A Talk With Bob Cilman
Living and Dying with Pride and Hope

Bob Cilman, musical director of the Young @ Heart chorus, is very happy that the film named after his group is bringing the talents of these post-retirement-age singers to a whole new audience. They are all in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, and he has found that the audience for Young @ Heart tends to be on the younger side.

Courtesy of a local publicist, I had the chance to talk with Cilman a couple of weeks ago over the phone after the press tour’s flight out of Dallas was canceled due to storms. He enthusiastically endorsed my suggestion that the film is ideal field trip material for retirement home residents. “It’s hard for older people when they come to see us,” he says, “because they don’t know much of the music.”

Young @ Heart, however, is not a musical documentary, nor is it about the music itself. It’s about the people behind the music, about the sacrifices they make, about living and dying with pride and hope, and about connecting with other real people. It’s a film that older audiences should connect with particularly well, as they will see a great deal of themselves in the various chorus members.

Bob Cilman, musical director of Young @ Heart

The subject matter of the film is kind of interesting, from a timing perspective. Martin Scorsese has a new documentary out, Shine a Light, featuring the Rolling Stones—and they’re all in their mid-sixties now. Are you planning on working with them sometime soon?

Bob Cilman: I think they can handle it all on their own by now… But I certainly like all of the music they’ve created up to this point! So… No. Actually, we try to keep the minimum age at 73, and keep pushing it up, so that we won’t be needing the Baby Boomer generation.

And that’s an interesting trend, too. Since you started doing this 25 years ago, it seems that people’s health and stamina just keep increasing the farther along we go.

BC: I think that’s probably right, although when we first started out we had some really old people in this group; one of them lived to 100—101, actually.

Wow.

BC: And no one since then has quite gotten up there. But yeah—it seems people are living well into their late 80s, early 90s. And being able to get up on stage and perform.

Are your parents still alive?

BC: My mother is turning 90 in April. My father has passed; he was 85 when he died.

And how does your mother react to the work that you do?

BC: I think she’s taken some pride in it; I think she likes it a lot. It’s funny—when we first started this group, she wasn’t age-eligible. She’s part of that World War II generation, and when we first started in 1982, it was the World War I generation—people who were much older than she was. But she’s always watched it from the start, and has been very interested in it. She’s very excited about the movie coming to town, and it’s a real joy for her.

And you’re in your mid-fifties now, is that right?

BC: I am. I’m 54, and will be 55 in June.

So you were in your late 20s when you started working with the group. What drew you at that age to working with Seniors?

BC: It was really sort of a practical thing. I got a job. I was working in the arts community, and you don’t make money fast working in the arts community. So I took a job at a meal-site for the elderly. I was always fond of older people, particularly in my own family—I had really interesting great-aunts and -uncles, and grandparents. So I was very intrigued by the idea of working in a place where I would be surrounded by people of their generation. It was after about three months of that they came up to me and asked if I played the piano, and if I would get some people together; and that’s how it all got started. We just began getting together on a weekly basis

And what was your musical background prior to directing the group?

BC: I sang in choruses in high school and college; I played the guitar and had a little rock band in eighth grade. We were pretty horrible, but we tried hard. Basically, I had no great musical training although I always loved music and enjoyed being around singing and choruses.

It seems that one of the really remarkable parts of the story of Young @ Heart is the way that the community has rallied around what you do and what your group does, and the way that you have become a part of that community as well.

BC: I think it’s really interesting. Have you seen the film?

Yes. I saw it yesterday.

BC: Where did you see it?

In Seattle.

BC: Oh, yeah? Where are you located?

I live south of Seattle, out by airport.

BC: Okay. Well, it’s interesting you should note that, because it’s not apparent in the film how community-based this thing really is. That was the raison d’etre for the first fifteen years of this thing, to connect to the community, and to connect Young @ Heart to other arts groups that we would end up performing with—and in a really wide range.

