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School’s annual musical history lesson not slowing down

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It looked like a teacher’s melding of a history class with a rock concert had died the quick death of a one-hit wonder. The afternoon event’s planned third year in 1987 was canceled by administrators at Columbus North High School.

“Too many students were cutting classes (to attend in the school auditorium),” said Ed Niespodziani, now retired chairman of the school’s social studies department.

So he moved the gathering to an evening, apart from the school day, when it returned in 1988.

And the student-fueled magical history tour quickly found its place in the spotlight, and soon regularly began selling out North’s 1,067-seat Judson Erne Auditorium.

The 29th version of the three-hour concert called American Pie unfolds at 7:15 p.m. May 9 at the auditorium, with more than 100 students transforming themselves into rock stars or band members, often complete with appropriate wigs and wardrobes.

This year’s 33-song version, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” will focus on four time periods:

1963 to 1967

1973 to 1977

1982 to 1986

1992 to 1996

“American Pie is the highlight of Columbus’ year,” singer and student Emmaline Terry said. “I don’t think that’s an overstatement.”

Terry will sing Sheryl Crowe’s 1996 tune, “If It Makes You Happy.”

Putting together the show with both North and Columbus East students as vocalists, backed by a hodge-podge of professional and student musicians, still makes Niespodziani happy. The 65-year-old former college rock band keyboardist launched the concert as a way of reaching students with the passion and importance of more modern history.

He picks songs with the help of other organizers such as choral teacher and ex-pop vocalist Janie Gordon. He also writes and speaks narration between song segments, with his insights ranging from political unrest to space exploration.

Community volunteer Carol Dingledy works to make sure students properly emulate the look of an artist whose work they are performing, through costumes performers and organizers assemble. For instance, an Elton John number from the 1970s requires a markedly different wardrobe than an Elton John tune from the 1990s.

By the night of the concert, everything comes together.

“You have all of these people of all different ages coming to one theater to enjoy music everybody knows from all different eras,” singer Katie Gemberling said. “You can see your parents and grandparents all re-experiencing something from their teenage years.”

Anthony Sanders believes he “fits right into the laid-back character” of the Doobie Brothers’ 1974 hit, “Black Water.”

“I especially like the part when all the instruments cut out and you have the a cappella thing,” Sanders said.

Gemberling will aim to get people dancing in the aisles when she croons Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 party-style hit, “Dancing in the Street.” She first heard the tune on classic rock radio.

“I think it fits my voice better than my (reserved) personality,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t really dance.”

But she acknowledged that after rehearsals with the band, she’ll be movin’ and groovin’.

“As it gets closer and closer to the show, you get more and more pumped,” Gemberling said. “And on the night of the show, there’s the whole live vibe — and the mosh pit (against the stage). It makes everything really cool.”

Singer Micaela McDowall, who said she is known for her own straightforward ways, will sing The Angels’ very straightforward 1963 song, “My Boyfriend’s Back,” a stern warning to an unsuccessful and unsavory suitor.

“It really fits my voice,” McDowall said. “And it definitely fits my attitude.”

Niespodziani acknowledged that the show reflects changes in musical styles and even compositional complexity.

Yet, with all the evolutions and revolutions within pop-rock music, one thing apparently remains unchanged. Several student singers broke into laughter when asked what their parents have said about American Pie shows they attended in recent years.

Students offered their parents’ summary in unison: “They say it’s too loud!”

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