“I want to become an actress on Broadway,” proclaims Elli Sweet. Specifically, she wants to do Evita.
She is self assured, thoughtful and radiant. She wears a flower in her hair the size of a grapefruit. And she has come to this audition prepared.
“I practiced like a million times this morning,” she admits. Even without that, she has a leg up on the competition. In a room full of people trying to win the chance to sing the National Anthem at a Roger Dean Stadium spring training game, she’s a veteran. She opened up a game at the Jupiter, Florida ballpark last season.
“I have two voice teachers,” Elli points out, so she knows a thing or two about difficult vocal pieces like “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Her advice to people without two voice teachers? “I would start low, and breathe before each sentence.”
Breathe however you want, but that melody started making people screech like strangled cats 150 years before it was officially adopted as the US National Anthem in 1931. The tune was written by John Stafford Smith in 1775 as “The Anacreontic Song,” the “constitutional song” for a London gentlemen’s club. It became generally popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and was recycled in dozens of ditties -- including an Irish drinking refrain -- over the next several decades. Enter attorney and amateur poet Francis Scott Key, who spent a full day and night watching the British pound Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. No way to know whether he had that melody in mind when the sun came up on September 14th of 1814, but the poem he wrote down fit the proper meter. The printer who quickly published the lyric as a broadsheet married it to the well-known melody, and singers have been straining over two octaves ever since.
When Sandra Mandella stepped up to the mic, range was not an issue. She’s a jazz singer from the Midwest, and she’s done the anthem before Pistons and Lions games. She says she’s been “sitting in with lots of groups” here in the area as well as back in Milwaukee and Detroit. For Mandella, landing a slot at a spring-training game would be good PR. A way to keep her name out there.
“I’m trying to find a nice little gig in this town,” Mandella explains.
“I’m very patriotic, ”Jeff Kidwell explains, when asked what compels him to perform the anthem. “I’m a direct descendant of Abraham Lincoln.”
And he must feel compelled. He’s sung “The Star Spangled Banner” before sporting events across the country for years. He reels off the list: Florida Marlins, Cincinnati Reds, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and 25 spring training games.
In front of the judges, he gets his whole body into the song, clenching his fists like an umpire making an important call at the plate. He says he gets his musical ability from his father, a baritone. The anecdote goes this way -- Dad turned down an offer back in the 60s from some outfit called The Mamas and the Papas. He figured they’d never amount to anything.
No matter. These days, Kidwell is a hedge-fund manager. And an Elvis impersonator.
”The US anthem is one of the toughest, with range,” notes Lou Galterio. “It takes the most vocal energy.”
He knows what he’s talking about. When he takes the stage, there’s no mic necessary. Head level, shoulders back, the anthem booms. There’s no effort involved; it’s like he just turns up a volume knob somewhere. Up close, it’s disconcerting to hear all that clear, resonant tone coming out of one guy in a sport shirt.
It’s no surprise to discover Galterio has had serious vocal training, and has sung with the Florida Grand Opera. What is surprising, is that he’s fallen into a kind of weird vocal niche. He’s the guy you call when you want someone else’s anthem sung. So far, he’s been hired to sing the national anthems of Italy, the Netherlands, Israel and Canada.
He says his natural ability and his operatic training allow him to pick up foreign lyrics phonetically in no time. And the music is easy.
“The Canadian anthem is a walk in the park,” Galterio says, quickly adding, “No offense.”
Galterio, Kidwell and Mandella aren’t the only adults in the audition room. But they are far outnumbered by the elementary- and middle-school-age girls. A few carry pitch pipes to make sure they start off low enough. Some lisp bravely through braces, trying their best to emulate the styles of their favorite country or R&B stars.
But Elli Sweet goes with a traditional interpretation. And being a veteran stadium singer, she knows how to fight off the butterflies when she does get in front of a giant crowd for that all-important game-starter.
“Obviously,” Elli says, “I imagine them in their underpants.”
“Anacreontic Song,” “Star Spangled Banner” and broadsheet documents courtesy: Smithsonian