Laughing Lawyers, Medical Musicians

It might not be normal to see an attorney for amusement or a physician for a symphony, but in Detroit you can do both


Published:

Illustrations by Vidhya Nagarajan

 

There are several professions in this world that strike fear into many of us; doctors and lawyers are typically near the top of the list.

To be fair, it’s not so much lawyers themselves who frighten, but the paperwork, legalese, fine print, hourly fees, legal tactics, courtrooms … 

Shudder.

There’s definitely a scare factor there, but it’s also partnered with a large heap of respect. It’s a feeling of … scarespect.

And then there are doctors. 

Again, it’s not the doctors themselves, but surgery, trauma wards, hospital beds, and just … blood. No thanks. But still … scarespect.

Crummy portmanteau aside, most prefer the television variety of doctors and lawyers. In the case of the latter, the ones we like best are those who remind us of the unlikely, yet long-running marriage between law and comedy — lawyers like The Simpsons’ Lionel Hutz, the notoriously incompetent attorney and proprietor of “I Can’t Believe It’s a Law Firm!” On the doctor front, there’s Dr. Gregory House from House, Dr. Leo Spaceman from NBC’s 30 Rock, Star Trek’s Bones, and the whole Grey’s Anatomy gang. 

Those are the kinds of professional characters we choose to see on a routine basis, but in Detroit, those kinds of career professionals aren’t works of fiction. Here, there are real attorneys and real physicians with real talent (both in their respective professions and as entertainers) who perform on real stages. 

So, as most things lively, entertaining, and wholeheartedly fun begin, let’s start with the lawyers.

 

Proceeding Without Precedent

In 1992, the Federal Bar Association of Detroit hosted its annual dinner honoring the area’s federal judges. Seeking a fresh form of entertainment, the association’s president gathered singers and musicians affiliated with the legal industry in hopes of developing a short show. 

A handful of performers stepped up to the plate, and crafted a “loose” story about a girl entering law school, complete with song parodies, short sketches, and lawyer jokes. The group took the stage under the name A (Habeas) Chorus Line, and the show was a hit with both the audience and the performers. Not bad for a bunch of lawyers who’d barely met.

“None of us knew each other before we got together the first time,” says Justin Klimko, attorney at Detroit law firm Butzel Long and AHCL’s lyricist.

“But the week after the show, we thought, ‘That was a lot of fun, maybe we should do it again sometime,’ ” adds Mark Lezotte, also at Butzel Long.

Over the next few years, the group solidified its nine core members and began performing a combination of sketches and song parodies at private events for state bar associations, judicial conferences, chambers of commerce, and more. 

To date, the group has logged more than 150 performances and composed more than 400 songs, all featuring Klimko’s clever lyrics and musical arrangements by Jim Robb, an associate dean at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School. 

But despite the fact that eight AHCL members are lawyers, the one exception being Sara Fischer Hodges, a former case manager in the U.S. District Court, the group’s comedy isn’t all legal-based. In fact, most of it isn’t — a move the group made long ago in order to generate material and appeal to a wider audience.

“We realized, as lawyers, we’re really not that funny,” says chorus member Angela Williams, with a laugh.

Aside from their legal-based originals, the group’s songs riff on current events, politics, sports, and life in the 21st century. Titles include “Livin’ In Royal Oak-a,” a parody of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” “Crimea River” à la Julie London’s “Cry Me a River,” and “Choke Off the Water,” a nod to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and the Detroit water bill crisis. There’s also the fan favorite “Bimboland,” a tune about midlife crises and trophy wives sung to the tune of “Limbo Rock.”

The set list is usually tailored to private show au-diences, but the group also comes together once a year for a public show where friends, family, and anyone who’s interested can see what the group is all about. And while the show provides a chance to attract new audiences, it also serves to dispel any withstanding generalizations of lawyers as cold-hearted and ambulance-chasing “greedy, avaricious bastards.” (Chorus member Brian Figot’s words.)

“[The public show] gives people a way to see the profession in a completely different light,” says Joe LaBella, chorus member and vice president, director of contracts for Jack Morton Worldwide. “And that’s a good thing.”

