Allen René Louis’ journey to becoming artistic director at Broadway Inspirational Voices–an all-volunteer choir filled with members of the Broadway community–was a serendipitous one. As a youngster, the Stanford, Connecticut native, who is the son of a pastor, began singing in his father’s church, and always knew he would pursue music professionally. “Growing up, I would see the impact that my gift would have on other people and that’s something I was made very aware of when I was a kid,” he said.
In middle school, he was part of the Gospel choir, and his teacher, who attended BIV concerts with her father, exposed her students to the music of the organization, which was founded by Tony and Grammy-nominated Michael McElroy during the AIDS crisis. Over two decades later, she called him and asked if he would like to attend a BIV concert, and the rest goes down in the musical history of the city.
From Louis’ seat in the balcony, through tears, he told his former teacher that he felt a calling to the choir, where members must be invited to join. “I look over to her and say, “I feel like this is the thing my life is missing right now,’” he recalled. As fate would have it, in the lobby that evening, he ran into a classmate at Manhattanville College, who was leaving the choir to travel to London and forwarded Louis’ information onto BIV. Within a month, he got the call that he was accepted.
The Harlem resident, who is now also working as the vocal arranger for the Broadway revival of “The Wiz,” is currently prepping for BIV’s annual fundraising event, Hope in Harmony,” which is being held on Oct. 9th at the Paramount Hotel in Times Square. His vision for the future of the nonprofit–which partners with places like Ronald McDonald House, Covenant House and the New York City Department of Corrections to conduct concerts and classes–is to make its music accessible to more people.
“Whether through our concerts or through releasing music out into the world that can touch a life that we may not have physical access to, but that they can hear our music and be transformed and inspired,” he said. “People that attend BIV concerts or come in contact with BIV programs, the life-changing, transformative experience is what they talk about.”
You started singing at the church where your dad was a pastor.
Yes, I started singing really early on in my father’s church. My father’s a minister; I come from a long line of ministers; my uncles are ministers. So church music was something that I came out of the womb doing. I started singing probably at the age of 3 or 4 and then really took it seriously as I progressed in my single-age years, in terms of 8, 9 and 10. At 12, 13, I became more involved, not only as a singer, but also a musician at my father’s church.
You have to be invited to join Broadway Inspirational Voices, right?
You do have to be invited to join. BIV’s not an auditioned-based choir. The story is this. When I was in middle school, I was part of the school Gospel choir and our teacher and her father had a longtime tradition of attending BIV concerts. So when I was young, one of the songs that we learned was from BIV’s holiday album. So that was my first introduction to BIV, in seventh or eighth grade. We stayed in touch over the years and in 2018, I got a call from her one weekend and she was like, “Hey, what are you doing on Monday?” and I said, “I am probably doing nothing.” And she was like, “Ok, well my father can’t go to this concert with me anymore, would you be available? Remember that choir BIV? They’re having a concert. Would you like to attend?” Obviously I get there, obviously I’m in the balcony, obviously I’m in tears. I look over to her and say, “I feel like this is the thing my life is missing right now.” And I’m bawling in the balcony. And she was like, “Allen, in due time, I have no doubt that eventually you’ll be a part of this community in some capacity.”
What happened after the concert?
After the concert, I go downstairs to the lobby and I see a performer who used to go to my college for just a semester, he was taking vocal lessons and then he was going on “The Phantom of the Opera” tour. I was like, “Are you part of this choir?” And he said, “Yes.” And I was like, “How do you get in?” And he got connected to the choir from some friends. And I was like, “I would love to join. I don’t know if it’s possible.” And he’s like, “I’m about to leave to go to London. I will send your information to Michael [McElroy, founder].” And within a month, I got an email from BIV membership, asking me to join.
What does your job as artistic director entail?
It’s been a great experience because this organization has been a founder-led organization since it was created. So Michael had led the organization since the beginning and so coming in there was no kind of manual. It was just seeing the incredible work that BIV has done and the years of service, of incredible musical performances, the albums. And then also, understanding for myself what the artistic director role meant to me. Michael was very clear to me about not feeling the pressure to fill his shoes. I feel like my role as artistic director has really been to guide. BIV is a choir of incredible artists, some are new, some have been here since the choir was started. So the job for me has just been coming in and guiding this organization artistically and allowing for things to evolve organically.
Were you at the White House for Juneteenth?
I was. I don’t know if you saw the video, but I was the guy in front that was jumping up and down on that stage. It was huge honor to be invited to the White House for its inaugural Juneteenth celebration. The experience was everything you could have dreamed of. I had to remind myself to slow down my brain because those experiences, they go by so fast, so I really needed to be present in every second. I speak often about this, but what a gift, a Black, young artistic director like myself leading a very diverse choir in front of the White House on the South Lawn singing Gospel music. That represented so much for me in that moment and it was something that I was very proud of and our membership was very proud of. And we got the President to stand and dance with us.
I saw on your Instagram page that you’re the vocal arranger for “The Wiz,” which is coming back to Broadway. Can you tell us about that?
The team is incredible and it’s definitely been a dream to reimagine “The Wiz” 50 years later. This is its 50th anniversary. So to be part of this legacy is a great honor for me and an experience that I will never forget, being able to take this music and breathe new life into it in my own way. And also what it meant for our culture. “The Wiz” is such a big part of Black culture and so to give to the culture in this way as well has been an honor and a dream. Our cast is exceptional. Our Dorothy is amazing; it was almost like she was born for this role. It’s definitely a good time.
Learn more about BIV by visiting www.broadwayinspirationalvoices.org