Shout Sister — Takin’ it to the Stage
“I don’t understand why more people haven’t heard about the Boswell Sisters,” many fans have lamented. “Someone ought to do a movie or play about them.”
Actually, there have been several musical salutes to the Boswell Sisters brought to the stage. Most of them came from the pens of Stuart Ross and Mark Hampton, famous for another reunion-themed show, “Forever Plaid.” The first, “Heebie Jeebies” was essentially a musical review and premiered in the Berkshire Theater Festival in 1979. Vet Boswell served as a consultant on the production and the show managed to make it off-Broadway before it closed in 1981. The review was revived as a cabaret act in 1998 entitled “Rhythm on the Rainbow” and finally fleshed out into a full-length show for the 2001 San Diego Old Globe production of “The Boswell Sisters.”
There was unanimous acclaim for the three women who played the roles of the Boswell Sisters in the San Diego show. Veteran actresses and singers Amy Pietz (Martha), Elizabeth Ward Land (Connie) and Michelle Duffy (Vet) immersed themselves in the sound of the Boswell Sisters music and produced a “rich signature style, the period manners and the sisterly dynamic of the influential 1930s trio.”
The San Diego Playbill review of the show shines a spotlight on the three actresses.
“Where the show comes up big is in the rendition of that ‘Boswell Sound.’ Amy Pietz, Elizabeth Ward Land, and Michelle Duffy are all extraordinary vocalists who handle the dynamic and intricate Boswell rhythms with a naturalness, beauty, and pizzazz that does the original sisters justice. Besides blending together with such lovely harmony, each also shines in their solo performances, which may have been the three best numbers of the night.”
Elizabeth Ward Land, who played Connie at the Old Globe and bears an interesting resemblance to her, described the excitement around the performance. “(The Boswell Sisters) sold extremely well for The Globe. We had standing ovations every night and we had a longer run than many of the main stage shows there. Many, many New York investors were interested in facilitating some book changes and then moving forward with the show with us in it.”
As the show closed its San Diego run, spirits and hopes were high. But all this was shattered by an event that would shake the world.
“The show closed one week before the fateful September 11th attacks, and most of show business, and the world, were in shock for a good six months after that,” recalled Land. “We just never regained our momentum.”
But despite the tragedy that suspended the production, the spark that occurred when Peitz, Land and Duffy sang together refused to be extinguished.
“Something happened between us when we sang these songs,” explained Land. “There was some sort of connection, to the music, and to each other that made us want to keep performing together.”
This was not an easy commitment to make. Each of these women enjoys successful careers as entertainers that take them in very different directions. Michelle Duffy has played stages across continents and has sung in everything from the San Francisco Opera to Top 40s Dance and Funk bands. Land has appeared on and off Broadway, been a featured soloist with Michael Crawford in “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber,” and recently finished a run of the musical “Sister Act”. Amy Pietz is probably best known for her work in “Caroline in the City” for which she received a SAG nomination for Best Actress, but she has made appearances in a score of other television shows and takes frequent film and stage roles as well. With their active careers, their ability and determination to sustain the music and relationship they shared in a short run play can only be explained one way: they’ve been bozzed.
Shout Sister is the name of their ensemble and it benefits not only from their excellent voices, but from techniques that come straight from the Boswell bag o’ tricks. A lot of groups who sing the Boswell music fall into a stratified Andrews Sisters’ style of harmony. Shout Sister manages to capture the spirit of the Boswell cross harmonies by creating a blend that places their voices where they best fit.
Land notes that, “Cross harmonies (were) pretty much dictated by our music director Brad Ellis, but the vocal lines and keys were lifted directly from the real recordings. There was no real rule we followed, I don’t think…..it would depend on the sound needed for the specific song. For instance, Amy (Martha) has a very sweet, lighter sound that blends perfectly, so if a song needed a sweeter top, they would put her on top, or not so heavy a bass sound on the bottom. I have a very low voice, and Michelle’s (Vet) can go either way……a really good combo for this specific Boswell sound. However, we really never stayed on one particular harmony line throughout a song….many times would switch even for just a few measures, as we could hear that they did……..even today, when we (Shout Sister) work on new songs, we harmonize not with any specific line in mind, just by the way it sounds. If we need more on top, a bigger voice goes up there, or visa versa, or if the melody needs to be sweeter or brighter, that will dictate the line. Does any of this make sense? We all listened to many, many hours or their recordings, and that is how we arrived at our arrangements. Also, though Connee sang the lead most of the time, our show was a bit more split up that way, although in truth, I probably did sing more step out solos than the other two.”
In the short time since their inception, Shout Sister has already made several distinguished LA appearances including : “A Tribute to Dorothy Fields” with Michael Feinstein at the Mark Taper Forum and “A Salute to Charles Strouse” at the Coronet Theatre; The M Bar; The Cinegrill; Masquer’s Cabaret, and on Todd Murray’s CD, “When I Sing Low.”
Each of the ladies stays busy. Amy heads to Vancouver this summer to start shooting her new television series “Aliens in America” on the CW. She stars as the mom. Michelle is starring as Pistache in a new reworked production of CAN-CAN at the Pasadena Playhouse. And Liz is busy working on her debut solo CD, produced by LML records with an early 2008 release date.
Somehow, in the midst of all this they have made plans to go back to the studio to record again as Shout Sister. Rumor has it they are very excited about their rendition of that brilliant Bozzie arrangement of 42nd Street.