Age is just a number.
And when that number is affixed to an entity, the larger that number grows, either one of two things happen.
The entity becomes stale, set in its ways, lifeless, a dinosaur lumbering, with fatalistic inevitability, toward the tar pits.
The entity evolves. It grows. Flourishes. It puts faith in its own time-honored traditions while forging new ones. It becomes a necessity that extends beyond the reaches of its own community.
It becomes iconic.
After 35 years, it’s safe to say that the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is a local artistic and cultural icon. And yet, this is a humble organization, warm, welcoming, sociable, fueled by camaraderie and love. It’s an entity whose embrace of the arts is driven by a sense of purpose — though one with a notably flamboyant joie de vivre. The GMCW is a gay organization determined to change minds, open hearts, elicit smiles, soothe troubled souls, foster tolerance over hate — all through the power of song.
Two hundred voices strong, with an active membership that ranges in age from early 20s to late 70s, GMCW is the LGBT community’s national cultural emissary. There are other incredible gay men’s choruses out there, sure. But they’re not based in the heart of Washington. They weren’t gathered, at a moment’s notice, voices rising, on the steps of the Supreme Court the day marriage equality became law of the land. They weren’t singing with Josh Groban and Heather Headley at the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president on a frigid January day. And they weren’t recently in Cuba, building bridges with song, showing the residents of a closed-off Communist society that in order to be truly proud, one must be fully out.
These other choruses might be good — great, even — but they are not iconic. And they are not ours.
“Years ago, LGBT choruses were thought of as either maudlin or silly,” says Robert Agnello, a 46-year-old baritone who has sung with the chorus for 14 years. “But the quality in all LGBT choruses has raised in the last decade. The movement has truly matured. And we are enjoying amazing music as a result. GMCW has led this effort, especially being here, at the political forefront, in D.C.”
We wanted to celebrate 35 years of the Gay Men’s Chorus by turning our eyes and ears to its membership, to the men who give it voice (and the woman who so capably shapes that voice). Thirty-six members participated in an open photo call at the Wonder Bread Factory last Sunday afternoon, a few hours prior to rehearsing for this Sunday’s 35th Anniversary concert at the Kennedy Center, featuring an appearance by Gallim Dance. We also asked the membership to talk about their time in the chorus and what it means to them. We found that even as individuals their voices are as one, evoking a perfect unifying sentiment, beautifully summed up by Cliff Gilbert, 56, who has performed with the chorus since 2008.
“When people think of the chorus,” says Gilbert, “I hope they think about equality, justice and freedom for all minority groups in our backyard, and also worldwide. I want people to think we are a progressive group rich with diverse values, race, religious beliefs and, surprisingly, political affiliations.”
Music to our ears.
METRO WEEKLY: What prompted you join the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington?
MIKE ALLEN (34, 6 Years, Bass): I saw the chorus give an amazingly powerful performance at Church of the Epiphany back in 2010. Right then and there I said, “I have to sing with this group!”
PATRICK NELSON (48, 7 Years, Baritone): I was not a member, but I was dating a member who passed away. While I had a few friends in GMCW at the time, I was overwhelmed at how many of the guys that I didn’t know reached out to me to make sure I was doing okay after Derek’s death. They invited me to their homes, to dinner, to a rehearsal. About a year later, a member who had become a close friend told me it was time to audition.
TODD PAUL (50, 22 Years, Bass): I’ve always loved performing and doing theater, so when a friend who was a member of the chorus’ fundraising arm said he had the feeling it would be a perfect fit, I thought, “What the heck? I’ll audition.” I got in and 21 years later, it still means as much to me as it did then.
PAUL NEGRON (35, 2 Years, Baritone): I moved to D.C. in 2013, and I was initially looking to make new friends and get back to one of my loves, singing. Joining the chorus has been such an amazing experience. I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life — and I get to perform in some of the best venues in the city.
BEN HARRIS : I was looking for a chorus where I could sing both contemporary and classical choral music in a setting where I felt comfortable being who I was.
