Vicky Jacobs’s role as Musical Director on The Heartbreak Choir has been unlike any other production she has worked on. By collaborating with the cast and creative team, from song choice to vocal coaching, she has seen the incredible benefits of music seep through the production – from togetherness and connectivity to the pure joy that only singing at the top of your lungs can bring.
‘Music,’ wrote the late neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear.’ It has the power to ‘move people … bringing people together, producing a sense of collectivity and community.’ In fact, this often unquantifiable capability of music – a quality that many music lovers have always known – was recently empirically confirmed by the scientific community. A 2022 review of 26 studies has found that singing, playing or listening to music can improve wellbeing and quality of life. The analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, concluded that music may provide a clinically significant boost to mental health.
One person who knows this to be true is The Heartbreak Choir’s Musical Director Vicky Jacobs. A vocal coach, pianist and founder and director of Glee Club Singing, Jacobs is committed to sharing the remarkable benefits of music and singing with everyone. She understands that although many people may have experienced playing music or singing in their early years, the busyness of adult life makes it difficult to fit music into their everyday. After meeting a lot of people with this predicament, Jacobs had a lightbulb moment. ‘I thought maybe there’s a different way to do a choir where people don’t have to commit – where they can just rock up and we can learn some harmonies and sing all together, and then just leave again.’ That was 17 years ago, and Jacobs has been running drop-in singalongs ever since.
As well as running Glee Club, Jacobs has worked as an associate musical director in theatre for the last decade, including Moulin Rouge! The Musical and Come From Away. She enjoys this work, but during the pandemic she discovered where her passion lies. ‘I sort of had a realisation that getting normal people to include singing in their lives and to feel good about that is an incredible gift you can give to them.’
Fortuitously, Jacobs’s role as Musical Director for The Heartbreak Choir is a little different to the other shows she has worked on. Music belongs in this play, yet it is in no way a musical. ‘It’s a play with some songs in it. The songs don’t propel character or tell story. They exist as songs within the world these characters are living in.’ To Jacobs, they are there to ‘celebrate singing, for the sake of singing.’
As the story centres on a community choir, working with the cast during rehearsals has mirrored how Jacobs would run sessions with her singalong choirs. ‘Some of the cast have done lots of singing, and some of them haven’t done much at all. And I sort of love that because that’s how community choirs are.’ What’s more, Jacobs has very much been involved in choosing the songs the choir will sing in the play, whereas usually when working on a production the music is set in stone. ‘When Aidan wrote the play, he included songs in the script to give us an idea. I was lucky enough to have a little bit of time with Aidan, where he said, these are the songs and this is what they do. So it was about going through and finding the songs that work in that same way, and that our cast would love singing and that would speak to the audience.’
This collaborative approach to the music and singing allows The Heartbreak Choir to genuinely capture the magic of choirs. ‘I think the cast are all going to join a choir at the end of this, because we’ve had so much fun playing around with the music – the music is a bit loose, a bit free and a bit fun.’ Jacobs hopes this resonates with the audience as well. ‘I hope the audience go away remembering that singing doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be valuable. And that having music and art as part of your day-to-day life is an enriching thing and something that connects us with the world around us and connects us with the people around us.’
As Aidan Fennessy wrote when setting the scene at the beginning of the play’s script, ‘The reason for the choir to exist is about wanting culture and beauty. It is about finding joy. But it is mostly about finding a connection that isn’t transactional and isn’t sport. In short, they do it for love.’
The Heartbreak Choir is on stage from 25 April to 28 May at Southbank Theatre.
Published on 13 April 2022