The Wisconsin Singers are celebrating their 50th anniversary at the Overture Center this weekend with a show featuring music from the last half-century.
A nationally renowned group of 28 UW-Madison singers, dancers and musicians, the Wisconsin Singers have endured because “real, honest live music is so rare,” said Robin Whitty-Novotny, who directed the Singers for 25 years before her retirement two years ago.
“I think that’s why people appreciate them so much,” she said. “We’ve even come out of shows and people have asked if they are lip synching or if the band is tracked because they just can’t believe that they can do all of it at once.”
The eight band members have the show memorized, and aren’t there just to back up the other performers, Whitty-Novotny said.
Zach Schickert, the band’s trombonist and head of the horn section, said that everyone who comes through the group is “really invested in what we do, which is pretty amazing.”
It’s Schickert’s second year in the group, and both years he’s found his fellow Singers become his close friends and it stayed that way.
This year’s performance, “Can’t Stop Dancin’!” opens with the song by that name, a Top 40 hit for Captain and Tennille in 1977. The program features 45 numbers, including “Express Yourself” by Madonna; “Motownphilly,” Boyz II Men’s 1991 debut single; Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing”; Aretha Franklin’s “Think”; and “How Far I’ll Go,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song from the animated film “Moana.”
“We also cover musical theater with ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ ‘Rent’ and ‘Hairspray,’ ” said Georgi Edgington, the group’s director and executive producer. “And of course, being at UW-Madison, we have to do the 5th quarter.”
The emcee this weekend will be food blogger and “Today” show contributor Siri Pinter-Daly, who hyphenated her name after marrying late-night star Carson Daly, who also hosts “The Voice.”
Pinter-Daly was a member of the Wisconsin Singers in the early 2000s, when she was best friends and roommates with Whitty-Novotny’s daughter.
“Siri graduated and went out to California and worked for the Carson Daly late-night show and she and Carson fell in love and moved to New York together. They have three beautiful children,” Whitty-Novotny said. “She has a brilliant smile. She’s lots of fun. She’s very talented, particularly a great vocalist.”
Schickert, the trombonist, is looking forward to working with Pinter-Daly. “She’s a big name,” he said, noting that he’s curious whether her famous husband will show up, too.
The show spans pop, rock, soul, jazz and musical theater. It will include opening performances by area show choirs Madison East Encore and Marshall Show Choir.
The Wisconsin Singers have performed on campus, in the Overture’s Capitol Theater or at the Wisconsin Union Theater, for each of their 50 years. The November hometown show has been at Overture four times in the past five years.
The troupe does about 40 shows a year, mostly around the state, but sometimes out of state, including a spring break trip to perform at a Florida retirement community with typically two stops along the way.
“They’re always gone. So the special part of the on-campus show is that it’s really the one and only time the students get to perform for the Madison community and the campus community,” said Whitty-Novotny, who has remained on as a consultant for the troupe.
The group mainly performs at high schools across the state, and Schickert, a 20-year-old junior studying math education, said the Singers don’t play the high schools of every member, but they hit a fair number of them, sometimes even outside Wisconsin.
Last year, the Singers didn’t get to Germantown, outside of Milwaukee, where Schickert grew up, but they performed in nearby Menomonee Falls, and all of his friends and family attended.
Other than their individual hometown show, the campus one is the best part of the year for troupe members because of the audience, Schickert said. “The crowd is just electric because so many of them are former singers or are friends from Madison... That makes our job so much fun.”
At the end of every season, when the group recaps the year, everyone always says the reason they come back to Singers is for the people, Schickert said. “Just being on stage and performing is pretty amazing.”
More than 100 students try out each spring, including current members who need to audition to keep their spots. “It’s not a given that once they are in, they’re always going to be in, although it’s pretty rare that they would not be,” Whitty-Novotny said. “Part of our mission is to teach them how to audition.”
The bulk of the performances are during the academic year and all the members are also full-time students.
“What’s incredible about this is that these kids are from all different majors — education, engineering, pre-law, pre-med,” Whitty-Novotny said. “We have some music majors, but it really is a cross-campus organization.”
This past year, to Edgington’s credit, the Singers’ average GPA was 3.7, Whitty-Novotny pointed out.
“Not sure it was my credit,” Edgington replied, “probably theirs.”