A Noise Within hosts Yale’s legendary a capella group The Whiffenpoofs
As the Los Angeles area’s premier repertory theater, A Noise Within (ANW) has established a reputation for lavish productions of classic plays. But on Monday the hallowed hall will play host to an entirely different kind of show when the world’s oldest and best-known collegiate a capella singing group The Whiffenpoofs take the stage.
The 14-member team of Yale University men will be presenting a concert in which they use their stellar singing skills on more than 20 songs, ranging from classic pop songs like Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” and the Earth Wind and Fire version of “Got to Get You Into My Life” through standards such as George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “You Are Too Beautiful” by Rodgers & Hart. Between the tunes, the members engage in humorous banter with the audience as well.
At the heart of the show, however, is the group’s own theme song, “The Whiffenpoof Song,” which can be traced to a 1907 winter trip by the Yale Glee Club. Two of the group’s founding members created a humorous adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem, “Gentleman Rankers,” and upon finishing their premiere rendition of the song they declared it their anthem “to be sung at every meeting, reverently standing.”
Throughout the 110 years since, each class of Whiffenpoofs has sung “The Wiffenpoof Song” at the end of every concert as a celebration of brotherhood and tradition. The song has been recorded by Rudy Vallée, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong among others.
Monday’s special event is just one of 250 performances the “Whiffs” will present worldwide this year, giving its 14 performers a unique way of seeing the world before they embark on their senior year.
“Our members perform for a year only and change every year,” says Sean McNay, tour manager for the Whiffenpoofs who also sings with the group. “We don’t go to school this year, the year after our junior year, because we’re performing in 25 states and 25 countries, playing 250 concerts every year,” McNay says.
The ANW show is part of the group’s 36-day spring tour, which includes not only US stops but also performances in Peru, Chile and Argentina. The “Whiffs” also perform domestic tours each fall and winter and slate international shows throughout the summer.
The rare musical event at ANW came about because of a combination of Yale connections and fortuitous timing. Producers Chuck Delaklis and David Miraglia presented the idea of a show to ANW Managing Director Michael Bateman, a fellow Yale alum. Bateman loved the idea not only because of his own fond memories of seeing the Whiffenpoofs perform, but because he felt the show would pair well with ANW’s upcoming play, “Ah, Wilderness!” by Eugene O’Neill, which is set in New England, the region where Yale’s town of New Haven, Connecticut is located.
Founded in 1909, the “Whiffs” began as a senior quintet that met for weekly concerts at Mory’s Temple Bar, a famous Yale tavern in New Haven. They had been members of the Yale Glee Club’s prestigious Varsity Quartet but wanted the freedom to perform outside of strictly planned public events and began meeting weekly at Mory’s to improvise harmonies to their favorite songs.
As the word spread about their ambitious efforts, the singers knew they needed a name. Member Denton “Goat” Fowler suggested “Whiffenpoof” after hearing a joke featuring a mythical dragonfish with that moniker, and the name quickly caught on with the group’s admirers who felt it matched their whimsical sound.
“We get selected by auditioning in February, then start performing in August because it takes that long to do organizational planning for the years,” says McNay. “Each group of the Whiffs gets to plan their own tours to see what its members are most interested in around the world.”
So far, McNay’s favorite experience has been singing the National Anthem with the Whiffs before fans at Norman, Oklahoma, before a University of Oklahoma football game. But he and his fellow singers are looking forward to some “pretty wild summer plans,” including getting scuba certified when they go to Kohtao, Thailand, for a performance.
“They’re amazing performers, but they’re college kids, so the idea is to have fun and experience the local culture there like a year off,” says Miraglia. “And they’re a nonprofit group, so everything they make as a group goes into funding the rest of the tour and their expenses.”
All of the Whiffs are 21 or 22 years old, and most sang in the past with other a capella groups during their freshman through junior years at Yale before auditioning. However, McNay’s own experience with a capella singing stretches farther back than that.
“In eighth grade my mom nagged me to show up for the choir at my high school,” McNay recalls. “I enjoyed it, found I really was OK at it, and have performed ever since. I had a very supportive group in high school, but some of our members have been singing since they were 5 years old. On the other hand, one member never sang at all until he came to Yale.”
Ultimately, the evening should be a treat for fans of great singing and classic songs, a combination that Miraglia promises will elicit a wide range of emotions.
“If you’ve never heard the Whiffs sing live before, their harmonies will bring you to tears, and their performance elements will make you cry laughing,” says Miraglia. “They’re an all-around magnificent group of entertainers.”
The Whiffenpoofs perform at 7:30 p.m. Monday at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $24 to $50. Call (626) 356-3100 between 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday or visit anoisewithin.org.