During the hour and a half morning practice, the ragtag group of teens in the Gleeks, the glee club at Wexford Collegiate for the Arts, have had their share of scolding from Ann Merriam, the school’s artistic director. First, for not strictly adhering to the dress code, then for forgetting some of the lyrics to Deck the Halls (“fast away the old year passes” proved a difficult line to remember).
But the sternest warning came at the end of practice, hours before students were to board a bus downtown to meet up with the city’s other big glee club: Splash from the Etobicoke School of the Arts. They were to attend a screening of the documentary Unsung: Behind the Glee about the competition between the two schools.
“If you trash or say one negative thing about ESA – well first of all you’ll be seeing the principal. Second, you are out of any special program in this school, you understand?” barked Ms. Merriam, 61, dressed the part of general in red pants, black leather boots and military-inspired navy cardigan.
Where some school rivalries are built on academics or football championships, for those at ESA and Wexford, it’s all about show choir. From size to demographics to resources, the two schools are very different beasts. But it’s the gulf in funding between them that could end the rivalry: This school year, one choir is investing to move to the big leagues while another is struggling to find the funds to compete at all.
The two schools’ styles have always been in contrast. At the 2013 Show Choir Canada national competition, Wexford’s show choir – made up of about 60 students, though the number swells to 90 with the full chorus – blended songs from Les Misérables with Michael Jackson hits and also had Piragas Bhaskaran, a skinny South Asian boy in a bowtie, deliver the Joyful, Joyful rap from Sister Act 2. Students in the Gleeks wore their own eclectic mixes of clothes that fit a loose colour scheme: blue mini skirts, white blazers, red skinny pants.
Splash, which is about half the size of the Gleeks, performed a set pulled exclusively from the Broadway revue of Bob Fosse: songs such as Bye Bye Blackbird performed with meticulous choreography by students in bowler hats. They won for the second year in a row. But in 2011, Wexford came out of nowhere to win the title.
For ESA’s artistic director Paul Aikins, Wexford wasn’t even on his radar until the entrants in the 2011 national competition were announced.
“I’ve got my little assistant and I’m like ‘Go on and find YouTube videos of all these choirs. I had no idea what we were up against,’” Mr. Aikins recalls. “He’s like, ‘Oh, we don’t have anything to worry about except this one school - Wexford.’”
“At Wexford, if you’re on the soccer team it’s like, ‘Okay, cool.’ But if you’re in musical theatre and you’re part of the glee club... you’re up there on the hierarchy of cool kids,” said Torri Webster, a grade 12 member of the Gleeks.
Thanks to the hit FOX show Glee, high school show choirs have been riding a wave of popularity in recent years.
Though seen as the pinnacle of both schools’ performing arts programs, the time and funding directed at extracurricular glee clubs are very different.
A few weeks after Splash won last year’s nationals, ESA’s Mr. Aikins held auditions for the following year’s ensemble and before the school year was even done, the students knew the vocals inside-out. In October, they started on choreography.
Ms. Merriam said she usually doesn’t start preparations until a month before the national competition. This year, it might not happen at all as Wexford is producing an ambitious musical written by local artists that would require heavy investment to produce. She worries the school won’t be able to support this musical as well as nationals so the Gleeks may not participate in the latter.
“We are financially strapped,” she said.
Peter da Costa, the co-founder of Show Choir Canada, said that it would be “a huge loss for us, for the kids and for the crowd that loves them.” He said the Gleeks are clearly the “crowd favourite.”
The Toronto District School Board assigns funds to schools on a per-student basis and then gives a $100,000 per year boost to the four arts high schools. But ESA also receives an extra $50,000 a year. It’s an amount assigned to the school at its inception to cover the cost of a full-time musical director that was grandfathered in, according to a spokesman for the board. In June, 2012, Wexford’s school council sent a letter to the board asking for more equitable funding. The board said it is still under review.
In the letter, the chair of the school council pointed out that students at ESA come from better means on average. The estimated average combined income of parents whose children went to ESA in 2012 was $118,000, according to a 2012 Fraser Institute report based on data from the ministry of education and Statistics Canada. At Wexford, parents’ average incomes are $60,800. Wexford’s student body is also 26 per cent larger than ESA’s so that arts funding is spread thinner.
Mr. Aikins dismisses the rich-versus-poor narrative.
“When we visited Wexford, I went in there and was like, ‘What are they talking about “poor school”?’ Their facilities are way better than ours. And it’s in a pretty nice, affluent area of Scarborough,” he said.
Mr. Aikins says the student populations are noticeably different, despite the fact that both schools are public and accept students from all over the region. He said ESA attempts to attract a more diverse population each year, “but the reality is we probably attract the kids who have the most training and to get the most training in any of these art forms takes money. So that right there draws a certain crowd, right?”
Recent Wexford grad Dean Deffett, 18, who did show choir for four years, said some of his fellow glee members did have to work multiple jobs to help their families but that wasn’t the case for all students: His family did not struggle financially. Similarly, ESA student Madi Scott, 16, said her fellow classmates have had their share of hardships. She battled leukemia before enrolling at ESA, and other students have had their struggles with depression and drug abuse.
“They’re trying to put us under this image that we’re privileged kids and we don’t have heart and we do it because everything came easy to us,” Ms. Scott said, sitting in the school’s dance studio following a practice for Into the Woods, the Grade 11 spring musical. Her feet are unmistakably those of a young dancer: chipped nail polish, skin dotted with various cuts and bruises. “We have just as much heart, and love it just as much.”
At Wexford, the glee club is largely funded through the school’s internal budget. At ESA, however, they take a more entrepreneurial approach.
“Last year we made $45,000,” Mr. Aikins said. “I don’t do a gig unless we get paid for it. That money’s been sunk back into the group.” It’s how the school affords its costumes and flying in guest vocal and dance instructors from the United States to lead workshops.
While Mr. Aikins says Splash will be at the nationals this year, he’s also set his sights on bigger things: The group will also be entering a major show choir competition in Chicago.
The cost to attend is $900 per student and the school launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to cover the costs of the 10 students who needed extra financial support.
Back at Wexford, students worry about getting the chance to compete at all.
Ms. Webster said she was so upset by last year’s loss that she skipped a meal – something she’d never done before. She sees a silver lining to the prospect of not going to nationals. “If we don’t compete this year, I think it will save me a little of the heartache if we lose again,” she said.
Unsung: Behind the Glee premieres on TVO on Dec. 4 at 9 p.m.