Music helps Newtown heal after tragedy

Associated PressFebruary 9, 2013 

— Professional football players were on the verge of tears when a group of 26 children who escaped the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School joined Jennifer Hudson at the Super Bowl to sing “America the Beautiful.”

The performance last week was one of many musical tributes to the victims of the Dec. 14 tragedy, some put on by world famous performers, others by local musicians and many involving the children of Newtown.

“Humans have used music in healing forever,” said Jane Matson, the choral director at Newtown High School. “It expresses our feelings and gets emotion out in a way that’s constructive and beautiful. So I don’t think it’s any surprise that in trying to heal here, we would turn to music.”

Members of Matson’s chamber choir were among about 80 Newtown students who performed with dozens of Broadway stars including Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Ebersole and even Monkees frontman Micky Dolenz at a benefit show in Waterbury. The event “From Broadway with Love” was put on by Broadway producer Van Dean, who lives in nearby Trumbull and composer Brett Boles, who grew up in Newtown.

The choir joined star Michael Cerveris to sing “Sunday,” a song from “Sunday in the Park with George” about finding the calm after chaos. They also sang “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

That show, whose audience included first responders and the parents of Sandy Hook victims, also featured the choir from Sandy Hook Elementary, on video, singing their school song.

“The idea was to have as many children as possible be a part of it, to give them something to get excited about,” Dean said.

High school choir member Kyle Watkins said it was a chance for him and other Newtown kids to experience something positive, to express themselves and to feel like they were helping.

“Newtown is my home and the people are kind of like my family,” he said. “A lot of us wanted to do something, but didn’t know how to help. So for the choir, our way was singing. It was a miraculous experience.”

That’s also why Sabrina Post brought students from her performing arts school in Newtown to the nearby home recording studio of former Talking Head and TomTom Club band members Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, where they recorded a version of “Over the Rainbow” with folk singer Ingrid Michaelson.

Post said she wanted to show the children they could make a difference.

“One little girl, her neighbor died,” she said. “And she said she thinks of her as singing with us when she sings.”

The song rose to No. 12 on iTunes and to No. 2 on Amazon.com, said Tim Hayes, who co-produced the recording.

The children also have been asked to perform this Sunday for the E! Network’s Grammy Awards preshow, a segment that will air from Newtown.

Many events have raised thousands of dollars for Newtown-related causes, such as mental health care for the first responders, or children’s programs.

Sunday, a free concert will be held in Ridgefield. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame helped organize the event after speaking with the family of Ben Wheeler, one of the children who died.

Yarrow said this performance is intentionally not a fundraiser. Guests, he said, will include Newtown families and first responder networks, educators and political leaders, with the theme of coming together to bring positive change to society.

“This is not post-Sandy, where you need supplies and food,” he said. “My intuition is this community needs an event that brings music and a tone of caring, healing and togetherness. We need to let them know they are not alone in a way that is helpful to them.”

Stokes Mitchell, the Broadway star, said that is exactly what he felt at Waterbury’s Palace Theater while singing “The Impossible Dream,” a song that speaks about striving to right the unrightable wrong.

“Music has this strange power, more than any other art form, to talk to your soul directly,” he said. “In some ways, it can bypass your brain and it goes right into your heart, right into your soul, right into your being.”

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