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Pentatonix's star just keeps rising

Written by Mike Muckian, Contributing writer
Feb 21, 2013

Even in the entertainment industry, prejudice – or fear – about sexual orientation sometimes rears its ugly head. Apparently, even the winning act on one of the most popular network talent shows is not immune to censure.

It didn’t take a lengthy career of performing together for Pentatonix, the youthful a cappella quintet currently taking the country by storm, to nab top honors from NBC TV’s “The Sing-Off.” The five-member vocal group, only three of whom knew each other 24 hours before their initial audition, took home $200,000 and a Sony recording contract in November 2011 at the end of the show’s third season.

Prior to the concluding episode, the group visited the Los Angeles offices of The Trevor Project, the not-for-profit organization aimed at preventing bullying and suicides among LGBTQ youth. The group also filmed a pubic service announcement for the organization, which aired during the live finale of “The Sing-Off.”

The show’s producers, however, edited all LGBTQ references out of the PSA, creating a considerable controversy.

“I was a bit disheartened to know that the final cut didn’t mention LGBTQ youth, but that doesn’t mean I don’t support the project,” says out performer Mitch Grassi, who sings countertenor and tenor for the group. “Gay culture gets stronger day by day, and I think it’s extremely important to empower struggling gay youth.”

Despite the controversy, Pentatonix’s philanthropic overture speaks well for Grassi, 20, and bandmates tenor Scott Hoying, 21, soprano Kirstie Maldonado, 20, bass-baritone Avi Kaplan, 23, and bass-beatbox Kevin “K.O.” Olusola, 24. The group’s social consciousness is outweighed only by its talent, something it will bring to Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater on March 3 for a show that was all but sold out at press time.

“We’ve added a set, choreography and a few new songs to our act,” says Grassi, who began singing with Maldonado and Hoying as a trio while the three still attended James Martin High School in Arlington, Texas. “The Milwaukee audience can expect more of a show and a few surprises.”

No one is more surprised about the meteoric rise of their careers than the singers. After hearing about an Arlington radio talent contest whose prize was meeting the cast members of Fox TV’s hit show “Glee,” the three high school students worked up an a cappella version of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” and submitted it. They didn’t win, but word spread throughout the school and a YouTube version of their performance attracted attention.

Hoying and Maldonado went off to college at the University of Southern California and the University of Oklahoma, respectively. While in Los Angeles, Hoying heard about auditions for “The Sing-Off” and encouraged Grassi and Maldonado to join him.

However, the trio decided to become a quintet, so Hoying recruited Kaplan, who he met through a mutual friend, and found Yale University graduate Olusola in a YouTube video in which he performed a vocal beatbox rhythm while playing cello. Grassi skipped his high school graduation to make the audition.

The newly minted quintet passed and eventually went on to win the 2011 season.

Pentatonix, which takes its name from the five-note pentatonic musical scale, has distinct preferences for material, which crosses a variety of genres. Producers of “The Sing-Off” picked most of the songs the group did on the show, Grassi says, including Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” which helped the group win the competition.

But their approach to singing remains the same regardless of whose song they choose.

“Typically, we start with the bass line to create a sort of foundation,” Grassi says. “Next, we add the beat to give it drive. We will then listen to the melody and movement of the solo line to see how we could add background parts that would complement the melody, but not distract from the soloist. We add any embellishments and tricks last.”

Some of their more popular material has included Florence and the Machines’ “Dog Days are Over,” Katy Perry’s “E.T.” and Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown.” The group also has reached back to cover Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.”

“My favorite song to perform is one I actually can’t mention yet,” enthuses Grassi. “As of right now, it is a tour-exclusive song, so you will have to come see the show to find out! But I would love to see us do a version of “Suit & Tie” by Justin Timberlake. I’m completely obsessed.”

Obsession may also be the word that best describes the growing fan base for Pentatonix, a wide cross section that includes both gay and straight audiences.

“The best part about being an openly gay musician is that our fans are 100 percent supportive of us, no matter what,” Grassi says. “I’ve never once feared judgment from any of them.”

On stage

Pentatonix performs at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre March 3. For information, visit www.pabsttheatre.org.