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A serendipitous Facebook post, a shared love of song and after-rehearsal happy hours brought four disparate New Yorkers together to become the “Hell’s Kitchen Supremes” – the unofficial West Side contingent of the city’s Gotham Rock Choir.
Founded in 2009, the eclectic ensemble – who have featured everywhere from the Today show to Madison Square Garden – focuses on bringing the fun back to choral singing for New Yorkers of all backgrounds. They meet weekly in a Midtown rehearsal studio to belt out four-part harmony versions of rock classic tunes from Queen, Bon Jovi and Joe Cocker in preparation for a seasonal concert at Soho Playhouse this Tuesday.
It was here that four strangers – all drawn to the choir for different reasons – would form fast friendships after discovering that some of their fellow songbirds were also their neighbors.
For Felice Clyne, music had always been a part of her life. After studying journalism: “I was going to be the next Barbara Walters or Katie Couric, but as they say, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” Felice spent 30 years as a public school educator, putting on musical extravaganzas with fourth and fifth graders in her school’s gifted and talented programs. Her husband is a professional musician and “I would get to perform with him at some shows – music is in my blood,” added Felice.
She spotted an ad for Gotham Rock Choir on Facebook, “I thought, ‘what could be more fun – singing in a choir that’s not just doing all of these church songs,’” said Felice, who was thrilled to get the chance to sing – and to see other people in person again after COVID’s long lockdowns. “The first song that we sang together was Joy to the World – and what a great metaphor it is, because I think that this choir brings joy to everyone.”
Felice posted about her experience in the choir in the Hell’s Kitchen Neighbors Facebook group – where it piqued the interest of lifelong local Jenny Szoke. “I was raised in Hell’s Kitchen on 47th Street,” said Jenny, “and as I’ve gotten older, the area has changed – we’ve lost a lot of connection in the neighborhood. I was looking for something to give me a sense of community, so I started joining all of these neighborhood Facebook groups, and I saw Felice’s post.
“I’m a writer, but as I’ve gotten older it hasn’t given me the same sense of satisfaction,” added Jenny, “So I decided to try something new. I love to sing, and I only do it at home and no one wants to hear it, but now they’ll be forced to.”
Jenny was full of nerves in the early days, “I didn’t think I would actually show up to the first rehearsal,” she said, “and I didn’t think I would show up to the second rehearsal, but by the third one, I was in it. It’s nice to see that I can learn something new, that I can stick with it.”
Gracesa VanHentenryck was a newcomer to Hell’s Kitchen when she discovered the Gotham Rock Choir. “I’ve lived in a lot of different neighborhoods over the years, and I came to Hell’s Kitchen in January 2021. I was one of those people taking advantage of the lower rents we were seeing at the time,” she said.
Working and taking classes from home, “I was feeling lonely and missing friendships in my life. So I figured I should try to find ways to meet new people,” said Gracesa. “I saw the Hell’s Kitchen Facebook group pop up, and the post about the choir. Growing up, I had done band and chorus and music and theater, and I really loved it. But when I tried to join choirs before, you always had to audition and read sheet music – which I can, but it’s been so long. I wanted something that was a bit more low-key, that was simply about the joy of meeting people and sharing music.”
Like Jenny, Gracesa had her misgivings – “I would define myself as someone who is socially anxious” she said, but the friendly, community-minded atmosphere helped her feel at home. “I was nervous during the first few social activities outside of the choir — but now that we’re nearing the end of the cycle, I feel like this is the best thing I’ve done for myself in years,” she added.
Nerissa MacDonald found her way to the Hell’s Kitchen Supremes via the UK. “After living on the Upper East Side, I moved to Hell’s Kitchen during the pandemic, and the first thing I did was check out the neighborhood groups when I saw Felice’s post — she’s really the linchpin that brought us together,” she said. “I grew up singing in a church choir and in pantomimes, but I hadn’t actually sung publicly in over 20 years. I built it up in my head that it was something I did when I was younger and I could never do it again, but I went along the first day, and I loved it immediately. I loved the diversity of the people in the room — there’s so many different characters in choir and it’s awesome.”
She even found a way to get out of her comfort zone, taking on a mini-solo in Get Ready by the Temptations. “At the start of the season, the idea of doing any kind of solo terrified me to the point of sweating,” said Nerissa. “The first time I got up to do the solo I could feel the sweat pouring down my back, my hands were clammy and I was like, ‘I want to die now,’” she laughed. “Fast forward to now, I wouldn’t say I’m not sweaty — I’m still sweaty but I’m doing a solo. It’s not a big solo but I’m proud of myself for doing it because three months ago, I would have laughed at anyone who told me I would do that.”
The four singers brought to the choir by Felice’s Facebook post, would connect after rehearsals at nearby Stitch Bar & Blues, where they came to be nicknamed the Hell’s Kitchen Supremes by fellow choir mates and director Mark Cannistraro. “Who knows, maybe next cycle we’ll do a Supremes cabaret number together!” said Felice.
All of the Supremes acknowledged the challenges of joining a choir — “you really have to devote your time to learning the harmonies, and there’s a lot of work that goes into being part of an ensemble,” said Felice of the group’s rehearsals of pop-rock hits like Lady Gaga’s Born this Way and Toto’s Africa. “I will probably have these songs imprinted in my head for the rest of my life!”
But despite the hours spent memorizing, the four singers felt that committing to the choral group — and each other — was completely worth it. “I think it’s really easy to kind of hang out within a bubble of your own people all the time, and never get exposed to anyone new,” said Nerissa, adding, “so the choir has been great for that. There’s also something satisfying about seeing the songs come to life — I think of the first couple of rehearsals to where we are now, and it is really exciting. But the community, and to meet different people from different backgrounds, I think has been one of the greatest things for me.”
Gracesa agreed that the community has kept her coming back. “It’s been such a wonderful opportunity to find joy and make music again — to gain confidence and make new friends — and I’ve realized that it’s actually not that hard to meet really good people. Mark has been able to create a space where really genuine, good characters come together. I’m so happy that I did it, and I’m definitely doing it again,” she said.
Jenny and Felice were at first unsure if they’d stay the course, but the group’s special camaraderie drew them in. “I’m really happy to have met the people that I did, and I think I’ll keep doing it,” said Jenny. Added Felice, “This the only thing I ever stuck with. I’m really good at signing up for things, going once or twice, being all gung-ho, and then leaving,” she laughed. “I’m sticking with this, and I’m so happy I did — we get to meet people from all different walks of life, from our neighborhood, from other neighborhoods, and we’re all coming together to make beautiful music. It is a joy to have met these ladies and be a part of something that brings joy to us, and to others as we share our passions with other people.”