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New York's P.S. 22 choir to go 'Over the Rainbow' at the Oscars

The fifth-grade chorus is known for wowing audiences. Now this year's class plans to continue that tradition with a performance at the Oscars.

February 14, 2011|By Melissa Maerz, Los Angeles Times
  • Chorus director Gregg Breinberg leads the rehearsal at P.S. 22.
Chorus director Gregg Breinberg leads the rehearsal at P.S. 22. (Jennifer S. Altman/For…)

Reporting from Graniteville, N.Y. — When you get your first chance to go to the Oscars, you're bound to have questions — perhaps about the red carpet scene or whether you get to ride in a limo. The 60 or so fifth-graders in the chorus at Public School 22 in this Staten Island neighborhood had some more specific concerns when they found out in December they were invited to sing at this year's Academy Awards.

"The first thing they wanted to know [about Hollywood] was, 'Are there gonna be bathrooms there?'" said music teacher Gregg Breinberg. "Then they wanted to know, 'Is Justin Bieber gonna be there?' Honestly, I don't know how they can wrap their heads around it. I'm 38 years old, and I can't wrap my head around it."

P.S. 22's journey to the Oscars actually began years ago. This year's choir class was hardly out of kindergarten when Breinberg began making videos of his fifth-graders performing songs from artists such as Lady Gaga, Beach House, Fleetwood Mac and Tori Amos. He uploaded them to YouTube, where they caught the attention of gossip blogger Perez Hilton. The videos became an Internet sensation.

Since then, Breinberg's students have performed at the White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony, on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and at many other high-profile venues. But because the entire membership of the choir is new each year, this year's class had no idea what singing at a big event like the Oscars would be like. For many of the kids, it will be their first time on an airplane or the first time outside of New York.

On Friday afternoon, the chorus was rehearsing in the school auditorium. Breinberg, at the piano, started to play Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" and a dark-eyed, cherub-faced girl named Azaria walked up to the microphone, closed her eyes and unleashed a voice that seemed a little too sad for a 10-year-old.

"Whoa, we're halfway there, whoa-oh, livin' on a prayer," she sang. "Well, take my hand, we'll make it I swear, whoa-oh, livin' on a prayer."

By the end of the song, Breinberg looked like he was getting emotional. "These kids come from families who are having a tough time economically," he explained later that afternoon. "They have a hard time expressing themselves with words, but through this choral experience, there's so much emotion there, both coming from them and the people watching them."

The kids have even moved some of the songwriters whose music they cover. After hearing the chorus perform her song "Halo" at the Billboard Women in Music Celebration Brunch, Beyoncé told the crowd, "I almost cried!"

Thomas Mars of the French band Phoenix, whose "Lisztomania" is a P.S. 22 favorite, told the Guardian newspaper that when the group saw a video of the kids covering the song, "we all had tears in our eyes."

At the Feb. 27 Academy Awards, though, the students won't be performing a pop number; instead, they'll sing "Over the Rainbow," which was written for "The Wizard of Oz" and won an Oscar in 1939.

Oscar telecast producer Bruce Cohen said Elizabeth Banks introduced him to the P.S. 22 choir online, and when he got the job to work on the show, he immediately thought of inviting them. The students learned in mid-December that they would be going to the Academy Awards. Co-host Anne Hathaway, a fan of the chorus, delivered the news in person at the school.

"All of a sudden, the lights shined and there was Anne Hathaway and her hair was glowing!" remembered Jonathan, 10. "Everybody was crying so hard, especially the girls." (School officials asked that the children's last names not be published.)

During their four-day trip to California, the chorus will visit Disneyland, where they'll perform in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle. After the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will throw them a private party, but the kids seem way more excited about riding Space Mountain than sharing crudité with celebrities.

"I always wanted to be in Disneyland!" exclaimed Mohammed, small and excitable. "I'm dying, I'm DYING!" He threw an arm across his forehead and fell to the ground in mock-death.

After a beat, he sprang right back up. "Once my mom went to Hollywood," he said, still bouncing. "She was a singer too, but she sang in Arabic. Maybe she had a big career when she was young." Did she have any advice for him? He nodded. "She said, 'Stand still, sing good and take deep breaths.'"

The racially mixed, blue-collar neighborhood that's home to P.S. 22 is a long way from the sleek glamour of the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. The area's most famous landmark is an 80-acre cemetery. The halls of the school are covered with student artwork ("Bullies be gone!" reads one stick-figure portrait).

Many of Breinberg's students say they have a particular connection to the pop tunes they perform with the choir. Azaria, who soloed on the Bon Jovi song, said her family has "never had stuff given to us. We've always had to work hard for it. I relate to that line, 'You live for the fight when that's all that you've got.'"

A tall, skinny girl named Denise, who takes the lead when the chorus sings Katy Perry's "Firework," agreed.

"The music describes my life story," she said of the song. "You know how she says she's 6 feet under screamin' and no one seems to hear a thing?" she asks. "I know how that is. I always feel like I'm trying to get adults to listen to me."

Pretty soon she'll have the attention of the entire Kodak Theatre — not to mention millions of TV viewers. Does she think those adults will listen to her now?

"Well, it's just like Justin Bieber says," she replied. "Never say never."

melissa.maerz@latimes.com

Times staff writer Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.

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