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Chapman Choir Gets Its 'Sister Act' Together : Movies: Singers cast on short notice for the Whoopi Goldberg sequel. The experience is divine.

December 09, 1993|BILL BILLITER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — The choir from Chapman University has a prominent role in Whoopi Goldberg's new movie, "Sister Act 2." But don't buy a ticket with the idea of cheering for local stars.

Rather, the local singers play the film's heavy--a fictional choir defending its state championship against some upstarts from a poor Catholic high school in San Francisco.

Guess who conducts the underdog choir? Whoopi, of course.

Whoopi's counterpart in the movie is Chapman Music Dean William Hall, who directs a "sort of arrogant choir," he said in an interview on campus this week.

We won't tell you who wins, but you can already guess that Whoopi's group makes it tough for the haughty singers from Chapman.

Being in a top-billed motion picture proved to be great fun for the 35 student singers from Chapman University and an additional 15 from Orange High School, who filled out the fictional singing group.

"The choir I conduct in the movie is a combined group of Chapman and Orange High students," explained Hall. "I had to get Orange High students because when they called me in August, school was out and I couldn't get hold of many of the Chapman choir members. So I recruited some students from Orange High School."

The group depicted in the movie is called the "Chapman Choir of Orange County's Grand High School." There is no Grand High School in Orange County, that's just motion-picture magic. But there is a Chapman Choir at Chapman University here, and it is conducted by Hall.

Hall, 59, who holds a Ph.D from USC, is well-known in the music world, having made international appearances as a conductor and produced several records.

And while "Sister Act 2" is only make-believe, how Hollywood came to cast Hall and the Chapman Choir is almost a movie within a movie.

*

Cut to August.

"Sister Act 2"--with a planned Christmas opening--is in trouble. To the moguls' dismay, their first choice for a champion choir isn't working out. A replacement group is needed--and fast.

Hall rides to the rescue when two engineers on the movie set, who had previously worked with Hall at a record studio, suggest that the producers call for Hall.

"I was called on a Friday night and asked if I could put together a choir for the following Sunday afternoon at 4," Hall recalled. "I was told to put together 50 kids and to have them sing 'Joyful, Joyful.' "

Within two days, Hall had assembled the combined Chapman-Orange High singers, drafted a special version of "Joyful, Joyful," and held one 30-minute practice.

The movie's music director and assistant then listened to the group. "The music director liked it," said Hall. "He asked if we could be at the studio the following morning."

Before filming began, Hall conferred with the movie's director, Bill Duke.

"I asked him, 'What are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to win? How do you want us on the stage?' " Hall said.

Duke told him he'd like the Chapman group to do something "military-like" for the camera--something arrogant and intimidating. The idea, said Hall, was that the champion choir was to show off its power, try to break down the confidence of the challengers.

Hall, an Air Force veteran, quickly devised a drill step for the movie choir.

"It was one, stomp, turn, and one, stomp, turn," Hall said. "They turned and clicked their heels together. And I told the choir members to look really mad and arrogant. It worked very well. The director almost fell out of his chair; he thought it was the greatest thing since peanut butter and jam."

The Chapman-Orange High students had a nine-day shoot, then their part was a wrap. The students appear for only a few minutes in the last part of the film and none has a speaking role. But the singing competition is the climax of the movie, and their music is included on soundtrack compact discs now being sold commercially.

Hall has a key role in the movie as a heavy. He said his students at Chapman were tickled when the director told him to be arrogant while conducting the choir.

*

"The students, in unison, responded, 'Now, that's a stretch!' " Hall recalled with a grin.

The Chapman students said they have fond memories of the experience.

"Whoopi Goldberg is a real neat lady," said Jean-Paul Van Hulle, 20, of Orange. "She had some moments of tension. . . . But she handled herself really well."

The students wear colorful gold and black robes during their choir scenes in the movie, said Van Hulle, adding that "there was a lot of sitting around (between takes), but it was fun."

Brett Young, 18, of Modesto, said he at first thought Hall was putting him on about the possibility of being in a movie. Hall "is a big kidder like that," said Young, adding that it was a great experience singing in the film and "we come off amazingly."

"I think it comes from being professional and having Bill there to lead us," Young said.

That first motion picture experience may not be the last for Chapman's choir, according to Hall.

"I've already received two more calls (from Hollywood) asking us to perform," he said. "We couldn't do either of those, but I'm sure there will be some more work for us later on."

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