After 25 Years, Gay Men's Chorus Affirms Its Name

The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington celebrated its 25th anniversary with a performance yesterday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington celebrated its 25th anniversary with a performance yesterday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Adriane Quinlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006

The Kennedy Center first welcomed a gay choral group a quarter-century ago, when the newly formed San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus came to the Concert Hall.

Inspired by that performance, 18 Washington men bonded together 10 days later in a Northwest community center to form a chorus that has since performed for princesses and presidents, high schools and mayors and even Liz Taylor.

In 1981, the San Francisco chorus sang the "King and I" tune "We Kiss in a Shadow," about star-crossed lovers who lament the society that separates them: "When people are near," they sing loudly, "we speak not a word."

Yesterday afternoon, that song of hidden love became the proud, opening declaration of the 25th-anniversary celebration of the 253-member Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, which returned to the Concert Hall whence it sprang. "Twenty-five years ago, I left work early to come see the San Francisco chorus -- the founder of this whole choral movement," said James Bowman, an alumnus who returned yesterday to listen. "That day is long past."

To mark the silver reunion, the men shared the limelight with Broadway legend Barbara Cook. "A great boon for the chorus," Artistic Director Jeff Buhrman said of the Grammy- and Tony-winning Cook.

But first the chorus entered, wearing formal black and shining with rhinestones, and performed a selection of songs from Cook's repertoire under the section playfully titled "I Can 'Cook' Too." Oh, and can they.

Too often, a technically precise chorus pays the price for feeling overpracticed -- its singers become walking mechanical instruments programmed to hit a perfect pitch. Yesterday, however, the Gay Men's Chorus felt every note, dipping into breathy falsetto for such heart-stopping numbers as " 'Til There Was You" from "The Music Man," and climbing back out with a boisterous, huffy tone for such show tunes as "Will He Like Me" from "She Loves Me," which showcased soloists who managed to hit every note and still act out the song's rattling, nervous energy.

When Cook finally entered, her black shift swirling like a storm as she snaked the microphone from hand to hand, she racked up a solid minute of applause by observing, simply, "Myyyyyyy, these guys sing so good."

Her rendition of a Cliff Edwards vaudeville ballad from the 1930s, about dogs that fall in love, brought down the house, especially when the 78-year-old star -- usually known for her soaring soprano -- began to growl over a piano solo, then winked and started yawping like a Pekingese. Her next number was classic Cook: She sang "This Nearly Was Mine" from "South Pacific" with quiet, somber grace, shifting the song's climactic moment from "One love in my heart" to a later, usually less acknowledged bar, "One partner in paradise," and the song became allegory.

Dethroning Cook of her spotlight, the chorus returned to sing the spiritual "There's a Man Goin' Round" -- a dark, deep river of a song. Each singer held a plaque marking a loved one who had died from AIDS, and as they sang "Death is that man, coming round / Taking my brother's name," they lifted each name one by one, obscuring their own faces, so that at the end of the song, no singer could be seen. Over 25 years, 85 chorus members have died, and the men onstage sang with their hearts in their throats.

When chorus President Tom DiGiovanni first joined in the late '90s, he says, the group was "coming out of a period of focused mourning. It was kind of at that time in the late '90s where some of the drugs came on scene and people's lives were being extended and our focus musically brightened considerably."

Yesterday's focus was certainly brighter. The chorus finished off with its new signature song, "Changing Hearts," a work commissioned last year from composer Alan Shorter.

Artistic Director Jeff Buhrman made clear that the chorus, whose official mission is to sing and "to affirm the place of gay people in society," still has far to go in promoting social acceptance. Yesterday afternoon he turned to face the audience, waving at people he recognized.

"I was channel-surfing the cable news stations on the day the Senate voted not to discuss the ban on gay marriages," Buhrman said, "and saw the news crawl across the bottom of the screen. It read, 'Are gay families real families?' I wanted to sit up and shout out, 'Yes we are.' But I didn't do that, because I was alone."

What the chorus gives to its audience is one part heartfelt musical performance, one part giddy family reunion. Cook welcomed a standing ovation with an open-arms air hug. It was a love-in. At intermission, alumni yelled across the lobby's red carpet to men they hadn't seen in years.

On this day, the audience celebrated not only how the chorus sounded, but also that it exists at all.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company