Chor Leoni Men’s Choir escapes the established Christmas classics with All is Calm, a musical based on the events of the 1914 Christmas truce along the Western Front of World War I.
Starring the 55-man strong choir and three actors, All Is Calm marks the first fully staged musical in the choir’s 22-year history. Erick Lichte, Artistic Director of Chor Leoni, says that the response to the show has been incredible. With five sold-out shows necessitating an added sixth, All is Calm is set to become one of the most successful pieces of holiday theatre this season. But what is it about this show that sets it apart?
“First of all, as a piece of theatre, it is unlike anything else that I’ve ever seen,” says Lichte. “I’ve never seen an a cappella musical. It completely relies on the human voice for its strength which creates an incredibly intimate atmosphere.”
This intimacy allows the audience to be drawn into the story of the truce on an emotional level. “I think people always respond to the human voice in a way that they just can’t with instruments.” smiles Lichte.
The Christmas Truce was an unofficial ceasefire that occurred between the Allied forces and the German front line during Christmas 1914. The opposing trenches were so close that the soldiers could hear the songs sung by the other side. On Christmas Eve, the front line soldiers began to sing Christmas carols and much to their surprise, the song was picked up by the other side. And so began a tentative truce as both sides, homesick and yearning for a little holiday spirit, broke rank and shared an unofficial truce in honour of Christmas.
“It’s sort of like when you go to see Titanic,” says Lichte. “You know what the outcome of the story is. You know the boat goes down. And I think that everyone knows, when it comes to this, is that the war is going to go on. This was a fleeting grace of a moment. What I think we’re trying to do is set it up well enough that you can experience what that might have been like; to savour that moment and contemplate it for ourselves. Here at Christmas time the best selves of all of these men were brought out and they were able to realize their humanity and just see each other as human beings. I think the story fits into a grander archetype of what we’re all searching for at Christmas time and that we maybe do not all find.”
All is Calm is about a moment of stillness amongst the chaos of war. From a technical standpoint, this created an interesting opportunity for Lichte and Chor Leoni.
“Most dramas are created in a way that you have conflict rising, conflict rising, conflict rising, and then at that perfect spot almost at the end of the show all the conflicts go away,” says Lichte. “But here it is an anti-conflict. You have the war going on, but the high points are really where the conflict goes away. So finding a structure for the storytelling was really quite challenging in a way to make a viable and meaningful piece of theatre.”
It wasn’t just the technical side that provided a challenge as musically, the piece is a mish-mash of trench songs and Christmas carols as styled by a rough and tumble group of soldiers. Retaining that feeling, while adding the vocal mastery of Chor Leoni, was no simple task.
“What’s really important for me is that we believe that these men actually did sing,” says Lichte. “So we studied all the World War One songs and read the journal entries. They really did sing a lot. So we have some of these really simplistic and rough sounding trench songs that I asked Chor Leoni to sing a bit more rustically, to not put their best choral tone into the songs. I think our ear has to believe that yes, these men really did sing.”|
While the sound may be rustic and rough, Chor Leoni will still be showing off the full range of their vocal skill set.
“The guys are singing beautifully and I think we can hear with new ears the songs that keep the home fires burning. There are moments where the music transcends the reality of the situation, in particular the arrangement I did of Silent Night which is smack dab in the middle of the piece.”
From cannon fire to ceasefire, it is Silent Night that offers the true turning point in the story.
“That was the song that brought the men out of the trenches.” says Lichte. “That was the song that they shared. We knew that one had to be the climax of the conflict part of all this. But I think in all musical theatre you want those moments where the music takes you away and transcends the reality of the situation.”
Erick Lichte and director Peter Rothstein began work on All is Calm in 2005. Initially performed as a radio play, the show has gone on to do six American national tours as a theatrical musical and has sold out in cities all across North America. It clearly resonates, but not for the reasons the creators initially thought.
“It’s been so clear to me that it is part of the zeitgeist of our moment,” says Lichte. “When we wrote the piece the Iraq war was very much waging and this idea of war and peace was very much on our minds. When we first got into it we thought ‘this was going to be very topical’. We were at war, and that’s why it’s going to have resonance. But that war has ended and other wars have started and the popularity of the show has only grown.”
War is a constant, but it is not what truly resonates with the audiences who have fallen in love with All is Calm.
“In every one of the Christmas stories, there’s this idea that the lowliest and the least likely among us hear the message of Christmas. For me, that’s always been the angel’s message of ‘peace on earth and goodwill towards all’,” says Lichte. “Think about Ebenezer Scrooge. There’s no way he’s ever going to change but Christmas somehow does that to him. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas the Grinch is transformed. The shepherds get the message first in the Bible and they are transformed through this message. The soldiers of the Christmas truce, they were the lowliest. They were not the generals or the politicians, it was the lowest of the rank. They were soldiers that were sent there to kill and they decided that they were going to have peace that night. There’s this idea of finding our best selves at Christmas and being transformed. Or, at least, the possibility of being transformed. I think we all hope for that each year.”
“I think that the blending of history, music, emotion, and a real truly hopeful message of peace on earth and goodwill towards all is humbling,” says Lichte. “We often talk about bravery in war as valour or heroism of killing the enemy but here we have an act of heroism that is men defying orders to sing for one night. It’s a message that I feel is incredibly humbling to be part of telling.”