LUCAS REGNER (25, 1 Year, Tenor 2): Many members will say “community.” For me, it wasn’t that at all — community was a fun by-product. I really wanted to learn more about music. About the songs that everyone seems to know, but people like myself never heard of. And I wanted to learn how to read music. Yes, you can pass the audition without knowing how to read music. And yes, I now spend double the time trying to learn it.
MATTHEW WILLIAMSON (32, 2 Years, Tenor 2): I saw GMCW perform at Lisner a few years ago and I was intrigued — I wanted to be a part of a group that showcased my talents and allowed me to be comfortable in my own skin. In February 2014, I went on a date with a guy who told me he was auditioning. He sent me the info. He did not make it in, but a week later I auditioned and got in. We stopped dating a short time after.
MW: The chorus is known for its signature baubles. What’s your favorite bauble?
JOSH WILLETT (26, 2 Years, Bass): Every new member has a buddy to chaperone them to make sure they are comfortable. For your first concert, your buddy gives you a bauble. Even though I know it’s something every new member receives, my first one was still very heartwarming.
LUCAS REGNER: Oh man, I know the baubles are an important part — I just haven’t quite gotten it. For my first performance, I remade my Swedish military tag into a bauble, thinking it would suffice. Luckily, a member had a spare bauble to loan me.
BEN HARRIS (35, 1 Year, Baritone): My favorite is a simple heart shape that really resonates with me. That bauble reminds me that putting love into everything we do doesn’t have to be difficult.
JOHN-PAUL HAYWORTH (37, 11 Years, Bass): I have a lot of baubles — I tend to buy them in bulk or at auctions. I love being able to share them with my chorus brothers. I often never see them again, but the point is the camaraderie of sharing.
MATT HOLLAND (42, 7 Years, Tenor 1): A large, rhinestone-covered Decepticon bauble from the Transformers cartoon. I’m a little bit evil, and I’m okay with that.
CHARLES BUTLER (63, 35 Years, Tenor 1): A seahorse bauble given to me by my wife. The seahorse is the only male who gives birth, so it’s become a sort of totem for our household, as my wife is transgender.
PATRICK NELSON: The year I joined there were several of us that went shopping for a bauble. We all decided to buy matching sparkly snowflakes. Seven years later, I buy one for my buddies and they buy the same one for theirs. It’s become a tradition in my “family line” of buddies.
JAY BALL (57, 15 Years, Tenor 2): My favorite bauble is a relatively simple sunburst. I bought it at a sales booth run by a lesbian couple at a Gay Rodeo in Oklahoma City.
THEA KANO (50, 12 Years, Tenor 1): My Swarovski crystal stilettos. One of our very talented former members, Soo Park, created them.
JIM WILLIAMS (58, 22 Years, Tenor 1): A Star Trek communicator bauble. Because I’m a nerd.
DONALD McARTHUR (79, 10 Years, Tenor 2): My bauble was on sale at CVS for three bucks but looks like a million dollars.
D’ARCEE NEAL (30, 4 Years, Baritone): I have an oversized, lopsided crystal heart bauble that I love, because it symbolizes how I felt about the chorus. I came to D.C. without a job, without friends, struggling, and in the chorus I found an instant family. As a gay disabled person of color, I also feel so conspicuous whenever we’re performing like I’m the only one there. The bauble reminds me that everyone here is loved.
MW: The chorus has performed at several historic occasions. What was the most memorable for you?
CHRISTOPHER GRIEDER (52, 26 Years, Baritone): The “We Are One” performance for President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009. It was a 15-degree day and Heather Headley and Josh Groban sang in front of a wall separating us. It slid away to reveal us as we joined them in singing. The thousands of people gathered, as well as those watching, and the president being right there, made for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
JIM WILLIAMS: When we sang at President Obama’s inaugural concert, I glanced briefly at the Obamas while we were singing. Mrs. Obama was busy with the girls, getting their coats off, and none of them were paying any attention to us. I didn’t care in the least. It was still a great honor to be there!
DAN KAUFMAN (50, 26 Years, Bass): We were backstage at the “We Are One” concert when the music started for our number with Josh Groban and Heather Headley, and I started to panic. The stage manager yelled “GO!” and a hundred of us ran, single file, up the narrow scaffold stairs. About a half-second before the rolling wall was pulled back to reveal us, the last member got in place. There was no time to be nervous by then.
JIM GRUSCHUS (50, 21 Years, Bass): At Obama’s inauguration it was cold — very cold. We gave Ms. Headley some of the chemical hand-warmer packets organizers were giving out. She thanked us profusely and stuffed them right into her bra.
BRIAN DAY (42, 11 Years, Tenor 1): I was there singing with my chorus brothers when the Supreme Court announced Marriage Equality for all. I had never been so proud, not to be just a gay — and married — man, but also to be a part of GMCW and to put into song the many feelings and emotions many of us had on that historic day. Sometimes we, as humans, are better at expressing ourselves in song than any other medium.
CHARLES BUTLER: The anticipation of the Supreme Court decision on the steps of the SCOTUS was palpable. We arrived early, it was very hot, and we sang more than a dozen times, “Make Them Hear You.” Very few hecklers were there, though one soul just stood there with a sign — a silent witness to a differing opinion. We sang, it seemed, every 10 minutes for two hours until an aide brought word of the decision.
D’ARCEE NEAL: At the Supreme Court, as we moved to the steps to sing, I got yelled at and spit on by a few of the protesters screaming in my face. I literally had to stop for a moment as these people stood around me screaming that I should burn in Hell or die. I thought, “Is this what my parents went through during the Civil Rights movement?” It was a surreal moment.
CHIPPER DEAN (40, 4 Years, Bass): We’ve sung our National Anthem countless times in our lives, but it took on a new, personal meaning to sing it at SCOTUS in 2013 when DOMA was overturned and again in 2015 when marriage equality was affirmed. We sang later that evening in 2015 on the Town Patio and inside, where patrons joined us to sing the Anthem and listened quietly, some crying, as we sang “Make Them Hear You.”
MIKE FILA (34, 4 Years, Bass): I hadn’t directly participated in any historic event for the LGBT community until the decision on marriage equality. Singing with the chorus on the steps of the Supreme Court was such a galvanizing experience. I felt so connected to the LGBT community and so proud to be there with people I love, singing about something deeply personal. It made me feel a part of something so much bigger than myself.
JAMI RODGERS (36, 3 Years, Tenor 2): Singing on the steps of the Supreme Court was definitely a memorable experience. This was really my first moment witnessing how our message of equality and the power of music can impact a perfect stranger. So many in the crowd showed so much emotion in anticipation of the ruling. I remember that it was difficult to sing with a lump in my throat, being overcome by the joy of the moment.
DON GRIESHEIMER (58, 16 Years, Tenor 2): My heart pumps faster and fills with pride each time I set foot on the infield at National Stadium to sing the national anthem.
TODD PAUL: In June of 1998, GMCW went on a performance tour of Scandinavia. We sang in Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the hall in Oslo where MLK received his Nobel Peace Prize, and in Stockholm, Sweden. The experience of seeing how we were received was amazing!
KEVIN MORRIS (39, 2 Years, Baritone): I was part of the group that went to Cuba last year. It’s hard to articulate just how life changing that experience was. To be invited by [Fidel Castro’s niece] Mariela Castro to promote LGBTQ equality in a communist country is very surreal. But meeting the people of Havana, many of them elderly, who, with tears in their eyes, said things like, “I’ve been waiting 60 years for you” had a lasting, profound impact.
PATRICK NELSON: Cuba was an unbelievable experience. We sang for the Ambassador and for Mariela Castro. We sang at a senior center and a community center in the barrios of Havana. But the most intense experience was sitting at the very first concert where a youth chorus opened the show with the Cuban Anthem then transitioned into the Star Spangled Banner. What we were doing became very real.
CHASE MAGGIANO (32, 3 Years, Baritone): I was fortunate to be in Cuba with GMCW the same week that diplomatic relations were being restored. We were embraced not only because we were gay — though that certainly was part of it — but because we were American. It may have been the first time that GMCW’s identity was not LGBT-focused first.
JAY BALL: The most memorable moment I recall was at the 2002 Kennedy Center Honors when we sang “That’s What Friends Are For” with Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach to Elizabeth Taylor. At the end of the song, Ms. Taylor stood when she barely could and blew kisses to the stage. Though there were many luminaries there, including the President and First Lady, there was no doubt who was the “star” that night.
JERRY BLACKMON (37, 6 Years, Tenor 1): Everything the chorus does is historic, honestly. We perform regularly in Lincoln Theatre in the heart of “black Broadway.” We sing on the same stage where Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington performed. We’re part of the pantheon of the District.
STU GOLDSTONE (42, 15 Years, Baritone): We’ve had the privilege of performing at many high-profile events, such as Obama’s inauguration, the Kennedy Center Honors, and so on. But to me the most important times are when we sing to honor our own fallen members. Performing for Thom Gibb’s memorial in 2011, for Michael Baker in 2010, for Peter Fox in 2012, for Bob Wonneberger in 2002. These are more special to me than those “historic” events.
MW: Recall your most memorable role or performance.
STU GOLDSTONE: Two months after I joined the chorus, I was cast as Dorothy in our all-male production of The Wizard of Oz. I had been pretty quiet up until that point, so when the cast was announced, I think a lot of chorus members were like, “Who?”
JOHN KNAPP (55, 2 Years, Bass): Singing the opening solo in “Bare Necessities” backed by a line of bears. It was my second concert with GMCW.
JOSH WILLETT: The Pride 2015 concert. In March 2015, my older brother unexpectedly passed away. He loved music, and loved to rap. As a way to honor him, I decided to audition for a rap solo to “Glory” by Common and John Legend. Before every performance, I would think about my brother and perform the song as if he were the one performing.
CLIFF GILBERT (56, 8 Years, Baritone): When Christopher Peterson was doing a spot-on imitation of Judy Garland and did some on stage improvisation as he was losing his voice. He was so accurate, it was if I had a chance to perform “Get Happy” with Judy.
D’ARCEE NEAL: Playing the role of Ursula, the Sea Witch in our “When You Wish” concert. When it was announced, I disregarded even auditioning because the role called for drag makeup, a giant dress, heels. And I thought with my wheelchair and my disability I wouldn’t be able to do it. But I tried out and when I won the role, it really exposed me to a different side of performance that I’ll never forget.
MATT HOLLAND: For me, it was probably when I sang “If You Were Gay” from Avenue Q at the Kennedy Center a few years ago. There I am, in my big solo debut at the Kennedy Center, with one hand inside a puppet, and the other making jerk-off motions with its puppet hand. That’s high-class entertainment right there, folks!
JERRY BLACKMON: Grease. I’ve never experienced a show as chaotic as that one. Injuries, ambulances called, seat of the pants management. It was totally thrilling. Thing of the past now. I’ve helped to professionalize the management side of productions.
JAMI RODGERS: My first concert was the 2013 holiday show. My mother had just passed away and Christmas was her favorite holiday. I invited my father, his two sisters, and my sister and her husband. As we fanned out into the Lincoln Theatre’s aisles to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” while holding candles, I felt her presence and imagined how proud she must be that I was affirming who I was and doing something I love in making music.
MATTHEW WILLIAMSON: Our recent Holiday show “ReWrapped.” I didn’t sing with the full chorus, but I had five dance numbers. I was dressed as “Rudolph” in high heels, kissed a guy in another number, and in just my boxers for the opening. My mom was in the second row for one of those shows. Just eight weeks prior, we weren’t speaking due to differences with my sexuality. Having her there meant everything.
JIM GRUSCHUS: Charlie Brown. Metro Weekly wrote a great review.
DARRYL WALLER (54, 1 Year, Tenor 1): Being from a conservative area, I remember during the Spring concert, “When You Wish,” the duet between two members and they were to kiss at the end of the selection. I thought, “This is the place for me.” It gave me permission to be who I really am.
PAUL NEGRON: I was honored to be part of our cabaret show this year, “The S* Show.” I’m singing “That’s Life,” which epitomizes some of the struggles and ups and downs I’ve gone through in my life. I endured a rather rocky coming out process that involved getting kicked out of my fraternity for being gay. Getting to tell my story and then sing this song in front of my parents at the Kennedy Center was a dream.
