During a July 25 concert at the MGM National Harbor, singer Barry Manilow is accompanied by the combined choir from St. Columba Parish in Oxon Hill, Maryland. (CS PHOTO BY DAPHNE STUBBOLO)
During a July 25 concert at the MGM National Harbor, singer Barry Manilow is accompanied by the combined choir from St. Columba Parish in Oxon Hill, Maryland. (CS PHOTO BY DAPHNE STUBBOLO)
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The choir from St. Columba Church in Oxon Hill literally took its show on the road this week as it sang backup for Barry Manilow when the pop star performed July 24 and 25 at the Theater at MGM National Harbor.

“I was completely surprised” by the request, said Rebecca Yoder, director of music ministry at the parish.

Father Gary Villanueva, pastor of St. Columba Parish, said that organizers of Manilow’s concert tour contacted him about a month ago to invite the choir to perform with the singer. “I was surprised when I got the call,” the pastor said.

Manilow, 73, has been a top selling performer for more than four decades. He has had more than 50 songs hit the Top-40 charts, and 12 of his songs have reached No.1. He has won Grammy, Emmy and Tony awards.

Prior to hitting it big as a pop star, Manilow was a writer of commercial jingles, penning such popular ads as “Like a Good Neighbor” for State Farm Insurance, “I am Stuck on Band-Aid” for Band-Aid, and "You Deserve a Break Today” for McDonald’s restaurants.

Throughout this tour, Manilow has invited local school choruses and church choirs near the venues in which he performs to provide background vocals for finale of the concert.

Calling preparations for the show “a huge commitment,” Yoder said two dozen members of the choir put in about three weeks of intense rehearsals for the two shows. “They really have put a lot of effort into this,” she said.

The choir joined Manilow on stage to sing four songs – “I Write the Songs,” “Copacabana,” “It’s a Miracle” and a patriotic number titled “Let Freedom Ring.”

Part of the learning curve, Yoder said, is that while most people may be familiar with the chart-topping songs, “learning the harmony is what we have to do. Everyone knows the tune that he (Manilow) sings, but we are singing the harmony.”

She added that while “at church, our music (that we perform) is sacred music,” performing secular music for such a large audience “can bring to people the awareness of our church and what we have to offer.”

That sentiment was echoed by Marion Rathbun, a 40-year member of the choir who formerly served as its director.

“When we sing as a church choir in a secular arena, it can fire people up,” Rathbun said. “It lets people know there is something out there bigger than they are that they can reach for.”

Anita Lustan, a member of the choir for more than 20 years, called performing with Manilow “very exciting.” While she has spent the past two decades singing religious music, before the concert she said she was looking forward to expanding her repertoire with the secular music.

“God want us to be happy,” she said, “and He has given us a chance to express ourselves in singing happy songs.”

At the choir’s last rehearsal in the church before their MGM debut, the members were reminded to wear black (Manilow’s team would supply robes) and to bring their backstage passes. The group rehearsed at the MGM theater about four hours before the show began.

Sitting in on that rehearsal, Father Villanueva said, “I am happy for and proud of our group. I know they will not disappoint Barry Manilow or the people at the concert.”