"California girls, we're unforgettable/ Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top," fifth-graders Sarah, Abigail and Ashley sing together in impressive harmony, rehearsing the song they plan to sing as their upcoming flight to Los Angeles touches down. The tune, "California Gurls" by Katy Perry, is one of their favorites, and the girls having never been to the West Coast can't wait to sing the song in such an appropriate setting.
Though they might not be seasoned travelers, the kids of the P.S. 22 Chorus in Staten Island, N.Y., aren't strangers to fame. After all, they can count Alicia Keys, Stevie Nicks, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga as confirmed fans; as of January 2011, YouTube videos of their performances had been viewed more than 28 million times. On Feb. 27, all 64 members of this year's chorus will perform their biggest show yet: they're going to Hollywood with their chorus teacher, Gregg Breinberg, to perform at the 83rd annual Academy Awards ceremony. The kids learned that they'd been invited to sing when this year's Oscar co-host, Anne Hathaway, made the announcement at their other big performance of the year P.S. 22's annual winter concert. Oscar telecast producer Bruce Cohen, who joined Hathaway for the event, said the chorus was one of the first choices that came to mind when he was brainstorming the show's musical acts. Hathaway told the kids she's been a fan for years, saying, "You guys have brought such joy to my heart."
The P.S. 22 Chorus has been buzzed about ever since videos of their songs which Breinberg has been uploading to YouTube since 2006 caught the attention of celebrity blogger Perez Hilton in 2008. The choir, which practices a few hours each week, sticks out for its enthusiasm and its tendency to skip traditional chorus tunes in favor of exuberant renditions of pop songs like Tori Amos' "1000 Oceans" and Coldplay's "Viva la Vida." Since then, with help from Hilton and interest from the singers and songwriters whose songs the kids cover, the chorus has become a bona fide Web sensation.
The choir, made up of fifth-graders from the racially diverse neighborhood of Graniteville, N.Y., rotates every year, as older kids move on and a new class auditions for spots. Breinberg, 38, started teaching at the school in 1999 and persuaded the administration to let him start a chorus the following year, quickly getting to work with unique arrangements and unusual song choices. Previous classes have set the bar high, and the kids at P.S. 22 know it many of them say they didn't expect to make the cut. "I never thought I was going to make it," says Christopher, a soft-spoken alto, shaking his head.
It's easy to forget, amid all the exposure the chorus gets it has performed at the White House and on Oprah, after all that these kids are just, well, kids. Though they've been interviewed many times before, they perk up when I tell them I'm asking them questions for TIME. "Like, TIME for Kids?" asks Sarah, jumping up from her cross-legged position on the auditorium floor. "Yes, but the adult version," I reply. The kids' disappointment is obvious. Sarah sits back down on the floor. "Oh," she says, subdued. "I guess that's still O.K."
So TIME (for adults) doesn't exactly impress the kids; what about the Oscars? Breinberg says he had to work on making sure his 10-year-old charges understood the gravity of the awards ceremony. "They've come with this incredible excitement," says Breinberg, "but at the same time, they're clueless." Breinberg "Mr. B" to the kids says this trip will mark not only the first time they have sung in front of such an enormous, star-studded crowd but also, for many, the first time they have traveled on a plane. Or left New York. Or spent a weekend away from their parents. "Everyone thinks of them as these stars," he says. "But they're in school. They're kids."
Case in point: when asked what they are most looking forward to about their California adventure, it's clearly not the red carpet the kids are dreaming of. "Disneyland," says Adham, a small-framed soprano, as he literally jumps up and down thinking about the group's planned trip to the theme park, where they are scheduled to sing in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle. "The best part about the trip is no parents," says soprano Abigail. Other kids nod in agreement good call, Abigail.
The kids admit they're a bit nervous about singing in front of a massive live audience (especially when you factor in the millions of people watching on television). But more than anything, they're eager to show what they can do. "We just want to give it our best," says Adham, with seriousness only a 10-year-old can pull off. "People give up their free time to listen to us, and we're pretty proud of that." And anyone giving up their free time to watch the Oscars can expect the chorus to put as much effort into their performance of "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz the Oscar-winning song is a bit of a divergence from the kids' usual repertoire as they put into their MGMT and Katy Perry covers.
So after performing in California, at the Oscars, in front of tons of celebrities (the kids say they want to meet Justin Bieber), will anything else top this? "No," they say, loudly and in unison.
"Well, having our own TV show might be a tiny bit better," Abigail admits. Hear that, Hollywood?