‘Lilo & Stitch’ children’s choir singers: Where are they now

Longtime choir director Lynell Bright‘s classroom is a shrine to Stitch, the fluffy, feisty pet alien from Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch.” The deceptively adorable face of the mischievous extraterrestrial is “everywhere,” she says. And when students discover her affinity, they buy her stuffed-animal Stitches and draw her pictures of the beloved cartoon character to put on display with the rest of her collection.

The steering wheel and seats of Bright’s car — known as the “Stitch mobile” — are also covered in images of the fan-favorite fur ball. To some, the 57-year-old music teacher’s obsession might seem peculiar. Even incoming members of the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus can’t help but remark, “Mrs. Bright, you really like Stitch…” upon entering her choir room for the first time.

But Bright and Stitch go way back — even further than the little blue monster’s cinematic debut. More than two decades ago, she received a call from Disney inviting the chorus to record music for the soundtrack of an animated project then in the works.

A collection of "Lilo & Stitch" memorabilia in Kumu Bright's classroom.

From the collection of “Lilo & Stitch” memorabilia in Kumu Bright’s classroom.

(Bea Oyster / For The Times)

That project was “Lilo & Stitch,” a quirky and emotional family film about orphaned Hawaiian sisters whose newly adopted “puppy” turns out to be an escaped lab experiment from outer space. The 2002 movie features a pair of standout tracks — “He Mele No Lilo” and “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” — sung in Hawaiian and English by Mark Kealiʻi Hoʻomalu and members of the Kamehameha chorus. Their angelic voices add an extra layer of beauty and cultural authenticity to the story of two outcast souls that form an unlikely friendship on the island of Kauai.

“The kids have no idea the effect that they have on the audiences,” Bright said in a recent video interview.

“Sometimes we have performances, and I see people touched and moved. And the kids, they’re like, ‘OK, where is our lunch?’ That’s important to them. … But I always say, ‘Twenty years from now, they’re gonna see what an impact their singing had on people.’”

It’s been 20 years since “Lilo & Stitch” opened in theaters, and the former members of the chorus — who were not much older than Lilo when the movie was made — have indeed come to understand the collective power of their performance.

A man smiling in a blue collared shirt

Paul Iona on the elementary campus of Kamehameha Schools — Kapalama, where he once was a student. Iona was 11 when the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus recorded the soundtrack of “Lilo & Stitch.”

(Bea Oyster / For The Times)

“Especially watching it now as an adult, you see the impact that it has,” said Kamehameha alum Paul Iona, a 32-year-old augmented-reality graphics producer who splits his time between Honolulu and L.A.

“It’s one of those films that you can gather so much at different times of your life. … It’s welcoming you into Hawaii as we would hope that people feel welcomed when they come to Hawaii. And I hope moviegoers were able to feel that, seeing that scene and then hearing our voices.”

Despite how young they were at the time, Iona and other former members of the chorus have retained vivid memories of working on the film. Getting selected to join the choir was already a big deal — but getting to sing original songs for a Disney movie was nothing short of “surreal,” said Leimomi Kanagusuku, a 31-year old family medicine doctor on Oahu.

The chorus is made up of 100 students ages 9 to 12, but for recording purposes, the studio had to cut that number down to 40. Auditions were held, and the most expressive singers who effectively communicated the lyrics were chosen for the gig, Bright said.

“That’s the hardest thing,” she added. “I hate auditions, because they’re all great kids, and they’re all good.”

A woman wearing a green patterned top and a cross around her neck while looking off into the distance

Leimomi Kanagusuku was 11 when the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus recorded the soundtrack of “Lilo & Stitch.”

(Bea Oyster / For The Times)

Initially, the students were told only that they had been recruited to sing for a movie about “a girl and her dog.” They clung to the crumb of information about the mysterious project, fervently speculating as to what the names of the protagonist and her pup might be.

“When finally we found out the title, it was just such an odd name for a dog,” Iona said. “I couldn’t fathom what it could possibly be at the time. … It was such a funny progression of finding out more about the film and the story behind it.”