We had this collaboration with break-dancers in 1984, which was really interesting, and at the beginning of the chorus all of the elders were pretty much based in once place—a low-income elderly people’s high-rise. All the break-dancers lived in another housing project, and there was a bus system that connected the low-income housing projects, so these guys would all end up taking the bus together. Initially, they were very leery of one another, and then they wound up being in this production together; they really enjoyed the bus ride after that. So we realized right from the start that there was an interesting way to connect through art to the community.

Another production we did was with Cambodian performers who had just recently come to the community; it was a show about displacement, really. At the time, the community was being gentrified a bit, everything being condo-ized so you couldn’t afford to live there any more. So with elderly people being displaced from their homes and the Cambodians being displaced from their country, everybody needed the city parks—even the young punks. So it was a really fun production with the spirit of all different sorts of cultures; and by the end of the show, everybody was doing bits of everybody else’s culture. It was a neat show.

And then we did a show with an experimental theatre group called No Theatre, and it was a retelling of the French Revolution using the songs of Frank Sinatra. It was during Bush One’s administration, and it was sort of about the S&L crisis, in a way—French Revolution set in Las Vegas. Sort of funny, in a way. But it was a real show with incredible costumes and incredible sets—an extravaganza. And then one of the last shows we did in our community was with the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus, a well-received show. It’s all about uniting people.

But by 1996 or 1997, we were invited to go to Europe, and once we started doing that it was really about the chorus; it was about what we could make. You can’t take all of these collaborators with you. So we’ve been doing two shows, really—one called “Road to Heaven,” which we did for about six or seven years (which was set in a nursing home); and then in 1994 we started doing “Road to Nowhere.” That’s about the elderly who continue to work, who never stop working. It’s a real phenomenon in this country that not everybody is able to live off of their retirement. And you can go to any strip mall and walk into a McDonald’s with 16-year-olds working with 60-year olds. It’s about those people—more of a complaint, but a great show as well, if a little darker than things we’ve done in the past.

You know, when people hear about this film, I think they’re probably going to be thinking, “I know what to expect here. The quality of the music isn’t going to be that hot; but it’s going to be a novelty act and I’ll enjoy it quite a bit.”

BC: We’ve been fighting against that for years; but you’re exactly right.

But then you get to the performances themselves, and as with the little mini-concert at the prison demonstrates, there’s an honesty and truthfulness to the whole thing that really connects with people.

BC: Well, thank you for saying that. I think they work really hard to have it not be a novelty act, to always challenge themselves and choose interesting projects—to keep them real and not just about cute little songs.

At the press screening I went to, there was a very small group of journalists because it was the second of two screenings for the press. After the screening, the publicist asked the three of us, “Did you guys cry, too?” And of course we all said, “Yes.” But the critics came away with the impression that you’re a bit of a harsh taskmaster. As one of the critics said, “Cilman seems awfully full of himself.”

BC: I don’t know. I’ve never thought of it that way at all. I don’t see myself like that. I think of myself as somebody making art and working hard at it. I think the chorus would feel like I was condescending if I wasn’t taking it seriously like that. They like to be taken seriously.

I’ve worked a lot in community theatre and directed church choirs, and very often people commit to things that they find that they are not entirely prepared for—and they find themselves in over their heads. And in those situations, you have to help people follow through on their own commitments. Is that how you feel about it?

BC: I think that’s true. People need to know that we’re not providing a social service. We’re there to make something really interesting for an audience. And that’s much more important than just making people happy during the day; that’s really not our mission at this time. And I think that people who get involved in it really appreciate the fact that it’s being taken seriously—that what they’re coming up with is something more than what you expected when you walked into the show.

One of the great things that came out of it for me is that the performers keep going because it gives them hope for tomorrow. And that’s a wonderful thing.

BC: Yes. I think if there weren’t a level of excellence to it, they wouldn’t be fighting so hard to make it happen.