Tucson's 'Let Freedom Sing' celebration is going virtual this Fourth of July
editor's pick top story

Tucson's 'Let Freedom Sing' celebration is going virtual this Fourth of July

From the June's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Bars, gyms face shutdowns; Tucsonans worried telemedicine might disappear series
  • Updated

Jodi Darling, here singing the national anthem at “A” Mountain, is one of 10 vocalists who will perform in “Let Freedom Sing” 2020. The virtual show will be available from 2 p.m. to midnight on Saturday.

Independence Day celebrations will look different for many communities around the country this year and a longtime Tucson tradition is no exception.

“Let Freedom Sing” has gone virtual, with a premiere that can be accessed at arts-express.square.site/let-freedom-sing-2020 after 2 p.m. Saturday, July 4.

“The concept here was that we want to give the Tucson community something that allows them to take a break from some of the trials that we are all going through right now, whatever they may be, from fires to emotional and social distress to the isolation that so many of us are feeling with COVID-19,” said Matthew Holter, director for “Let Freedom Sing,” which will mark its 37th year of production by the nonprofit Arts Express.

“One of the best things we can do is to share some of the beloved patriotic music we have and some of the hit songs that make people feel good and tunes that embody warm and positive feelings — anything from being out in nature to fond memories of things associated with summer, like baseball or what have you.”

The local organization is dedicated to building a better community through arts education and musical theater. Last year, it served more than 25,000 people of all ages and diverse cultural and economic backgrounds as cast, crew and audience members. The continuum of programming is comprised of the Arts Express Kids Summer Program (Grades kindergarten through 8); Behind the Scenes: Broadway and More; Monte Awards for high school students; Summer Stock for performers ages 15 to 25; and typically seven annual community theater productions including “Let Freedom Sing.”

The onset of the pandemic resulted in postponement of the summer production of “West Side Story” until April 2021 as well as overhauls of the Monte Awards, the Arts Express Kids Summer Program and Summer Stock.

“We have been doing everything virtually. It is has been a very steep learning curve taking it on and trying to get ready for all of this, but where there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Karen Wiese, executive director of Arts Express.

Wiese said they provided a local alternative to the Monte Awards — traditionally a national competition that culminates in New York City — by recording student auditions and providing online Zoom reviews and coaching from a professional team of judges, followed by a livestream event.

The Kids Summer Program has also implemented a virtual format: Roles were assigned through a Zoom audition process for Disney’s “Moana Jr.” and “The Lion King Jr.”

Students meet online daily in groups while also receiving lines and music to rehearse off screen. After students learn their parts, each child records and uploads his or her performance under the guidance of the Arts Express technical crew. The parts are then compiled into a full video performance. Students will have a virtual “watch party” in a few weeks via Zoom.

“We are figuring out ways to bring kids and actors together through technology. It is a lot of work for the parents ... and for the kids, who are learning how to perform for film, really. They have to stay in the frame and learn how to interact with each other when the other person is not in the same room and all sorts of very interesting things,” said Wiese.

Anthony Allen Taylor will perform the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the USS Arizona bell on the University of Arizona campus. The broadcast will feature a variety of patriotic songs and contemporary favorites at iconic locations throughout Tucson.

Technology has also facilitated the production of “Let Freedom Sing,” which traditionally features a choir, orchestra and crew of more than 200.

“When everything started to change with COVID, we had to reconsider the viability of a live performance,” said Holter.

After consulting with vocalists, the production crew and others, Holter made the decision to prerecord the show, which will feature singers Juan Aguirre, Erika Burkhart, Liz Cracchiolo, Jodi Darling, Julia Powers, Chach Snook, Susan Stokes, Dennis Tamblyn, Anthony Allen Taylor and Tyler Wright. Each vocalist has been filmed at locations around Tucson, including “A” Mountain, the Pima Air & Space Museum, the Rialto Theatre, Saguaro National Park West, the University of Arizona and more.

“Instead of just using a stage to record the show, we took it a step further and placed performers in iconic locations true to Tucson. One is recorded near a ranch and there were people on horseback that were riding through the frame and about three seconds after the song ends, you hear a horse whinnying. It sounds almost fake since it was so perfect in terms of timing,” said Holter.

Even prerecorded, the production faced numerous challenges, including schedule disruptions due to city curfews and forced relocation of shots due to the Bighorn Fire.

Holter credited the Arts Express technical production team for their outstanding artistry and skill in bringing the show together and creating highlights such as the Salute to the Armed Forces, which features all of the women vocalists in a medley/mash-up.

“Normally we have lots of choir music, but the technicians were able to pull them in one at a time and mix them in a kind of virtual choir which is very different than a traditional choir sound. Khris Dodge is our musical director and he really put together a fantastic arrangement,” said Holter.

The male vocalists also come together virtually with “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a piece written in the 1800s by Stephen Foster of “Camptown Races” fame.

“This is an inspiring piece about how the human spirit can overcome adversity with a great sense of community, which is something that we have here in Tucson. This song speaks about how you and I can take a moment and consider how things look in terms of our particular lives and how we can make things better. It speaks to the heart of our city and will be really encouraging for people to hear,” Holter said.

Hunker-down habits that are here to stay

Those who produced “Let Freedom Sing” 2020 believe that it will be uplifting for Tucsonans on this untraditional Fourth of July. Wiese said she is hopeful that those who are able will be moved to contribute to Arts Express as it contends with increased technical expenses and seeks to continue its mission during these uncertain times.

“We don’t have venue expenses right now, but there are so many expenses that go along with making all of this happen, and people don’t want to pay as much for something online as they do for a live performance, so that makes it tough,” she said.

Ultimately, Wiese is determined that Arts Express and other performing arts organizations will manage to move forward.

“I believe that people need the arts. What would this world be right now if we didn’t have them? So many people are being drawn back in and listening to music and playing instruments just to try to stay sane through all of this,” Wiese said. “ I believe in the value of live theater and we will get it back. In the meantime, we will figure out unique ways to deliver the performing arts.”

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at ninch2@comcast.net

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News