The group has been changing perceptions of the legal profession for nearly a quarter of a century, but they have no plans to call it quits. When asked what keeps them coming back to the stage, there are a variety of answers.

“It’s the overwhelming public demand … oh wait,” jokes LaBella.

“I just don’t want to be the first one to retire from the group,” says Figot.

Those are the Habeas Chorus Line answers. The real reason why the group persists is more logical. More lawyer-like.

“When it stops being fun, we’ll stop doing it,” LaBella says. 

In lawyers that like to joke, sing, and turn John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” into a song about the legalization of marijuana, there isn’t much to fear.

But there’s still that other scary profession to talk about: doctors.

 

From O.R. to Orchestra

Take a stroll around the campus of Wayne State University, and you’ll come across a good number of medical students and doctors. You’ll likely find a few music students, too. And you’ll probably even find a surprising number who double as both. That’s because at Wayne State, doctors and medical students have a place to exercise their classical music muscles with like-minded physician/musicians at the Detroit Medical Orchestra. 

In 2009, medical students Michelle Ubels and Pamella Abghari met during an event at Wayne State’s School of Medicine. After stumbling upon a shared passion for playing classical music, they lamented how neither of them had a place to play it. So as any duo of motivated, resourceful medical students will do, they hatched an idea: Start their own orchestra. Ubels took to finding a conductor and the music, and Abghari took to gathering members from the Wayne State medical community.

“We didn’t know what we were going to get,” Abghari says, now an allergy immunology fellow at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “I hadn’t touched my viola in four years at that point, and I was like, ‘Can I play this?’ ”

The answer was yes, and it was the same for some 30 other medical professionals who came together for the Detroit Medical Orchestra’s first concert in the spring of 2010. Since then, the DMO has grown to more than 80 members, including medical students, music students, nurses, physicians, professors, researchers, technicians, lawyers, architects, and other members of the health field at Wayne State and the Detroit community at large. 

The added instrumentation has been a plus for the group’s sound, but there are other strengths unique to the DMO, according to conductor Elliot Moore, who’s served as the group’s music director for the past three and half years.

“A lot of these doctors have a sensitivity that I think is already heightened that works quite well with music,” Moore says. “They’re performing very sensitive tests on people who are in pain in some way, and so they’re very sensitive to what another person’s feeling.”

A background in medicine can come in handy for DMO musicians in other ways, too. Dr. Michael Cher, DMO board member and chair of the Department of Urology at Wayne State’s School of Medicine, applies his skills in surgery to his role in the orchestra as a clarinetist.  

“When you’re doing an operation you kind of have to ‘orchestrate’ the operation — and that’s a pun there — from start to finish. It goes in a certain tempo. … There’s a flow to a surgical operation, and it’s just like that when you play a complicated orchestral piece,” he says.

Complexity isn’t something the group is afraid to take on, their last concert being Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9.” The piece presented a challenge, but it was a welcome one and a familiar one to members of the medical industry. Fourth-year medical student and orchestra president YoungKey Chung says the challenges the DMO musicians face aren’t so different from the challenges faced by patients.

“Obviously, [music] is our passion,” Chung says, “But it still takes a lot of effort to continue practicing and showing up to rehearsals, but it’s sort of the same thing for patients who are juggling jobs, raising their kids, and trying to [improve their health]. It’s that same amount of effort and determination, and at least for me ... having to apply that to my life makes me more compassionate toward my patients.”

Compassionate may be the best word to describe DMO as a whole, particularly since, as a nonprofit, every concert the DMO puts on serves as a fundraiser for a local medical clinic or charity organization. Worth noting too, is that every DMO concert is free (though donations are accepted), which attracts a wide range of audience members.

“We have patients of the physicians coming in to see concerts, to see their doctor playing,” Chung says. “It totally gives them a new perspective of their relationship with their doctor.”

A free concert and a chance to see a surgeon play a symphony? Now that’s a doctor’s visit that couldn’t scare anyone.


A (Habeas) Chorus Line’s public show is Nov. 8 at Berkley High School. Tickets can be found at habeaschorus.com. The Detroit Medical Orchestra’s first performance of the season is Dec. 7. For more information visit detroitmedicalorchestra.org.

 

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