Thinking about gay and lesbian choruses

April 8, 2008

In the mid-1980s my publisher told me about the gay choral movement. Several of his composers had written for the chorus in New York and he encouraged me to make connections to try to join that world. It didn’t happen until 1991 when the late Leonard Raver (organist to the NY Phil) recommended to Jon Bailey that Roger Bourland was the composer to compose a new cantata addressing the AIDS epidemic that was killing many gay men at the time.

The work that came out of that conversation was HIDDEN LEGACIES, a 7-part cantata for gay men’s chorus, synthesizer ensemble, bass and drums. John Hall wrote the lyrics. The work was widely performed by most of the large gay choruses in the US over the next two years. Two things ultimately retired this piece: the ensemble includes synthesizers that are no longer in production, and with protease inhibitors, AIDS became manageable and choruses stopped demanding the cure. This manifested itself in programming by leaving politically based works and returning to the roots of the gay choral repertoire: showtunes and campy stuff.

In 1992 I founded Yelton Rhodes Music, started at that time because I discovered a huge amount of gay and lesbian choral literature unpublished by traditional publishers. (We are still in business, but gay choruses are no longer our primary customers. Gay choruses now prefer big shows of reviews by a broadway composer, or a pop songwriter, or music from a decade. Licensing these efforts is a legal nightmare, so we don’t help out with these “publications” they are, rather, “shared” or sold by the arranger.) I was elected the Chairman of the Board of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles in 1994. I ran for the board of GALA (the organization that oversees the gay and lesbian choruses in the US) but wasn’t elected.

I remember defending gay choruses all the time. People, especially straight people, would question the need for segregated choruses by sexual orientation. I would often point to the need of many gay men to find a new family when they had been dissed by their own. Surviving AIDS was another huge bonding factor. And then there was finding a partner, why not find one in a chorus rather than in a bar?

Last Saturday Daniel and I attended the GMCLA winter concert. The winter concert used to be the “serious” concert where classical or specially commissioned works would show up. This was all music from American musical theater in the 20th century (read: show tunes). What was refreshing was that most were tunes I didn’t know. The arrangements were beautifully done, staged, and performed. But chorus members I spoke to were concerned by a half full house. As I looked about the room, I saw largely an over-50 crowd — not unlike attending classical chamber music concerts. (Daniel was the youngest one there, and that’s likely because he was with me.) Gone are the days of angry queers demanding equal rights in society (we almost have them), letting the world know that we are here and queer and fabulous (they know, they know), and demanding answers to the AIDS epidemic (well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad).

So are gay choruses still relevant?

Birds of a feather will always flock together. There are zillions of clubs and social organizations: the Kiwanis Club, the Moose Lodge, the Rotary Club, the PEO, women’s clubs, the Junior League, gangs, sports teams for pros and amateurs, churches, bars, debating teams, and so on. We find any excuse to join together as a social group to do something. Gay and lesbian choruses have the right and need to exist as any other club does.

My last gay piece was one that I wrote with Philip Littell for the Gay Men’s Chorus of Boston about gay marriage. That topic is till a hot potato but the choruses would rather entertain these days than kvetch, and that is their right.

Sing on queer choruses!


Here is a video of “Coffee in a Cardboard Box” from a previous season.

Renowned for their inventive staging and vocal musicianship, GMCLA scored a major triumph with ‘They Had It Coming: the music of Kander & Ebb’. Here’s a small ensemble singing ‘Coffee In A Cardboard Cup’ from the show ’70, Girls, 70′. [Uploaded by jimroman]

Previous post:

Next post: