Blogging GALA :: Day One
Your columnist rose bright and early and with a terrific headache... despite not having drunk a drop the (all-too-late) night before, even though I’d gone to a party at local gay spot X Bar, hosted by the New York Gay Men’s Chorus. The place had been jam-packed and both dance floors (one upstairs, one down) were throbbing with music and happy chorines.
Your humble columnist avoids combining drink and dance (he’s already awkward when stone cold sober), and so had not imbibed. So why the splitting head? Denver is in the desert, and anybody not used to the dry air, even a New Mexico native who has spent too long living in a coastal city, needs to make a concerted effort to stay hydrated. Neglect your water intake and you’ll know. Oh yes, you will know. They say 3 liters per day is a rule of thumb for a man, and that’s even if you don’t live in the desert. Add another liter or two when visiting a dry place.
Sunday commenced with a hearty breakfast; food is as important as water, especially when it comes to managing jet lag. Then the day took off at a run and never slowed down. For the already-dehydrated, it was gonna be a challenge...
GALA’s "coffee concerts" are morning programs in which choruses have more time to present programs than they do in the standard afternoon concert blocks. Because programs are ongoing all three venues all the time, no one can possibly see everything; like everybody else, yours truly was faced with the tough and sometimes impossible task of picking and choosing from an array of irresistible musical offerings.
Nonetheless, Sunday’s shows offered a few standouts that I just could not miss.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C., have created a masterpiece of musical theater called "Alexander’s House." Commissioned from composer Michael Shaieb for the group’s 30th anniversary season, the hour-long show details how a man named Alexander strove to live a heterosexual life even though he was gay. When he finally emerged from the closet, his wife divorced him and refused him any contact with their young son.
The show’s prelude sketches out how Alexander, post-divorce, fell in love with another man, made a happy life with him, and died unexpectedly. He left the summer home he’d shared with his life partner and their close friends to his long-estranged son, now 25, a young man who never knew why his father was absent from his life. (His mother simply told him that his father had been "too selfish" to be a good father.)
The piece is funny and touching by turns, but it’s a stack of birthday gifts for the boy, returned by Alexander’s ex-wife that brings a tear to event the most jaundiced eye. The moment when the young man, already grappling with the revelation that his gay father had loved him and not wanted to be excluded from his life, opens a gift boxed years before is simply indescribable. In one moment, the utter and horrifying injustice dealt out to gay parents by fearful, ignorant, and vituperative former spouses (and unkind family courts) hits home. You know the phrase "Not a dry eye in the house?" In this instance, that’s no exaggeration.
The Heartland Men’s Chorus brought their A-Game with surefire smash hit "When I Knew," part of a series of musical "documentaries"--in this case, stories drawn from the group’s members about when they realized they were gay or at least "different."
Sex columnist, political gadfly, author, and "It Gets Better" co-founder Dan Savage was on hand as a special guest to narrate the show, which mixed visuals (photos, graphics), narration, and song to describe the experiences (some painful, some triumphant) of gay boys figuring it out and learning how to stand up for themselves in an often-hostile world. One bit of sage advice from a fellow who dressed up as a Brownie for Halloween in elementary school and drew the attention of a bully: A well-chosen purse makes for an awesome accessory and, when filled with rocks, and even better anti-bully system. The house filled with cheers at this.
But the audience spent as much time sniffling as uttering accolades. When Savage ended the show with a recounting of how the It Gets Better Project started, and the effect it’s had in terms of saving lives and educating and empowering at-risk GLBT youths, their parents, and the teachers who are supposed to be keeping them safe at school, there were cheers; but an epilogue brought everyone back to the sobering reality that the fight is far from over and the casualties still mount.
"In Memoriam," a projected title read, and about a dozen images appeared, one by one, with no names; only faces and ages, the scant years they’d seen when they died, driven to suicide by bullies. After writing aggregate news stories for EDGE for years, I knew the names and the stories that went with those faces, and just about dissolved in my seat.
Seth Walsh. Asher Brown. Justin Aaberg. Billy Lucas. Tyler Clementi. So many others.
Let us not forget.
Accentuating the Positive
More laughter and tears awaited the afternoon audience in attendance at the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus performance of "Accentuate the Positive: Telling New Stories About Living with HIV/AIDS." The show was edited down from its full-length version to fit into the half hour allotted to each chorus included in concert blocks (otherwise, concert blocks would be much harder to program and schedule). The New York boys came on at the tag end of a block that had also featured the Rainbow Women’s Chorus, Tone Cluster, and Harmony, the latter of which was a local ensemble that waved state flags at one point while singing, "Color me Colorado." (It was adorable.)
The show began and ended with Morten Lauridson’s composition "Sure on This Shining Night," with lyrics by James Agee. In the middle, the show was presented in the format of a nature documentary, and addressed HIV in a touching manner. The narration described the habits of the "HIV-Positive Lower Manhattan Resident," including mating rituals, family dynamics, and seasonal behavior. A character disclosing his status did so through tap dance, a brilliantly apt metaphor; again and again he encountered results that were "other than the desired" outcome (rejection by a prospective partner, having to comfort a suddenly sobbing brother). The action was traced out using a clutch of popular songs, including Duncan Sheik’s "Totally Fucked" and Beyonce’s "Crazy in Love," among several other tunes.
Later in the day, during a program called "Our Legacy = Our Songs," the topic of HIV would be revisited. But first came more concert blocks, more fretting over which choruses to hear, the best way to assemble a diverse palette of musical experience.
Others relied on the concert block schedules or the program descriptions provided in the booklet or using the specialized app and other online resources, especially festival novices. I had an advantage other novices might not have had, though: I had a GALA guide in the person of my friend J.D. Fugate, a 16-year veteran of the Seattle Men’s Chorus who has attended four... now five... GALA festivals. J.D. joined me in surveying the options available for the rest of the day.
"You don’t want to miss the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus," he told me. "Their music is good, and their choreography is unbelievable. I’d miss tech rehearsal if I had to rather than their show."
Miss tech rehearsal? A blasphemous thought in the extreme. I’m sure that choruses in Ancient Eqypt used to strand such offenders on barges made of straw and then shoot flaming arrows at them. Columbus must be good.
Oh, and they were. Their program, titled "Celebrate, Love Yourself, and Believe," started off with "I’m Coming Out," progressed to "True Colors,:" and and included a few unlikely choices such as "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "His Eye is On the Sparrow," the latter delivered as a righteous gospel piece, and finished with "Believe." The choreography really was a scene-stealing, crowd-pleasing wonder, though. At one point I found myself leaning forward and muttering to J.D. unbelievingly: "That guy is tap dancing in a foot cast!"