“The chorus was founded to be a group of men who then would watch their friends die of AIDS and sing at their funerals regularly,” Byam says. “To have that weight, and to have those stories being passed down from generation to generation — I consider them family members that I’ll never get to know. And singing, in a way, to them during this pandemic feels poetic.”
Originally envisioned as a Kennedy Center performance, “GMCW Turns 40” was reimagined as a virtual concert that starts streaming June 5. Weaving archival photos and footage with more than a dozen new recordings of songs, the 90-minute event aims to encapsulate the chorus’ soaring vocals, playful camp and camaraderie, and social justice mission.
“We did not ever consider going dark this year,” artistic director Thea Kano says. “And that’s not just because it’s our 40th anniversary but because we very much believe in what we do, raising our voice for equality. We have the community, we take care of each other, and we love being together and making music.”
Founded in 1981, when straight ally Marsha Pearson coordinated the effort after a Kennedy Center performance by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the GMCW has developed into a pioneering pillar of the D.C. arts community.
In 1997, the chorus sang at the National Museum of American History as part of Bill Clinton’s inaugural festivities, representing a first for a gay choral group. In 2002, the GMCW made its national TV debut with a performance at the Kennedy Center Honors in tribute to Elizabeth Taylor. When the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 to legalize same-sex marriage, the chorus memorably belted out the national anthem outside the Supreme Court building.
Footage immortalizing such highlights is now in the care of Greg Kubiak, the chair of the GMCW’s historical society, who led the charge to digitize more than 200 hours of past performances. With that archive at their disposal, Kano and director of marketing Craig Cipollini then collaborated on curating that footage for “GMCW Turns 40.”
“It’s been surprising and lovely, actually, to discover all kinds of hidden gems,” says Cipollini, who worked as a videographer and editor on the project. “But then sometimes you see videos of people who have passed on. So you smile, but it’s sad that there are people that are no longer with us.”
Much of the archival footage was broken into four montages, representing each decade of the chorus’ history. Through those sequences, viewers can track the GMCW’s trajectory from its humble beginnings into the more sprawling operation it is today, featuring five ensembles and more than 250 members.
“The impression that you have is that this used to be a chorus of maybe 100 guys, they used to wear white T-shirts and black jeans on risers, and it was the stand-and-sing chorus,” Kubiak says. “But through the history, you see it evolving into a much more professional showcase of a variety of songs.”
The new footage includes recent recordings of the Andra Day hit “Rise Up”; “Waving Through a Window” from the musical “Dear Evan Hansen”; Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”; and “Make Them Hear You” from the musical “Ragtime.” In addition, “Ragtime” writers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty penned a new anthem for the GMCW — titled “Harmony’s Never Too Late” — specifically for the anniversary.
Although most of the recordings were done remotely, with members singing from home and the tracks spliced together, some numbers were captured in person this spring in socially distanced settings. In one performance, the GMCW’s Rock Creek Singers ensemble reunited among the Corinthian columns of the National Arboretum. For the show’s climax, “From Now On” from the movie “The Greatest Showman,” members performed at landmarks across the District — the Supreme Court, the National Mall and Black Lives Matter Plaza, among them.
“The hardest part about coming back together in person was that we were still unable to hug,” Byam says. “It was just such a groundswell of emotion that overtook all of us to see that people still existed outside of the little boxes on their screen.”
Kano hopes the lyrics to “From Now On” — specifically, the refrain “And we will come back home” — are a fitting finale to a concert that not only reflects on four decades but turns the page on the pandemic. Looking ahead, she’s eager to get the chorus together in person again and welcome back audiences, perhaps for another 40 years and beyond.
“For so many of us, GMCW feels like home,” Kano says. “Now, as we’re finally starting to see the light and come out of the pandemic, we can look forward to — we hope — being back live on a stage. And our patrons can look forward to be surrounded by our harmonies.”
GMCW Turns 40
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. gmcw.org.
Dates: June 5 at 7 p.m. through June 20.