As Disney fed them additional details, the lucky group of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders were sworn to “secrecy,” said Rachel Justice, a 33-year-old elementary-school teacher at Kamehameha on Oahu. The sheet music for the first number they learned, “He Mele No Lilo,” was sealed in cryptic manila envelopes, and the kids weren’t allowed to talk with anyone about what was inside.

“I might still have it somewhere, the original music in that envelope, because it seemed like it had to be so private and secret,” Justice said. “We had no idea what the scope of it was gonna be or how it would impact my life. I mean, I was the oldest among us, but still we had no clue what we were getting into … a small piece of a big puzzle.”

A woman posing in a blue patterned top with a yellow flower in her hair

Rachel Justice was 12 when the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus recorded the soundtrack of “Lilo & Stitch.”

(Bea Oyster / For The Times)

In a behind-the-scenes featurette for the DVD release of “Lilo & Stitch,” writer-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois say they were “blown away” upon visiting the Kamehameha campus and hearing the chorus perform the music for the first time. Bright remembers that moment well: how the students crowded the door and couldn’t resist peeking outside as the filmmakers arrived. How they greeted their guests with leis and floored them with their performance.

“[The filmmakers] just stood there kind of speechless,” Bright said. “We were like, ‘OK, that must have been special.’”

Not all the former choir members could recall singing for Sanders and DeBlois that day — but they do have fond memories of Sanders entertaining them by doing “the Stitch voice.” Throughout the rehearsal and recording process, the filmmakers dazzled the kids with sneak peeks of the movie, from advance footage to hand-drawn renderings of the characters.

“As kids, this is the best thing ever — getting to see a movie before it comes out,” Iona said. “That was probably the coolest thing for me at the time.

A cartoon image of a girl, a woman and a furry blue creature riding a wave on a surfboard

Lilo, Nani and Stitch surfing during the “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” sequence from “Lilo & Stitch.”

(Disney)

“I can definitely credit ‘Lilo & Stitch’ as being one of the catalysts for my career. I had always wanted to go into something creative, and … seeing that behind-the-scenes process that they were so willing to share with us as kids was really fascinating.”

While laying down tracks at a small studio in Honolulu, Kanagusuku and her classmates felt like “actual recording artists.” They sang “He Mele No Lilo” and “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” what seemed like 1,000 times, taking breaks and giving one another massages in between takes to stay loose and energized.

“We were used to practicing, but this was practice to a whole ’nother level,” Kanagusuku said. “We had mics in front of us. We got to wear these earphones … Even though it was repetitive … I don’t think any of us ever really complained.”

Less than a year later, the choir flew to L.A. for the “Lilo & Stitch” premiere and heard their voices synced up with the animation on the big screen. Following a cold open teasing Stitch’s crash-landing on Kauai, a colorful title sequence set to “He Mele No Lilo” introduced moviegoers to Lilo and her island home for the first time with an elegant hula.

The opening credits are “so reminiscent of old Hawaii,” Kanagusuku said. “It made me feel really proud to be able to have this full Hawaiian song be the opening song. … To be able to share our culture and our language was a really powerful thing.”

A cartoon image of four little girls performing a hula

Lilo and her peers perform a hula set to “He Mele No Lilo” during the opening title sequence from “Lilo & Stitch.”

(Disney)

“There’s one particular part of the song where they’re all moving forward and aligned together in the hula, and it’s just such a cool scene visually to watch,” Justice added. “It wasn’t just impactful for us as kids … For all the people of Hawaii, it was really touching and a way for everyone to be represented really well.”+

The film’s enduring popularity has continued to affect Bright, Iona, Kanagusuku and Justice’s lives in both direct and unexpected ways.

While Justice was studying at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, for example, the Pacific Islanders club performed a hula to “He Mele No Lilo” during its annual luau. Justice wasn’t inclined to say anything, but another student who grew up with her already knew about her fame — and soon so did everybody else.

