It’s been viewed on YouTube more than 1.8 million times. But it a personal note from the Piano Man himself that has proven just how much Vancouver’s Phoenix Chamber Choir‘s coronavirus parody of The Longest Time has struck a chord.
— Phoenix Chamber Choir (@PhoenixChoir) May 13, 2020
“I’m from this tiny town in Newfoundland and never could have imagined this would happen,” says Phoenix’s artistic director Dr. Nicholle Andrews. “From an email from Billy Joel to a video that has been viewed that many times, it is definitely a bit surreal.”
A follow-on from their first video Coronavirus Rhapsody, a parody of the Queen anthem Bohemian Rhapsody, the idea for the videos initially came from choir member Carolyn Shiau.
“When rehearsals were suddenly cancelled, choir members began wondering if there was a way we could still sing together,” says Shiau. “And that is when one of our other choir members, Emily Zuidema, found these great lyrics for Bohemian Rhapsody from Boston comedian Dana Jay Bein.”
With Coronavirus Rhapsody racking up over 300,000 views, the team decided to tackle another in the same vein. Procrastinating one day at her job as a professor in Southern California, Andrews began looking for songs to create another parody video. After considering songs from The Beatles and others, she would eventually land on her music idol Billy Joel.
“I am always kind of upset when I hear other people singing Billy Joel tunes because I think it is a bit of sacrilege,” says Andrews with a laugh. “I had no idea our video would actually come to be such a hit.”
Besides being a song that they felt would be relatively easy to perform, Andrews also felt The Longest Time perfectly captured the current zeitgeist.
“It is exactly how we are all feeling right now,” says Andrew. “It has been so long since we’ve been able to communicate with each other and create music together, and I thought it was a great starting point to create some new lyrics.”
But where Coronavirus Rhapsody was performed exclusively by members of the Phoenix Chamber Choir, the team asked its members to reach out to others for this next video. Coupled with Andrews’ connections in Montreal and California, the video features singers from several Lower Mainland choirs and from others on Vancouver Island, Edmonton and Toronto.
“We didn’t realize people would send it to friends who were outside the province,” says Shiau. “We ended up having more video than we expected, but it was really great.”
One of the unexpected joys in spreading such a wide net came from some participants singing virtually alongside people they had not seen in ten years.
“It was a fun reunion for some,” says Shiau. “It encouraged a lot of people to reach back to their friends. These were people they may not have been regularly in contact with, and it really started a lot of conversations.”
“There were some in Phoneix who saw people they had sung with during their undergrad some thirty years before and had not been in contact,” adds Andrews. “It was neat to make those connections.”
The singers were given free rein as to what their contributed video would look like after being provided with just the lyrics and a listening track.
“We had discussed choreographing it, but then Nicholle said it would be funnier if people looked at the lyrics and think about it creatively,” says Shiau.
The result is, at times, hilarious. If you watch closely, you will see one video featuring a choir member receiving a haircut. In another, children can be seen playing with puppets. Andrews herself takes a starring role by recreating the iconic finger snapping from the original song with a Lysol wipes container.
“I didn’t want to be featured as the conductor, but I still wanted to participate, and I told Carolyn I would do the snapping,” says Andrews.
Figuring it would be a pretty lowkey way to keep everyone together, Andrews soon found her fingers getting tired from multiple takes. A convenient Lysol wipes container became the perfect substitute.
“When I talked to my husband, who is the sound engineer, he thought it was hilarious and thought I should just play it in the video,” she says.
With 36 singers, the logistics of putting together such a complex video rested with Shiau, Andrews and their husbands.
A hospital physician by day, Shiau actually found herself with a little extra time on her hands to tackle the project.
“To manage the pandemic response, there are some sectors of the health care system that have been extremely busy and others that are less busy. My sector is a less busy one, and I thought since I had seen various videos like this on YouTube, how hard could it be?” she says with a laugh.
With Shiau’s husband Vaughan, the two used software normally employed by professors for online lectures. “It nearly fried my husband’s computer, but it seems to have worked,” she laughs again.
It also helped that Andrews’ husband was a professional sound engineer. “It was kind of a dream team,” says Andrews of the two couples working together to create the finished product.
That completed product has now been used by public health organizations across the country and seen by viewers around the globe.
Comments on The Longest Time video have come from all over the world, touching a nerve with viewers:
“I just want you to know you’ve created one of those videos that my grandfather finds on Facebook, then emails to everyone hes ever met.”
“A lot of bad things happened because of COVID 19. This is definitely not one of them. It’s so brilliantly written and sung. Definitely made my day.”
“I just can’t enough of this. There are several COVID-19 versions, and this is my fav! Thanks to all those great singers, and the witty lyricist!”
“This made me smile and teary-eyed at the same time. Super-relate to the lyrics/experiences, even all the way here in the Philippines. Except about the part of “flattening the curve.” We still have to work HARD on that…:”
“We have viewers who have seen this video from all over,” says Shiau. “The comments speak to how it has resonated with their lives right now.”
Given the reaction that the first two videos received, most recently, the choir released another coronavirus parody. This time to the tune of the Jonas Brothers’ song What We All Gotta Do, it also features some 60 younger singers.
“There were a lot of people who reached out and asked if we would combine with some of our kids and while we had never done something with kids before we said ‘why not’?” says Shiau.
With just ten days from the time the younger singers were given the lyrics and when it was needed back for production, both Andrews and Shiau were impressed.
“It shows you just how great those youth choir programs are,” says Andrews. “Like so many of us in adult choirs, we started in a youth choir program somewhere. It really gives kids a place where they feel safe and share with each other and work creatively as a team. Many great musicians have come out of youth choirs, and we wanted to showcase that.”
The Jonas Brothers, Billy Joel and Queen will need to take a backseat now, though. At least in the short term, as the choir’s next video will feature Terre-Neuf by Canadian composer Marie-Claire Saindon for the Interkultur Online Choir Competition.
“That means we’ll be able to share a more classical piece that showcases what we do at Phoenix as we don’t normally do parodies or pop tunes,” says Andrews.
But it likely won’t be the last time the choir tackles another coronavirus parody. “Clearly, the community has responded, and we want to make sure we communicate with all of our audience members.”