WashU performers find solace and salience in song

The cast of ‘Twins,’ Sensasian singers and Mosaic Whisper alumni share videos

Here, the cast and crew of “Twins: The Musical”; the singers of the Sensasians a cappella group; and the alumni members of Mosaic Whispers, the oldest all-gender a cappella group at Washington University in St. Louis, perform songs both beautiful and heartbreaking in the time of COVID-19. We dare you not to cry.

Why am I shaking? What should I do? Pretending I’m fine when I want to be with you.

— From “Alone,” written and composed by Hayley and Taylor Emerson

Michelle and Melanie were born two minutes apart in Springfield, Mo. Classmates, teammates and best friends, they’ve spent their lives together. But when Michelle receives a scholarship to study abroad in Berlin and chooses to go without her sister, both sisters must learn to balance solitude and freedom.

So begins “Twins: The Musical,” a full-length production by real-life twins and Washington University seniors Hayley and Taylor Emerson. Some six years in the making, “Twins” was scheduled to premiere this semester at the Clayton Community Theatre, on WashU’s South Campus, under the auspices of Center Stage Productions.

The cast was cast. The crew was prepping. Equipment was secured. But no one was prepared for COVID-19 and the world of social distancing. The premiere was canceled. The actors and production team dispersed.

The Emersons couldn’t let it go.

“We’d been in rehearsals for five weeks,” Hayley explained. “We had rehearsals six days a week and weekly production meetings. Our last rehearsal was special because the whole cast was there and we’d finished blocking the final scene.

To honor that hard work, cast and crew reconvened earlier this month for a virtual performance of “Alone,” the song that concludes the first act.

“It’s about processing the feelings of being on your own for the first time,” Hayley explained. “One twin is singing about loneliness, while the other is experiencing independence. Two different forms of being alone. I think the song reflects the state we all currently feel.”

The video went live April 17, on what would have been the date of the show’s premiere.

“It’s pretty amazing,” says Carter W. Lewis, playwright-in-residence in the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences. Last fall, Lewis worked with the Emersons in his “Introduction to Playwriting” class and provided dramaturgical feedback on the script. “To see them all singing in their homes, mixed with clips from the rehearsal room …

“It’s also a little heartbreaking.”


Washington University alumna Reynolds Whalen, AB ’08, assumed the 150 past and current members of Mosaic Whispers would appreciate the ensemble’s Virtual Choir performance of “Sailor’s Prayer” on YouTube. 

It’s the other 16,000 fans and climbing he did not expect. 

“We created this video as a way to honor the graduating singers who won’t have their final concert and to connect to one another,” said Whalen, who edited the video in collaboration with Mosiac Whispers founder P. Daniel Newman, BSCS ’92, who edited the audio. 

“As I was editing it, I really wasn’t thinking about the video’s impact beyond the members of our community,” Whalen said. “But watching it now, I can see how the words of this song and the emotion the singers bring to the performance are really a powerful expression of community and comfort at a time when we can’t be together. I’m glad it has meant a lot to so many.” 

Written by folk musician Rod MacDonald and arranged by Jon Krivitzky, ’AB 97, the song has united generations of singers who return every spring to perform the song on stage. Founded in 1991, Mosaic Whispers is the oldest all-gender a cappella group on campus. 

“I shouldn′t have been surprised that 85 singers wanted to participate, but I was. The responses kept coming and coming,” Reynolds said. “It is the one song that every one of us knows and there’s always a lot of tears and hugs when we sing it together. I can only imagine how many tears there will be when we finally are together again.” 


With university housing closing and her bags packed, Washington University in St. Louis senior Mackenzie Cappelle gathered at Brookings Hall with the few members of The Sensasians a cappella ensemble still on campus.

Soon they would be miles apart, taking online exams and watching Netflix. But at this moment, they circled the Washington University seal and sang a favorite song from their repertoire, “Rise Up” by Andra Day. Cappelle knew it would be their last time. 

“To come to this iconic spot on campus —  this place where we were supposed to graduate — was really an emotional experience for me,” said Cappelle, a pre-medical student studying global health and the environment in Arts & Sciences. “But it gave me some closure that I’m very grateful for and has helped me deal with this whole situation better.” 

Founded in 2009, the Sensasians perform songs from China, Korea, Japan and other Asian cultures as well as English-language hits. Many Sensasians are Asian but not Cappelle, a black, K-Pop fan from Cleveland. 

“In high school, I kept my interest in Korean culture to myself and so I was excited to come here where people were so knowledgeable about its different facets,” said Cappelle, who studied Korean at Washington University. “Still, I wasn’t sure if I should try out since I’m not of Asian descent. But what I found was the most welcoming group of people. They want to share their culture and language through music and they want to hear about yours. It’s a really special family.”

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