schools and churches, which, he said, informed him that they didn’t have the capacity to take on any more projects beyond their own grief work, Hayes eventually heard of Post, who runs Sabrina’s Encore Productions, a local performing arts academy.
Post said her students had already come to her asking what they could contribute to the healing of Newtown. They’d been making cards and putting up remembrance ribbons. She thought Hayes’s idea was one that could uniquely use their talents.
Hayes contacted Brooklyn musician Ingrid Michaelson to see if she would be interested in recording “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with the students. He had never worked with her but liked the idea of the song being accompanied by the ukulele, and she agreed.
“Everyone has offered to work for free,” said Hayes, stressing that the Newtown Music Project has been an entirely volunteer operation.
The proceeds will be split between the local United Way branch and the Newtown Youth Academy, a nonprofit sport and fitness center that opened its doors, gratis, to the community after the shooting.
Hayes said he hopes that the Grammy performance will draw more attention to the iTunes recording. It has sold 21,000 copies, according to iTunes tracker SoundScan, priced at $1.29. The more than 600 reviews are overwhelmingly positive.