If you were near the cannons at Westport’s
4th 1st of July fireworks — or clicked a link on “06880” — you were entertained by For the Heart, Westport’s fresh-faced, energetic and mega-talented teenage singing group.
But as great as they sound, their back story is even more inspiring.
Six years ago, Bedford 7th grader Caley Beretta was enjoying Music Theater of Connecticut. She’d made new friends from throughout Fairfield County. “We wanted an excuse to get together and sing,” she recalls. On a whim, they called Westport Health Care Center (formerly Mediplex), and offered to perform.
They sang songs from their favorite musicals, like “Wicked” and “Rent.”
“They loved it, but we had no idea ‘Sound of Music’ would be better,” Caley laughs.
They had such a good time — and the feedback was so great — that Caley and her friends googled more assisted living facilities in the area. They created a song list, borrowed sheet music from MTC, rehearsed in her basement — and before long For the Heart “was legit,” Caley says.
First Night 2006 was their 1st non-elderly show. The crowd loved them — especially 9-year-old additions Melissa Beretta and Cara McNiff, who sang “Matchmaker.”
For the Heart kept singing. In 2009 Chris McNiff and a few others went to college. Caley followed the next year. Before leaving, she brought in new members.
The newcomers suggested Jake Landau as music director. Caley calls the rising Staples junior “incredibly talented and dedicated. He wowed us.”
The 12 members — including Stapleites Amanda Horowitz, Tyler Jent, August Laska, Grace McDavid-Seidner, Michelle Pauker, Emily Ressler and Clay Singer, plus Fairfield Ludlowe’s Steve Autore and Fairfield Warde’s Johnny Shea — form what Caley calls “For the Heart 2.0.”
Like a proud parent, she calls the current group “much more polished.” And, she says, “we now do the right songs for each audience.”
They’ve also amped up their performing schedule.
Right before Christmas, they made a memorable visit to the Westport Health Care Center.
They caroled room to room. It was an intensely personal experience, at an extremely vulnerable time for the elderly men and women.
Their smiles — and the reactions they get at all their shows — are what keep the For the Heart kids gonig.
After one performance, a woman told the teenagers that, long ago, she’d been an opera singer. When the group sang “Anything Goes,” a man said he once directed the show.
(As with all performers, they can’t always please everyone. One person was very offended that they didn’t know “Go Tell it on the Mountain” at Christmastime.)
One of For the Heart’s most memorable gigs was at a Bridgeport after-school program. The children sang along with Disney songs — and when the teenagers came off the stage to join them in the audience, the youngsters went wild.
This year, the group hopes to sing for new audiences. Children’s hospitals are high on their list.
Working around active teenagers’ schedules is not easy. But — despite commitments to their theater and choral groups, schoolwork, SAT courses and the bajillion other things kids today do — the members make For the Heart a high priority.
They sing 15 to 18 selections each show — and they learn new songs for every performance. The fireworks marked their 40th concert.
So how much money does For the Heart make?
Not a penny.
Every show is free.
In fact, they pay to perform. Sheet music purchases are a collective effort.
They carpool, to save gas. They borrow music stands. And, they note, both MTC and Staples Players director David Roth have been very helpful.
“It’s all about the joy,” Amanda says. “It’s just fun. It makes me happy.”
Grace is gratified by the audience’s smiles. “It’s so great when they sing along, and then ask us to come back.”
“It’s so great to talk to some of the elderly audiences,” Melissa adds. “We hear their memories, and they tell us about when they performed or went to the theater.”
Caley knows that many of her talented performers will go on to accomplish great things, in a variety of venues.
But, she says, “it’s nice to get applause on a high school stage, or sing in a big concert, and 2 weeks later get up with your friends, and perform in jeans in some cafeteria.”
Those performances truly come From the Heart.
(Click below for a few of For the Heart’s greatest hits from the recent Compo Beach fireworks show.)