When Erin Shields belted out Being Alive – the showstopper from the Broadway classic Company – the title had extra levels of meaning.
This virtual concert, broadcast from Shields’ living room, helped fund the food pantry at Mosaic West Queens Church, which is feeding hungry residents of the Sunnyside neighbourhood. It also gave Shields and her husband, David Shenton, an opportunity to resume their artistic lives.
The couple, touring musicians, lost gigs worldwide during the coronavirus pandemic. With the concerts, they’ve used their art to raise thousands of dollars.
It began when they saw the lines that stretched for blocks outside the pantry, which is near their apartment. Several friends had lost jobs after Broadway closed, and they felt the need to help.
“When your entire industry shuts down, you think, ‘well, how are we going to do this?’” Shields said. “Seeing the people in line..., you go, ‘I can be that person and that could be my family member.’”
In September, they joined the volunteers at the church who distribute more than 1,000 boxes of food to families twice a week. As time passed, they felt the need to do more for others during the pandemic.
“I thought, I’m not a doctor... I don’t really have much to offer. But then I thought, well, you know, we can perform, ” said Shields, a soprano from Illinois who sings with her husband, a British composer, pianist and violinist. Other talented friends were willing to join for a good cause.
“We have all these connections to Broadway singers outside of their work on Broadway, so we wanted to capitalise on that, ” Shenton said.
During a recent concert, smiling families on Zoom clapped and sang along (on mute). Among the performers were Broadway musicians known for their work in everything from Hamilton and The Little Mermaid to Tootsie and Les Misérables.
Shields sang crowd favourites, including Somewhere Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz – she played Dorothy in her high school’s production, her first big role. Shenton played a huge Bösendorfer 225 piano that he lovingly calls the couple’s baby. He named it “Wolfgang Kathryn”, in memory of his late mother and her favourite composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
For years, the couple have performed at churches in New York. And they’re no strangers to good deeds – they’ve sung to older adults and Alzheimer’s patients in Illinois, taught music to kids in Arizona and followed their passion for animal rights by travelling to Zimbabwe to take care of elephants and protect other vulnerable wildlife.
Shields said volunteering became especially important last year when New York turned into the epicentre of the pandemic, with the sirens of ambulances rushing patients to hospitals resounding throughout the city.
“It’s just something my mum always said: ‘If you’re feeling low, volunteer, give back to other people, because it will make you feel better'," Shields said. “And it’s so true.” – AP