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INTERVIEW: About the Sisters of Swing (History Theatre)

Cat Brindisi, Katie Hahn, and Jen Burleigh-Bentz in the History Theatre’s production of Sisters of Swing.

The Andrews Sisters in Private Buckaroo, a patriotic film that encouraged Americans to enlist in the U.S. Army.

Sisters of Swing, which opens tonight at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, tells the story of the Andrews Sisters – one of the best-selling singing groups of all time. This close harmony group of three sisters from Mound, Minnesota sold over 90 million records, released 113 singles, and entertained hundreds of thousands of soldiers in concerts during World War 2. The group also popularized many songs that continue to be covered today, including a recent Pentatonix cover.

Sisters of Swing was written by Beth Gilleland and Bob Beverage, with musical arrangements by Raymond Berg. This History Theatre production has been touring Greater Minnesota, and comes to Minneapolis for a limited, 2-show engagement. Sisters stars Cat Brindisi, Katie Hahn, and Jen Burleigh-Bentz as the titular sisters, with Jake Endres playing a succession of male characters. The sisters are backed by a 6-piece band in keeping with their boogie woogie and rhythm blues sound, with trumpet, trombone, sax/clarinet, piano, bass, and drums.

Jen Burleigh-Bentz (playing LaVerne Andrews) and Jake Endres (playing Lou Levy, Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby) spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about playing these iconic musicians.

The Andrews Sisters are an iconic group, with a multi-decade discography and a lingering influence that continues with covers of their arrangements, imitations of their close harmony, and period film callbacks. How did you first encounter their music? When did you learn of the group and their Minnesota roots?

Jake Endres: I’ve always been aware of the Andrews Sisters; they were part of our family’s soundtrack, as they were from my parents’ era. I wasn’t aware they were from Minnesota, however, until I heard of Sisters of Swing.

What’s a favorite song from this show?

Jake Endres: My absolute favorite song of theirs is “Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood, Mama).” It swings so hard, and I sing it every time I cook fish, which is several times a week.

Jen, you’ve been involved in prior incarnations of this show – what’s it like coming back as LaVerne? 

Jen Burleigh-Burtz: Yes, I was lucky enough to play LaVerne Andrews twice before in Christmas of Swing at the History Theatre.

LaVerne is a conundrum to me: she was the “mother” of the group, had a lot to do with the girls getting their dance lessons and made them practice regularly, [but] she [also] wanted control over the inner workings of the trio.

Part of the show description states, “The music is interwoven with the script to portray the Andrews’ musical career as a part of their real lives.” Much of the group’s original marketing blurred the distinctions between the individual women – what’s an aspect of LaVerne that resonates with you, and why?

The Andrews Sisters with Glenn Miller (one of four trombonists on their recording of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” on the set for the Chesterfield radio show in 1940.
Jen Burleigh-Burtz: More so than either of the other girls, she seemed a slightly lonely character and she was extremely talented but not “Hollywood pretty” enough for the world, and was pressed to the back of the trio in a very interesting way. Yet…she was the girl next door, she was in the movies! LaVerne traveled the world and played thousands and thousands of service men during one of the most vulnerable time in our war history. She was a part of the most popular trio in the history of our country. How does one “play” this real person?

I love coming back as LaVerne. I love digging in with this expanded version of their lives, I value the opportunity immensely, and though my version of LaVerne “onstage” in the Andrews Sisters’ USO shows during Sisters of Swing might be a bit more showy than LaVerne was in real life, that’s more to do with the necessary energy of our stage show, [rather] than an actual true to life re-creation of LaVerne’s original performances.

Jen, looking over your performing resume, you seem to have made something of a specialty of this pre-1950s sound. Is this coincidence? A deliberate focus or specialty? 

Jen Burleigh-Burtz: As much as I’d like to take credit for having or re-creating that wonderful 1940s jazz/theatre vocal sound (that I really do love to perform), I must admit that I have just been trained to be a very flexible performer and am lucky enough that my directors entrusted me with those roles.

I do have a fairly extensive performance with vocal jazz which started in college, and can certainly attribute any success that I have with the pre-50’s era sound to the young me digging deep into jazz history.

The Andrews Sisters had a tradition during their World War 2 tours of treating random servicemen to dinner. You went on tour with this show; did you treat any servicemen to dinner?

The Andrews Sisters singing for an adoring crowd of returning servicemen in New York City in 1945, after the end of World War 2.

Jen Burleigh-Burtz: Ha! I did treat some “servicemen” to a beverage, post-show, but truly, as of yet, have not had the privilege of treating any real servicemen to a meal – we merely treated two wonderfully sweet and “mature” WWII vets to a song…which I think moved us even more than it did them.

We are rewarded nightly by the amazing audiences that come to Sisters of Swing. My favorite moment in the show is when we get to sing directly to a Vet and give him our full attention and admiration his service.

Jake, you get to play a string of distinguished and accomplished men in this show, all the while taking second fiddle to the Andrews Sisters. Any thoughts or ruminations?

Jake Endres: The Andrews Sisters sang (and acted) with so many famous people, so it’s kind of like I play the world which they inhabit – which is a total blast. They were always intersecting with the orbits of different people – both celebrities and regular folks.

What I think the show does very well is how it portrays these women as being consistently charming, honest, and real with everyone they encounter. They treated the lowest GI with at least as much respect as the biggest stars with whom they collaborated.

Sisters of Swing plays tonight (April 26) and tomorrow (April 27) at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine