There are several ironies about the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, a nearly 300-member choir that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month: it was started by a straight woman, its most dedicated member has never sung a note with the group and despite numerous classically trained musicians among its ranks and at its helm, it’s eschewed standard repertoire in recent years.
Despite a bounty of obstacles though — AIDS ravaged the membership roster well into the ‘90s and mainstream venues (including present home the Lisner) were skittish about renting to the group — the Chorus has thrived, is considered among the best of its kind in the U.S. and enjoys such a bounty of interest, the audition process has gotten tougher simply because there’s no room left to get many more bodies on stage or in the rehearsal hall.
“D.C. is absolutely at the top of its game,” says Tim Seelig, artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and a 20-year veteran of the Turtle Creek Chorale, a well-respected gay male chorus in Dallas. “I hesitate to start naming names because I’ll certainly leave somebody out but Seattle, New York, Boston, Dallas, San Francisco, the cities that really have the stronger choruses within the movement, D.C. is absolutely at the top of its game. It’s not a competition, we don’t compete for audience or anything and it’s different in different cities, but the D.C. Chorus is absolutely one of the brightest stars.”
Seelig got insight into how good the Washington choir is during an unexpected moment. Many of the larger choirs of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) have done substantial recording over the years. Seelig has heard practically all the CDs and there are many hundreds. He’d picked up the D.C. choir’s “Songs of My Family” CD at a GALA gathering in Miami a few years before but didn’t get around to playing it for a year. He popped it in his car stereo and says he was blown away.
“It was so beautiful, I literally had to pull over,” he says. “It was the finest CD I’d ever heard by a GALA chorus quality wise and I’ve heard thousands of these things. The proof is pretty much there in the pudding. You can’t really fool microphones. You can adjust them a little but they pick up what they hear … they sing really well and they’ve crossed some really important bridges and boundaries. D.C. is absolutely in that top tier.”
The D.C. Chorus is a quasi-unofficial spin off of its San Francisco counterpart. During an early ‘80s national tour, the San Francisco group performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and had a profound effect on local audiences. Marsha Pearson, a straight woman who lived in Dupont Circle at the time and enjoyed hanging out with gay men, was one such person.
“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have one of these,” she says during a phone chat this week from her home in the Philadelphia area. “I thought, ‘We’re the nation’s capital, how come we don’t have this?’”
She hand wrote fliers — four to a sheet — had her sister photocopy them at her office, cut them up by hand and passed them out at Capital Pride in 1981. Accounts vary about how many showed up to the first practice at the long-defunct gay community center (no connection to the D.C. Center) on Church Street. Pearson remembers about 30. Others say it was more like 15-ish. It was June 28, 1981 (30 years Tuesday), and, by all accounts, an innocuous beginning.
Pearson never sang with the group — it was exclusively a men’s chorus all along. She asked if anybody had any conducting experience. The late Jim Richardson did and became the first director.
“I still remember the first chord,” Pearson says. “It was just a simple thing, you know, like do, mi, so, do, but I just got goosebumps. I was just elated that even one note came out, I was so excited. I got those same goosebumps at the anniversary concert last weekend. I put their CDs on and I get the same thing, especially on certain things they sing. You just can’t believe it sounds so great.”
Steve Herman, who was also at the San Francisco group’s Kennedy Center performance, dropped his then-partner off at the first rehearsal, said hi but didn’t stay. At the second gathering, members told him they needed behind-the-scenes help. He became a non-singing member and is the only person who’s been continuously involved with the Chorus for its entire 30 years. He’s been incredibly active and been on the board most of those 30 years, even president for four.
“I’m not a singer so I don’t have that experience, but I wouldn’t be there for 30 years if it wasn’t a major part of my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t have supported it so long if I didn’t think it was first rate.”
It was decided early on that the word gay would be the first word of the name. Members didn’t want any subtlety when it came to who they were and what they were about.
The first performance was in September at City Hall. The second was at the Eagle, then on 9th Street. Members stood on the steps between the first and second floors. One of the first songs performed was “This Train is Bound for Glory,” a gospel standard. The first ticketed show was at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. By summer’s end, the group had swelled to about 80 members, a size it retained for several years.
“We weren’t that good, but the audience was unbelievably responsive,” Herman says. “We did three nights, two at St. Mark’s and one in Baltimore and it was packed.”
Larry Cohen, a baritone who joined in 1986 shortly after he came out and moved to Washington, remembers a varied repertoire in those years with a mix of classical, show tunes and pop. He says the group didn’t start putting on theatrical productions until about 10 years ago.
“It used to be more of a show choir, you know, stand-on-the-risers-and-sing-kind of thing,” he says. “But in this age of multi-media technology, the audience has come to expect a lot of visuals, action and movement on stage so we mix it up and give them everything from a cappella close harmony to show-stopping production numbers.”
Jeff Burhman, artistic director since 2000, joined the Chorus first as a baritone in 1986. He says the evolution of the Chorus has entailed a number of factors from what other choral groups in the region offer, what arrangements and repertoire is, or was, available at any given time and what has proven successful at the box office.
“We’ve always had what I call the GTGs and the SMQs,” he says. “The ‘good time girls’ who enjoy the Broadway and pop stuff and want to have a good time, and the ‘serious music queens’ who want classical and traditional western stuff. When we were founded and even when I came on in ’86, we were still a novelty if you think about it. There wasn’t a lot of repertoire to be had so the choruses tended to be more traditional. They were doing a lot of college glee club repertoire and whateve we could find. When I joined we were singing German and French and traditional choral literature. That’s my background in classical music, so I was used to it and the audience accepted it. But then in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it started to reflect what was going on in the gay community. You started to see the AIDS crisis, for instance, reflected in the music. We wanted to sing about things that resonated with us, not just AIDS, but what it was like growing up as a gay man, so there became less interest in the traditional stuff. This has happened with all the large (gay) men’s choruses. Some of the directors have come in with more of a classical bent, but it just doesn’t sell tickets.”
During the nine years that Buhrman was assistant director, he saw the shift.
“I clearly saw that when we did the shows with a more entertaining twist, we got a bigger audience,” he says. “We would do something with a lot of opera and the serious music queens would come and everybody else would stay home.”
In time, the Chorus became known for its commissions — there’ve been three so far that have explored modern gay themes — and its all-male productions of popular musicals like “Grease,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
Jack Reiffer, who came out of a straight marriage and joined the Chorus in 1998 shortly after coming out, says the Chorus has exposed him to many musical styles that had previously been off his radar. As a first tenor — the Chorus uses barbershop harmonies (first tenor, second tenor, baritone and bass) but in a much different style — Reiffer quickly became a leader within the group, leading sectionals and mentoring new members.
“We prefer to talk about putting on shows now rather than giving concerts,” he says. “The word is out in a town like this that it’s great entertainment.”
Membership has tripled under Buhrman’s leadership and most involved agree the quality has improved dramatically over the years. Burhman is careful not to make the music too intimidating — the singers are volunteers and some don’t read music — while also expecting them to memorize their parts and rise to the occasion.
“It’s a catch 22 in a positive way,” he says. “By having a good Chorus, you attract good singers and by having good singers, you have a better Chorus.”
Cohen says the sense of family that exists has kept him involved along with the music and message.
“It’s an extended family in the truest sense of the word,” Cohen says. “You really form life-long friends and look out for one another and celebrate milestones together. And then you have the message on top of that, of hope, love, acceptance and tolerance. It really does change hearts and win people over in time. It’s affirming the value of our lives.”