The setting sun is really what starts the show, dimming the glow over the audience of 6,000 at the Los Angeles Tennis Center. Only then does the true grandeur of the spectacle become clear — a wide, two-tiered stage flanked by two massive screens, framed by soaring aluminum trusses, all mounted with stage lights of every hue that crisscross over the glittery black backdrop. An announcer booms through the speakers, “Live from Westwood … it’s Spring Sing!” Every year, the crowd roars for one of the oldest and greatest traditions at UCLA.
George Brown, director of the Alumni Scholars Club puts it simply: “Spring Sing brings UCLA together.”
The name sounds too collegiate — too humble even — for what transpires at this one-night-only event in May each year. For two and a half hours, students perform 16 or so originally composed, arranged or choreographed musical acts — solos, duets, a cappella groups, bands, dance troupes. Between performances, a sketch comedy group known as Company performs original skits, songs and videos that poke fun at UCLA quirks. (Some faves: an ode to Kerckhoff Coffee House’s snack item “Grapes with Egg,” and a Mission: Impossible-style quest to find the perfect hangout spot on Janss Steps.) All the while, a panel of celebrity judges — spanning the decades from Jack Lemmon to Shelley Long to TikTok star Abigail Barlow — evaluate which five-minute routine deserves Best Overall Act. (The most famous champ, who trophied in both 2002 and 2003, is Grammy and Tony award winner Sara Bareilles ’03. The most famous nonwinner? Adam Levine, whose pre-Maroon 5 band competed in 2000.)
Learn about Spring Sing and the work that goes into putting the event together.
Behind the scenes, the Student Alumni Association (SAA) manages and produces everything — securing the judges, collaborating with the city’s fire marshal, working the soundboard, filming intros, and even setting up the folding chairs. Ultimately, Spring Sing is part American Idol, part So You Think You Can Dance, part Pitch Perfect and part Saturday Night Live, all woven together with a production value that pretty much rivals Barry Manilow’s shows at the Westgate Las Vegas.
You’ve Sung a Long Way, Baby
It debuted so unassumingly back in 1945, when fraternities aimed to determine once and for all who had the best crooners on campus. To settle the issue, Director of Associated Students William C. Ackerman ’24 — touted for his “frank good fellowship” — suggested a friendly competition in Royce Hall for the title of “Champion Serenader of Sorority Row.” The first winner? A barbershop quartet from Phi Kappa Psi.
Almost immediately, the competition outgrew the Panhellenic crowd to include the entire student body, and in 1949 Spring Sing was moved from campus auditoriums to the iconic Hollywood Bowl to accommodate the growing audience. The event also attracted the attention of Hollywood, with Ronald Reagan serving as emcee for six years, starting in 1952. Winners garnered fame themselves, recording their acts onto albums that were handed out with yearbooks at the end of the year. In 1960, 2,000 students in 60 different acts auditioned for just 26 spots in UCLA’s show of shows.
Watch a video on the history of Spring Sing:
These days auditions are even more intense, with fewer spots and stricter criteria, encouraging performers to collaborate with artists from different mediums to increase the diversity of talent. SAA’s Spring Sing committee announces the qualifying acts (plus the Company members, who also must audition) in mid-February. Then the real crazy starts. Dance acts take over sections of parking structure 4, sometimes sweating it out until 4 a.m.; singers and musicians practice in reserved spaces in the Wooden Center. The tech crew designs and builds the stage.
In past Aprils, students have lined up outside the UCLA Central Ticket Office at sunrise to secure $5 spots for the big event, which is funded by the UCLA Alumni Association and sponsored by the likes of Liquid I.V., Wescom and C4 Energy. Proceeds from ticket sales go into student scholarship funds.
At its core, Spring Sing is more than a production. It’s a tour de force, a tradition set to music. The show is the manifestation of what George and Ira Gershwin cultivated when, as a gift in 1936, they revised the lyrics of one of their hit songs, encouraging Bruins to “Strike up the Band for UCLA.” Spring Sing now includes an award dedicated to those genius brothers. The Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement was first given out in 1988, honoring Angela Lansbury. In 2002, recipient Stevie Wonder played “Superstition” live; in 2009, Julie Andrews shouted from center stage, “Go Bruins! Beat ’SC!”
When Oscar-winning movie composer Hans Zimmer — the man responsible for the sweeping sounds of Dune, Gladiator and Interstellar — took the stage to accept the award last year, in his remarks he captured the true meaning of Spring Sing. “What I saw here tonight is so phenomenal, is so imaginative, is so brilliant, is so original,” he said. “It’s so what the world needs, you know?”
We sure do.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.