Author, former singer pops the a cappella culture
Rapkin spent the better part of a year following three of the nation's top college groups to research his first book.
He found a Pandora's box of basic human impulses -- in-fighting and competition, jaw-dropping irresponsibility and the obsessive pursuit of perfection, corruption, greed, ambition, artistry, moments of soaring triumph, high comedy and sad human frailty. Loads of great music, too, and all filtered through a decidedly collegiate lens -- complete with partying, libidos in overdrive and the boundless energy of youth.
Why did he do it?
"I was in an a cappella group myself, which is kind of my dirty secret," said Rapkin of his days in the Cayuga's Waiters at Cornell University. "I started seeing a cappella come up in pop culture."
A cappella has become a running joke on the TV show "The Office," thanks to the character played by Ed Helms (a veteran in real life of college a cappella at Oberlin College). A cappella has popped up on "30 Rock" and in the Jennifer Aniston movie, "The Break-Up."
Actors James Van Der Beek, Mira Sorvino, Anne Hathaway and Peter Gallagher, musicians John Legend, Art Garfunkel and Jim Croce and newswoman Diane Sawyer have all been outed for their a cappella pasts. Even Osama bin Laden got into the act as a teenager.
That was enough to get Rapkin, a senior editor at GQ, to think there was a book in it.
The result is "Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory," a lively and disarmingly honest book which follows the ups and downs of three college a cappella groups through the 2006-07 school year. For fans of college a cappella, it's a must. Even if you're not, it's a fascinating read.
Rapkin will be in town this Friday to read from and sign copies of his book at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center at 7:30 p.m. High school a cappella groups will sing a few songs to warm the crowd up.
The event is presented in connection with the annual Collegiate A Cappella Concert, which celebrates its sixth year as a crowd-pleaser on Saturday, Feb. 7, at the Latchis Theatre.
One of the groups Rapkin follows in "Pitch Perfect" is the Tufts Beelzebubs, which wowed crowds at the Latchis Theatre last year and is slated to return this year with local singer Penn Rosen. BMAC Director Danny Lichtenfeld is also a former "Bub" and a source cited frequently in the book and thanked in the acknowledgments.
Rapkin said he chose the Beelzebubs because he wanted a group with a strong respect for tradition and a sterling reputation for quality.
He chose Divisi, a women's group from the University of Oregon, whose story is one of redemption, after being snubbed by one vindictive judge in the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in 2005.
And then there are the Hullabahoos of the University of Virginia, the bad boys of college a cappella. "I wanted to find the frattiest group I could find," Rapkin said.
Through the book, we follow the fates of the Bubs as the group goes through a leadership crisis and then heads to New Hampshire to record what would become the highly acclaimed CD, "Pandaemonium"; Divisi, as it regroups, integrates new members and tries to return to championship form; and the Hullabahoos, whose members overcome brushes with the law, missed gigs and their own staggering collegiateness to achieve success on their own terms.
Not only do we follow those groups, but Rapkin weaves in tales of many others. What emerges is a look at the whole a cappella scene -- a scene which has been booming lately. From its beginnings in 1909 with the Whiffenpoofs, the number of groups grew to a couple of hundred 30 years ago. Lately, that number has risen to some 1,200, with campuses all over the country having multiple groups, led by Rapkin's Cornell which boasts 19 of them. In all, some 18,000 students are involved in a cappella this year.
"About 20 years ago, the music changed. The groups went from 'In the Still of the Night' to singing Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake. When that changed, it suddenly became cool," Rapkin said. "Honestly, I thought it was pretty darn cool."
Lichtenfeld and the Beelzebubs of the late-'80s and early-'90s were prime movers in the birth of a cappella cool.
Although each group has its own traditions, its own character and its own story to tell, all the a cappella groups have more in common than not.
One of Rapkin's buddies in Cayuga's Waiters was disappointed to learn that. "He thought we were special," Rapkin said.
Along the way, there were a few surprises. One was the money some of these groups make. The Harvard Krokodiloes pull in some $300,000 annually. Others raise the money to tour all over the world or spend tens of thousands of dollars recording a new CD.
"The money surprised me. We were never flush with cash. We were always living hand-to-mouth," Rapkin said. "I had no idea how big it got. That was astounding to me that they could make so much money."
Maybe Rapkin will, too. Universal Pictures optioned his book to turn it into a feature-length fiction film. "30 Rock" writer Kay Cannon is working on the screenplay, and producer Max Handelman said this: "It's perfect for the comedy genre that's so big now, what's been called 'geek chic.'"
Whatever happens, Rapkin's year with the a cappella groups opened his eyes but didn't change his core feelings about it.
"I would say I underestimated how much it meant to me," he said. That is, until he found himself on an airliner heading back from Spain the year after he graduated to make it back in time for his group's annual spring concert.
"I have moved on from it," he said, although he does still return from time to time to join the present Cayuga's Waiters for a couple of numbers during a show. "It always hits me when I'm standing up there on stage. ... I can't believe how much I miss it."
Admission to Rapkin's reading at the museum is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for students, free for children 6 and under.
This year's Collegiate A Cappella Concert is Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m., and features nine groups, each with a local singer. Tickets are available at www.brattleborotix.com or by calling 802-257-0124.
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