From left to right, Hannah Johnson, Caitlin Guthrie, Katherine Concannon, and Tatum Strunk, all 10 years old and from Cape Elizabeth, share a laugh while practicing the "Cups" song at Johnson's house in Cape Elizabeth, Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
By Ray Routhier
Go to any summer camp, any park or any backyard in Maine, and you're likely to find youngsters who have become musically adept with a cup.
Paper or plastic, disposable or unbreakable. In the right hands, any kind of cup can make beautiful music.
Fueling the national trend is the hit song "Cups (When I'm Gone)" by actress Anna Kendrick, a Portland native. She performed the song – with a plastic cup as her sole accompaniment -- in the 2012 film "Pitch Perfect." Since then, the song and its accompanying hand moves have become the biggest thing in cups since Dixie.
A radio version of Kendrick's song reached the Billboard Top 10 in July – it was holding at No. 10 in the July 27 issue of Billboard. And dozens of tutorials have surfaced online, making the "Cups" routine easier to learn than "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"It's fun because so many people know it," said Lynnea Harding, 15, of Falmouth, a member of the girls choir Musica de Filia. "You can just be hanging out, and somebody will say, 'I know the cups song,' and everybody will start doing it."
Many aspiring singers, including Waterville Senior High School show choir members Cassidy Dangler and Crystal Comfort, have made YouTube videos of themselves doing the "Cups" routine.
The song's popularity has prompted children to think about – probably for the first time – what sort of cup they want to play.
Musically, that is.
"I don't want to use a glass cup, because they can break. The disposable plastic cups are a little too loud for me, and they can fly out of your hand," said Cassidy, 16. "I like a hard plastic cup. Something that's sturdy, with a nice sound."
Here in Maine, the "Cups" song is especially popular with young people who look at Kendrick and see someone from their state who has shot to singing and acting fame.
"It's just so cool to see someone from Maine make it big," said Cassidy.
MOVIE RAISED SONG'S PROFILE
So how did a pop song played on a cup become a pop-culture phenomenon?
A slightly different version of the song was recorded in the 1930s by the legendary country group The Carter Family. The song was done mostly by bluegrass groups for years, until the British duo Lulu and The Lampshades did a version of it in 2009, along with the cups routine for percussion.
In 2011, it became something of a YouTube sensation when a 17-year-old from Indiana named Anna Burden released a video of herself singing the song and doing the very specific and intricate cup routine with her hands.
Kendrick was nominated at age 12 for a Tony Award for her supporting role in "High Society" on Broadway. She appeared in the "Twilight" movie series as a supporting player, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar playing opposite George Clooney in the dramedy "Up in the Air" (2009).
Her singing skill helped her land the lead role in "Pitch Perfect," a musical comedy about an all-girls college a cappella group.
In an interview with David Letterman, Kendrick said she saw Burden's video and spent hours learning the song and routine because "I'm a huge loser."
The creative powers behind "Pitch Perfect" heard Kendrick talk about the routine on the set, and thought it would be perfect for her character to perform while auditioning for the college group in the film.
"Pitch Perfect" premiered in late September. It was a box office hit. But Kendrick's song and video were even more popular, landing her on Letterman and other talk shows. The 76-second version of Kendrick's song on the film's soundtrack made the Billboard singles chart in January.
In April, a longer version with more instrumentation was released to radio stations, along with a video depicting Kendrick as a day-dreaming waitress who gets everyone in the restaurant to do the cups routine with her.
Thus began a second life for the song and the cups routine. By this summer, young girls all over the country were doing it.
The song's enormous success surprised even Kendrick, who Tweeted in July: "I'm hearing my song on the radio. Every music biopic ever has taught me this will lead to drugs and madness."
Kendrick recently finished a film adaptation of the musical play "The Last Five Years," in which she plays an actress who has a five-year relationship with a novelist. She's scheduled to go to London this summer to play Cinderella in "Into the Woods," a film based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim.
In fact, Kendrick is so busy that her publicist said she would not have time to do an interview for this story – until next year.
Meanwhile, the "Cups" phenomenon continues to grow.
TUNE CATCHES ON IN MAINE
At the home of 10-year-old Hannah Johnson in Cape Elizabeth last week, Johnson and three of her friends demonstrated their "Cups" prowess.
The girls, all of whom will enter fifth grade this fall, had either learned the routine from the film and videos, or from other youngsters. They said just about everybody at school knew how to do it by the time summer break came around.
"Well, not the boys," said Hannah. "The boys are like, 'Can you please stop that?'"
One of the girls, Katherine Concannon, 10, recited a handy set of instructions, set to the beat of the song, that she uses to teach others what to do with the cup:
"Pitter pat, move the cup, keep the beat, and don't mess up."
While she said it, she moved the blue plastic cup from hand to hand, turned it over onto the coffee table several times and tilted it at angles. Watching the cup move was like watching a baton in the hands of a skilled majorette.
Once they learn the moves, youngsters must learn the words to "Cups," which are bluesy and folksy and not exactly the kind of lyrics that kids who listen to Carly Rae Jepsen are used to hearing:
"I've got my ticket for the long way 'round/ Two bottle whiskey for the way/ And I sure would like some sweet company/ And I'm leaving tomorrow, whaddya say?"
Perhaps the Maine group most inspired by Kendrick's pop hit is the Portland-area girls choir Musica de Filia, of which Kendrick was once a member.
The group's director, Jaye Churchill, keeps in touch with Kendrick. She decided to have the Musica de Filia Chamber Choir learn the song and routine as a bonding exercise before a trip in April to play a choir festival at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
The 24 girls sang the song on the bus ride down -- and sang it, cups and all, wherever they went.
"The actual cup part, with the hands, wasn't that hard to learn. But I had a hard time singing at the same time," said Sophie Chaney, 18, of Portland, a Musica de Filia member. "But it's fun to do the song and tell people (Kendrick) was a member."
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: