The Zumbeyes, an a capella group from Amherst College, performs on the set of Sing that Thing!
Photo credit: Patricia Alvarado

There is no Simon Cowell type, that’s for sure. On Sing That Thing!, the amply affable PBS spin on American Idol, the judges are called “coaches,” and none fire off Cowell-ish zingers like “You sounded like Cher after she’s been to the dentist.” 

Instead, as Amherst’s a cappella group The Zumbyes found out in Season 5, the arbiters gently inform the 18 competing amateur choirs whether they’re “likely” or “unlikely” to advance.

The Boston Globe poked fun at this politesse: “When [the judges] decide one group will not go forward in the competition, they sound like Tee Ball coaches telling kids they need another year of practice.”

So, when The Zumbyes performed the Bee Gees’ hit “How Deep Is Your Love” in Episode 2, and coach Jared Bowen beamed, placed his palm on his heart and declared, “You get an ‘extreme likely’ from me,” clearly some kind of stardom beckoned.

Well, New England vocal group stardom, college category, that is. Sing That Thing! is produced by Boston’s WGBH, and features high school and adult group categories too. The show has no solo acts, and those 18 qualifying groups were pared down from 50.

The Zumbyes’ 2019 collegiate competitors are The Chorallaries of MIT, The Colby Eight (Colby College), The New Hampshire Notables (University of New Hampshire), Starving Artists (Brandeis) and Pitch, Please! (Northeastern).

Back in 2014, The Zumbyes gave the old college try on the first season of Sing That Thing!, but got stuck at “unlikely.” Yet in the fall of 2018, the 13 current Zumbyes decided to re-up, and sent a video of themselves singing “How Deep Is Your Love,” lushly arranged by Jake Samuels ’13. The WGBH producers, impressed at their sound, asked them onto Season 5’s first episode, which aired in April. (Episode 1, “Auditions,” includes short clips of the 2014 and 2019 Zumbyes, as well as The DQ, another Amherst a cappella group.)

After the group passed the auditions, “so much prep was involved!” said Zumbyes business manager Tommy Mobley ’20. “They give you all these tips. Like: Smile more. One part needs to come out louder. Your semicircle is lopsided. Send us photos of what you’ll wear, so we can figure out lighting. Send us typed-out lyrics, arrangements, choreography. Tell us when the soloist is going to step out, when you start finger-snapping.

You can watch the polished result on Episode 2 (at 4:56). If you’ve seen The Zumbyes live—when they run onto the stage, embrace theatrics and acrobatics, and dress one member in an unexplained giant banana costume—you’ll note how they’ve toned down their trademark irreverence on air. (Yes, they have no bananas.) But they still wear whimsical neckties and launch a spirited jump at the song’s end.

You’ll also hear those delicious silvery high notes from soloist Zachary Weston ’21E and spot, behind him, Emma Ratshin ’21. In 2018, she made Amherst herstory as the first-ever female member of this traditionally male group.   

The Zumbyes debuted in 1950, and what’s with that name? It spell-checks to “zombie,” is pronounced “zoom-bye” and was pulled out of a hat 69 years ago. The alumni directory lists 262 members of The Zumbyes, including actors John Michael Higgins ’85, who played a hilarious commentator in the Pitch Perfect movies, and John Cariani ’91, who was nominated for a Tony for the 2004 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

Zumbyes

May 15, 2019

We had a little fun with this video of The Zumbyes during a rehearsal, where they were singing the Hall & Oates ballad “Sara Smile.”

In May, I hung out at one of their campus rehearsals, to reward my ears and get more of the Sing That Thing! backstory. Before settling down to business, they milled about and chatted, and someone would spontaneously croon a guilty-pleasure song—“I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, or “A Whole New World” from Aladdin—and the others would chime in, with various levels of joy and irony. 

Andres Pascual-Leone ’19 said this was exactly how it played out on the car rides to and from the WGBH studio. Someone would pass around a phone, set to the Spotify streaming service. “Each person gets to choose one song, so songs jump drastically from jazz to pop to rap. We try to preserve our voices, but it never works that way. If a good song comes on, we have to sing.” In the car driven by Tony Taitano ’21, the passengers were so absorbed in singing, they missed their exit.

The high points of the television experience? Hanging out with their competitors, and seeing firsthand how an episode is put together. The Zumbyes also bonded with the Emerson College students who, as part of a class project, were the show assistants.  

The low points? A case of nerves for some, and when they did a first run-through for a rather Simon Cowell-y performance coach. “She said we were ‘dull and unanimated,’” recalled Jordan Rubenstein ’19. “She said, ‘You have to give 110 percent onstage.’ That we had to ‘smile with our eyes.’”

Ratshin chimed in: “We have to be way more expressive. When you sing the ‘oo’ note, it should look like you’re blowing out a glowing birthday candle.”

How did it all work out? The grand finale (Episode 8) will run on WGBH on Friday, May 31, at 8 p.m. Each member is sworn to secrecy, so I didn’t find out how far The Zumbyes got after that “extreme likely.”

But whatever happened, they thought the whole Sing That Thing! thing was extremely wonderful.