The Sag Harbor native is a newly tapped member of The Whiffenpoofs, the famed a capella group comprised of 14 senior Yale men founded in 1909. The 2011-12 group recently performed at Bay Street Theatre, a stage Odell Shapiro knows well from childhood roles in Bay Street productions of “Our Town” and “Pippin” as well as countless Stages shows. Odell Shapiro talked about what it means to be a Whiffenpoof and where it will take him in the coming year.
By Annette Hinkle
How competitive was the audition process? Did three years in the undergraduate group The Dukes Men of Yale (affectionately known as “Da Doox”) seal your reputation as a “must have” for the Whiffenpoofs selecting the incoming group?
It’s fairly competitive – especially because once we get to that level of singing, everyone is on a much more even par than the first auditions freshman year. There were 30 to 40 guys for these 14 spots. I’d definitely say reputations are involved. But it seems to me that it’s really mostly based on your audition. It’s nerve wracking and I wasn’t super confident. There’s one 15 minute audition — no call backs — and you have to sing with members of the current class and then do sight readings which was the scary part for me.
The Whiffenpoofs sounds more like the name of an Angry Bird or a quidditch team than a group of gentlemen singers. How did the founders of come up with that name a century ago?
It’s a mythical dragon fish – they were just young guys who wanted a goofy name. It’s completely student run, and even more crazy is, unlike other a capella groups on campus, there’s 100 percent turnover each year, so there’s no institutional memory. Every year we have to redefine what the group means to us.
Do the present day Whiffenpoofs pay tribute to the founders in their shows?
At each concert, they sing “The Whiffenpoof Song,” which part of that history. The music is passed down. A lot of it is about old Yale, that college tradition – but the group is still redefining itself and coming up with new music. They were on [NBC’s] “The Sing Off,” an “American Idol” for singing groups. It opened them up to a whole new audience.
I hear the “Whiffs” spend their time off from studies traveling and singing – how (and where) are you scheduled to spend yours in the coming year?
We’re still based in New Haven – during the school year, we sing weekly concerts at Mory’s Temple Bar where the “Whiffs” started, and at the Union League Café. It sort of keeps us grounded to the community. But it’s such a well reputed group, we’re called for gigs around the country and internationally. We’ll be in Mexico City in early September, but usually we’re in the New York and Connecticut area. Then we’re going on a western tour for a couple weeks in October of California, Nevada and Washington.
But I understand there will be a lot more in store come 2012?
This year, we’re all taking the whole academic year off. It’s not unprecedented. Because it’s such a busy schedule we can’t do our studies as easily. Our business manager is excited because we all can tour. But we don’t just go gallivanting off. One of the reasons I decided to do it is I love living at school. My idea is not to be gone, but still live in New Haven, be with all my friends and stay involved. Then I’ll come back and finish in a fifth year.
We’ll do South America in a spring tour. Some of the group will go to Antarctica in February. I won’t be on that. The big thing is next summer – a three month all expense paid world tour. Our business manager’s biggest job is to budget that. There’s no endowment so we have to finance it through appearance fees. We don’t even know yet where we’ll go – it’s subject to change every year. This year the group did New Zealand, Japan, China, Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Paris, Rome, Denmark and South America.
Was the travel potential a big motivation in your decision to audition?
That was definitely one of the bigger draws. When I realized that, the year off started appealing to me. I was back and forth, then two days before, I scheduled to audition. It finally clicked that it would be nice.
When you first went to Yale, did you imagine that a cappella singing would become such a big part of your life?
Not at all. There’s nothing like that out here. It’s a cool community on campus. It’s a really interesting atmosphere and it’s such a unique thing. It’s growing all the time – especially with “The Sing Off” and You Tube. There are so many outlets for college groups now, even without a label.
Before you went off to Yale, you developed a reputation locally as a stellar young actor, singer and dancer. Have the singing groups changed your focus or do you still do as much theater as you used to?
I’ve just grown so much as a singer from where I was when I left high school. I’m singing all the time, hours and hours a week. The voice is a muscle, the more you work it, the more agile and wider the range. The cool thing about a capella groups is it’s just a room full of singers, all using the same instrument and you learn how others use theirs. Growing as a singer and musician has been really great. Acting is still my main passion, but music will be part of my life forever.
Many rock stars have found that girls dig guys in bands. Would you say that the general thinking on campus is that being a member of an a capella group is a good way to meet girls or does it tend to have the opposite affect?
It doesn’t hurt. There are certainly girls who are fans of a capella. It’s an interesting frustration for me. I’m in both — I also play guitar in a band — and I wonder why there’s not more people at the rock shows.