Even though the Young@Heart chorus began in Northampton, Mass., it was a break in Europe that made them famous. But not even that break happened right away.
“Back in 1982 I was working in a meals site for older people,” says co-founder and musical director Bob Cilman. “A woman who played the piano asked if I could get some people together for a sing-a-long and that’s how it started. We just kept on meeting and eventually wanted other people to hear it.”
In their early years, the elderly choral group became known locally for their performances with the most unlikely of collaborators including breakdancers from a local housing project, Cambodian folk musicians, the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus and Roy Faudree’s experimental No Theater. Thanks to Faudree, the group would go on to continuous and unsuspecting success in Europe.
In 1997 they staged a show called “Road to Heaven” that went to a festival in Rotterdam.
“The first time, they could only get 90 people to see it,” says co-founder and musical director Bob Cilman, “but the next night we sold out all 250 seats. We were brought back with that show twice a year to Europe for the next eight years. Then we did a new show called ‘Road to Nowhere,’ and that’s when the British crew saw the show and decided to make a film.”
TThe film, “Young@Heart,” was originally broadcast on the U.K.’s esteemed Channel 4 in 2007 and went on to win awards at several international film festivals before being picked up by Fox Searchlight. The emotional movie follows the choir on an uplifting, but often painful journey as they gain new fans but lose some members along the way. Performing at an array of venues that range from prison yards to world-renowned theaters, the film captures the group as they prepare and perform songs as esoteric as Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” while giving new meaning to reinterpretations of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” and David Bowie’s “Golden Years.”
“I found there was something so amazing about hearing people from their generation do songs that we grew up with that they didn’t know,” says Cilman. “They interpret them so differently and that became interesting to me and it hasn’t stopped being interesting to me.”
Today the Y@H chorus no longer operates out of the same elderly home. People from as far as 40 miles come to participate. Because of the group’s popularity, there is now a minimum age requirement of 73 and the choir’s two oldest members are now 91.
Cilman himself is 61. Does he ever foresee joining the chorus as a member when the time is right?
“I have to sometimes fill in for solos when people are missing and I gotta tell you, I don’t think the chorus is dying to hear me sing a lot,” he says. “Here’s what I know: I know that when I turn 73, I want to not work a whole lot and I want to have an activity just like this that I can go to and not worry about the things that I have to worry about as the director of the group. So, in fact, I can see it as a really attractive thing to do when I get older. I think it’s a cool thing to have in the later years of your life.”
As for those "later" years and how the group treats death amongst its members, Cilman says it's different for every different person.
"Some people die slowly and stop coming to the chorus and we lose touch a little bit and there are others who die suddenly and they’re still in the chorus and it’s a huge shock," he says. "These guys see a lot of people die, so they’re very wise about it at this point. Being in the chorus and working on this work is a way of getting through it. Some people live their whole lives like they’re dead. This chorus gives them excitement in the later part of their lives that they probably never imagined."
That excitement has included tours of Japan and Australia. They’ve performed with David Byrne, who is now on their advisory board, along with Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna), Tim Kingsbury (Arcade Fire) and as Cilman puts it, “some Japanese rock stars you’ve never heard of.” And still there isn’t much of a following in America.
“We’ve never promoted ourselves,” says Cilman. “We’ve never done that and it’s been a pretty nice thing to never have done that. So we go where people are interested in us coming.”