Youth, vivacity, and world tours: that's Up With People
Boston — Youthful energy, graceful enthusiasm, and tunefulness. These make up the universal language of a group called ''Up With People.''
Perhaps that's why UWP succeeds with crowds as varied as a group of initially reticent prisoners in Massachusetts and a legion of screaming Super Bowl fans in Pontiac, Mich. And also why UWP is popular in many parts of the world.
But UWP is made up of not just one group. Rather, it's five, all trained at UWP headquarters in Tucson, Ariz., to fan out and present the UWP show of vigorous singing and dancing, with a program of wholesome, upbeat songs mostly written by the staff.
The shows are performed with skill and a confidence that comes from the rigorous practicing that's demanded. Casts are made up of young people aged 18 to 26 who want to further their experience - and education (some colleges give credit for a stint with UWP) - who have the energy to spend a year of 10 -or-more-hour days, six days a week, on tour. The tuition of $5,300 doesn't stop more than 8,000 young people from applying each year for the approximately 500 new positions.
''Our purpose,'' remarks president and founder J. Blanton Belk, ''is to give the students an experience that will stretch them and develop them.''
Because few members of UWP have much singing experience, the songs are not written to be demanding. As a result, a program can sound a bit shallow, perhaps slightly repetitive, but always tuneful, tasteful, and exuberant. The group has been able to bring its show practically anywhere there is an audience. It performs not just for city crowds, but in schools, nursing homes, and other assorted locations.
In some countries, such as Mexico and Sweden, the troupes are better known than they are in the US, according to Dana Cooper, coordinator of corporate public relations. About 35 percent of their cast members also come from other countries.
To be sure, the UWP show isn't very multi-dimensional, but that's not the point. The point, at least in part, is to jolly crowds into a feeling of brotherhood.
Along with this is the idea, expressed by Ralph J. Colwell, vice-president, production, and one of the group's four songwriters - that ''Man cannot live without some kind of hope for the future.''
He adds that ''we don't want to seem naive, saying everything is hunky dory when it isn't. But in order to keep striving, and trying to improve on what we have, you have to have hope. And we try to bring out the better side of human nature. With a little work people can be more understanding and appreciative of other cultures.''
This goes for the casts as well. Catherine Dunne of Mallow, County Cork, Republic of Ireland, an enthusiastic UWP member, was thrown into a cast that included a young woman from Northern Ireland. She remarks, ''Without knowing it, I had built up a lot of resentment, which I realized when I came face-to-face with her. It shocked me that I felt this way. It took a while but we finally sat down together and discovered that I could understand her and she could understand me. Our feelings were something that were passed on to us and something we had grown up with.
''If we could forget what has happened, we could solve a lot of things.''
Recently, one of the casts swept through Boston. The members gave several performances, not the least of which was a park-filling one at the city's famed Hatch Shell with the inimitable Boston Pops.
After the obligatory selection of familiar works played by the Pops, UWP took over, much of the time with back-up music from the Pops. In front of the thickly packed crowd seated on the lawn in front of the Hatch Shell, Up With People presented their own brand of entertainment.
Colorfully and athletically dressed, they sang and danced, did a somewhat sweetened-up medley of tunes from the 1960s, and brought the show up to date with a song called ''Shape It Up'' complete with exercises and crowd participation.
Beginning and ending the performance, UWP people danced into the audience, giving the feeling of including everyone in the show. Throughout, the fresh-faced cast exuded youthful zest.
It's the regular two-hour shows that are UWP's stock in trade. For each sponsored (and income-raising) two-hour show, UWP does three benefit performances.
The casts land in each community not just to put on a show, but to learn as much as they can about their various stops. In some ways, each community UWP visits is on stage for them. Host families for cast members provide not simply free accommodations but a chance to mix with local people. Cast members visit points of interest and try to involve themselves with each area, particularly the young people.
One problem for UWP has been to dispel the feeling among some that it is part of a quasi-religious group. For three years a program called ''Sing Out'' was an activity of Moral Re-armament, a group involved in promoting a strict set of moral standards intended to help change the world. The program was known more generally as ''Up With People,'' and it was out of this that UWP grew, although when it was incorporated in 1968, it did so as a completely independent entity.
Today, the organization goes to great lengths to divorce itself from any connection with Moral Re-armament or with any religious group and points to the wide variety of faiths involved in the organization.