Interview: Michael McElroy Passes the Broadway Inspirational Voices Baton to Allen René Louis
Louis takes over as artistic director of McElroy's Tony-honored organization this year.
In 1994, amid the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, Michael McElroy founded the Broadway Gospel Choir, an ensemble made up of actors and musicians from various Broadway shows. The organization subsequently changed its name to Broadway Inspirational Voices, and has, for almost 30 years, been a group that aims to change lives through the power of music and service.
Now, amid the horrors of the Covid pandemic, McElroy is stepping down to work on a flurry of new projects (among them, he is an artist-in-residence at Little Island, New York's new floating park, and was recently named chair of the musical theater department at the University of Michigan). Taking over the beloved, Tony-honored choir, is one of McElroy's musical mentees, Allen René Louis.
As they prepared for McElroy's farewell concerts — a pair of shows at Little Island which took place this past weekend and will stream on June 30, he and Louis discussed the history of Broadway Inspirational Voices, and where it will go from here.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Michael, how does it feel to be departing after all these years, and why is Allen your worthy successor?
Michael McElroy: It feels great, you know what I mean? Of course, having done it for so long and it being my baby, there were certain things that needed to be in place for me to feel ok with stepping down. One was having a really fantastic board of directors to really support all the amazing work that we're doing, but then also to find someone who had the artistic vision, and who would not be mired down by what I did, but use it as a template to move forward with their own artistic vision. I kind of harassed Allen for about a year... I didn't harass him. I was very quiet for months and months, and then I'd drop it into a conversation, and then I would wait a few more months. This went on for about a year, maybe two years, until he said yes.
Allen René Louis: Michael knew or found out very shortly after I joined the choir in 2018 that I was really into music and really into arranging and writing and composing. Within a year of joining the choir, I was asked to be part of the music team. He was pitching my taking over for a while, but this year is really when we started having the conversation. He and I have a very similar background as far as our musical upbringing. I started out with gospel music in my dad's church, and then I became exposed to musical theater a little later. Broadway Inspirational Voices is the perfect merger of gospel and theater music, and it clicked. When I came into the choir, I was absorbing as much as I can — anyone that sits under Michael McElroy must absorb and take in the moment.
Michael: Allen is passionate about his music and curious about creating music, and he brings the right temperament. There are over 60 choir members, so he has to be able to navigate all those personalities, as well as be able to be front-facing and talk to people about the choir, and deal with the board, and partner with our executive director. It requires a lot of different things. Allen's temperament is very different than mine. He's much more of a calming, soothing presence. I'm also inspired by the way he writes, because I don't write that way. I've been slowly stepping back and empowering Allen and our music team to do more of the writing, and I'm always curious how he came up with that. It will be great for him, artistically, to have a space where he can create that is already there for him, while also expanding into other places artistically as his career continues to evolve.
Michael, in addition to the BIV concert on Little Island, you're in residence there. What can we expect from your tenure?
Michael: The focus is really threefold. One is to curate up-and-coming musical talent. We have this emerging artists series that has some seasoned folk, as well as some folks who you may have seen playing in the subway who now have a platform in this community space. I went through a lot of applications and chose some of the performers, and now they have a slot where they're going to be featured. I'm also so passionate about community and outreach, so Little Island is partnering with the BIV outreach program, led by Angela Grovey, to create a night out for LGBTQ senior citizens. We're going to have theme nights, like disco night or jazz night. And then the last part is where I get to actually create new work and have a space to share it. Those are some of the things that I'm doing. I love the space because it is about and for the community.
Allen, what is your number one goal for the immediate future Broadway Inspirational Voices, and Michael, what is your proudest achievement as artistic director?
Allen: I wouldn't say it's a "goal," but I think mine is to continue building upon Michael's legacy. Michael McElroy has left one of the most solid foundations, from what the choir sounds like, to what we represent, to the way in which we do things. He has really set it up for me, and I'm excited to continue to be of service and allow the choir to evolve as time goes on. My goal is just to be open and see how things grow. It really is a two-fold type of thing, because we are a music and service organization. I want to spread awareness of BIV and what we do through excellence in music and outreach. It's about changing the world through music and service and continuing to evolve. I love the choir so much. I love the work we do and what we stand for. So, this is it; I know without a doubt that this is where I need to be, and it's very fulfilling.
Michael: The thing that comes to my mind is diversity. We're in a moment right now where our industry has had a spotlight on it in a very specific way, but diversity and inclusion were baked into the beginnings of this organization. When I started in 1994, I wanted to bring gospel music to the theater industry because we were reeling from the devastation of AIDS, and, though we were doing things to raise money and support our fellow artists that were living with this disease, we weren't doing anything for our spirits. I believed in the power of this music being separate from the religious experience, and creating that initial concert was about bringing healing to our community, but it was absolutely essential that it be through a diverse group of artists.
In this moment now, diversity has become a buzzword of what everyone thinks they should be doing, but we've actually been doing that. I'm proud of the fact that we have always been a community of professional singers who are the reflection of the audience and the world that we think is possible. When people of diverse experiences, imaginations, ethnicities, and identities come together, what you can create is something that is powerful and beautiful, and that unites us all.