Sugary pop tunes are a far cry from orchestral music.
But a penchant for pop is precisely what drew classically trained composer Colin Britt and his comrades in The 3Penny Chorus and Orchestra together last summer to cover Carly Rae Jepsen’s mega hit, “Call Me Maybe.”
“We’re all classical musicians with a playful affection for pop music. ‘Call Me Maybe’ was parodied so much, so it was all about how big, how over the top we could make our cover of the song,” said Britt, who began his doctorate in choral conducting at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts this fall. “It was one of the most popular songs of 2012; everyone loved to hate it and hated to love it.”
While an orchestral and choral take on the catchy tune was a no brainer for Britt – arranging classical renditions of songs at the top of the pop music charts is one of his favorite pastimes – he had no idea his interpretation would become a viral video sensation.
3Penny’s “Call Me Maybe” cover racked up more than 500,000 views within one week and reached 2 million hits only a month later. The classical musicians were even invited to perform live on The Today Show in September 2012.
It all felt like 15 minutes of fame until 3Penny joined forces this April to audition for America’s Got Talent, NBC’s reality television talent showcase that features performers of all ages competing for $1 million.
As the singers and players took the stage, celebrity judge Howard Stern quipped that he found orchestral music boring. But Britt’s rendering of “Call Me Maybe” won over both the audience and the show’s celebrity judges – Heidi Klum, former Spice Girl Mel B., Howie Mandel … and even Stern.
Britt, 28, began his musical career like many other young people – with childhood piano lessons, choral singing and community musical theatre in his hometown, Lewiston-Auburn, Maine.
He considered pursuing musical theatre in college, but everything changed when a friend asked him to conduct a student production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. He looks back in wonder at the bold teenage endeavor with such a challenging score.
“I was terrified, so of course, I said, ‘Yes!’ Now, it seems really crazy. I hardly knew anything about conducting gesture. I’d only seen conductors move their hands, and I’d only ever led from the keyboard by moving my head.”
The experience proved formative for the young musician, who opted to hone his talent for musical direction and composing. He received a bachelor's degree in music composition from the Hartt School, the performing arts conservatory of the University of Hartford, and a master's in choral conducting from the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He also oversaw chapel music for weekday ecumenical worship services at Yale Divinity School for three years.
Britt enjoyed the academic environment and decided to pursue a doctoral degree in music. He chose the Mason Gross program because of its reputation, individualized attention to students and ample conducting opportunities.
“I must be adept on the podium with both singers and players to ultimately join the conducting faculty of a college or university,” Britt said.
The Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) program admissions are highly selective, and accomplished conductor Patrick Gardner only takes one doctoral student under his wing per year. He personally selected Britt for an incredibly competitive slot.
“Colin’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ arrangement was impressive not simply because it went viral,” said Gardner. “It demonstrated his extremely high level of understanding of repertory and conducting skills, which are necessary to succeed, not only as a doctoral student but as [Britt] advances in his career as a conductor and composer.”
Britt and his wife, Victoria, who is a musical theatre performer, reside in Jersey City. He remains active in musical theatre with recent regional musical direction credits, including Singin' in the Rain, Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cabaret, Company and Chicago, for which he won Connecticut’s Broadway World award for best musical direction.
Though he and his fellow 3Penny musicians didn’t advance beyond America’s Got Talent’s final choral round this August, Britt has no regrets.
“Nine million people watched us perform live from Radio City Music Hall, and I’ve never worked with stage, technical, and sound design professionals at that level. It was amazing!”