For the most part, Justice and her peers appreciate those kinds of happy coincidences — even though they can be a little awkward at times.

A group of children in matching, ruffled blue outfits and yellow leis posing with a man

Leimomi Kanagusuku (front row, center), Rachel Justice (second row, left), Paul Iona (back row, left) and other members of the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus pose with Jason Scott Lee (back row, second from right) — the voice of David in “Lilo & Stitch” — at the Los Angeles premiere of the film.

(Paul Iona)

“I get people that ask me to sing [the songs] a lot,” she said. “But I don’t know what happened to my voice, because it [was] much higher than I remember it being, and [the songs are] much harder to sing.”

Strangers often urge Iona to sing too on learning about his involvement in “Lilo & Stitch.” Once, the movie was among his in-flight viewing options on a trip to Europe. One thing led to another, and he wound up indulging his seat mate by singing “a few bars” from the soundtrack on the plane.

“People are just so enthusiastic when they find out, because they grew up with it, and they recognize the music as being so iconic to the film,” Iona said.

“They may not know the lyrics exactly to ‘He Mele No Lilo,’ but they know … the feeling that it imparted into the film and what it brought for them as kids and now adults about what it means to be from Hawaii — or what Hawaii was for them if they grew up on the continent. It’s really cool to have those type of exchanges.”

A man and four women smiling and gathered around a piano in a classroom

Paul Iona, left, Rachel Justice, Lynell Bright and Leimomi Kanagusuku gathered around the piano in Bright’s classroom.

(Bea Oyster / For The Times)

On countless occasions, Bright has heard “He Mele No Lilo” and “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” wafting from a speaker at a shopping center or drifting through the breeze at her local park. And whenever Kanagusuku’s friends have children going through a “Lilo & Stitch” phase, they make sure to let her know they’ve been listening to the soundtrack over and over — and over — again.

“All of us, we’ve got some sort of beacon,” Kanagusuku says. “For me, it brings a sense of happiness. We have such great memories from it, and so I just feel joy. … I always sing along to it. If it’s far away, I mosey on toward the situation — whatever it is — and I try to figure out what’s going on.”

A framed plaque with a record and images from the cartoon film "Lilo & Stitch"

A plaque commemorating the “Lilo & Stitch” soundtrack going RIAA Platinum.

(Bea Oyster / For The Times)

Not all of the former choir members’ recent “Lilo & Stitch” encounters have happened by chance.

In an attempt to relive their glory days, Justice occasionally drives around Honolulu trying to find the studio where they recorded the soundtrack. She doesn’t know for sure if she’s ever passed by the nondescript building, but she somehow feels like she has.

Meanwhile, Iona settled in for a “COVID watch” of the title on Disney+ at least once over the last year and reflected on how the story resonated with him then versus now.

“You’re so entranced by the idea of this alien coming to Hawaii as a kid, and that’s pretty much all you get,” Iona said.

“All these themes of what it means to be family, coming together from a broken family, making a family out of the people that support you and lift you up … that’s just so much more meaningful as an adult and something that makes this film as timeless as it is.”

While practicing family medicine on Oahu, Kanagusuku will sometimes sing or play parts of the “Lilo & Stitch” songs for her patients. Usually, the children can’t fathom their doctor ever “being a young person” or “doing performing arts,” she said. Much like the Kamehameha graduates’ younger selves, the kids don’t quite get it.

But the parents do.

“‘Lilo & Stitch’ and choir and music in general really shaped my life,” Kanagusuku said. “Mrs. Bright was saying … the kids in the choir don’t necessarily realize how they’ve impacted the people in the audience. I don’t know if she’s actually realized how much she and music have impacted all of us.”

A tree overlooking a coastal city

A tree overlooking the view of the Kamehameha campus.

(Bea Oyster / For The Times)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-08-25/lilo-and-stitch-soundtrack-disney-kamehameha-schools-childrens-chorus ‘Lilo & Stitch’ children’s choir singers: Where are they now

Sarah Ridley

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