ROB FINN (39, 2 Years, Bass): Singing “True Colors” to an audience of hundreds of senior citizens, mostly women, at a huge senior center in Havana, Cuba, last summer was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. The love coming from that crowd, knowing we are Americans, knowing we are gay, was overwhelming. They remembered a time before the blockade. They sang and danced for and with us, too. Unforgettable.
MW: The Gay Men’s Chorus has performed with some huge guest stars. Do you have a backstage anecdote to share?
TOM BOEKE (56, 10 Years, Tenor 1): I remember singing at the Kennedy Center for Jerry Herman, and during rehearsal, we were lined up behind the amazing Broadway talent in front of us. When it came time for us to start singing at the end of the number, the wall of sound coming at them made all of them turn around and just look at us in amazement. We could tell they were all thinking “WOW!” That was pretty special.
MARIO SENGCO (44, 3 Years, Tenor 1): Singing with Laura Benanti was a gift. Not only is she a great talent, what made it special was her personal connection to the chorus. Her [late] uncle, Bob Wonneberger, was a founding member. From the moment she stepped out to greet us, we knew how she felt about GMCW — there was an immediate connection with her. It also made [artistic director] Jeff Buhrman’s departure even more poignant for me. It was one of the best performances.
THEA KANO: When I told Laura Benanti that I had seen her 6 times front row center in Gypsy on Broadway — I could read her thought bubble as “great, another stalker.”
KIRK SOBELL (33, 2 Years, Baritone): Laura Benanti. She was so warm, high-spirited, and supportive of the chorus. She wasn’t just a guest star, she was family. Plus, she made a vagina joke on stage at the Kennedy Center. Pretty badass, if you ask me.
ROMM GATONGAY (39, 2 Years, Bass): Maiya Sykes, who was a contestant on The Voice and is now a powerhouse singer with Postmodern Jukebox. She sang John Legend’s portion of “Glory” while I rapped a verse. She was so gracious and friendly. At the end of our last performance, she grabbed my hand and encouraged me to take a bow. That is just one example of the kind of encouragement that I get from this wonderful organization.
CHARLES BUTLER: Seventh anniversary concert at the Kennedy Center. Maureen Forrester, a Canadian opera singer, was our guest soloist. She was standing in the hallway, and I commented on her dress. Her response was “I was sewn into this costume, I can’t sit down or it would split wide open.” She was regal and funny and charming and put everyone at ease.
DAN KAUFMAN: When we rehearsed with Barbara Cook, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were to clear the hall after our numbers with her so that she could rehearse with her pianist. We were just about to leave the stage when we saw her whisper to Jeff, our director at the time. He then said that, if we wanted to, we could sit quietly in the audience while she rehearsed. We wanted to — and did!
CHRISTOPHER GRIEDER: An instrumentalist who traveled with Ellen Greene had just come backstage after a truly horrendous sound check before our show with her. He said, and I quote, “Does anyone have a gun?” Ellen is famous for being difficult and, boy, did she show that on stage for the sound check. I don’t think anyone who performed with her back then would deny the level of insanity.
RUSS CAPPS (50, 17 Years, Bass): Well, Ellen Greene was a complete trainwreck and quite possibly certifiably insane, but you didn’t hear that from me.
MW: Talk about why the Gay Men’s Chorus is so relevant to our LGBT culture.
BRIAN DAY: We are able to reach audiences who otherwise may not have had much interaction with the LGBT community. We sing everywhere, from homeless shelters and public libraries to retirement communities. The outreach we do to help educate others on LGBT issues is tremendous. Not to mention our GenOUT Chorus, made up entirely of high school-aged children. I love that about GMCW.
ROBERT AGNELLO (46, 14 Years, Baritone): The fight isn’t over. We have marriage and adoption, but no laws against discrimination in employment, housing, commerce. Our voice still needs to be heard not only for us, but for civil rights, women’s rights, disabled rights, workers’ rights. With every concert we make the weak stronger, the hard softer, and the stranger our friend.
DON GRIESHEIMER: Though progress can be seen throughout the United States, there are still those who live in areas where to be visible is to risk life and limb. It’s those residents and their neighbors that we need to show our love through song.
ROBERT BOAZ (45, 19 Years, Baritone): We hear about LGBT discrimination every day. Maybe not always here in D.C., although hate crimes continue to be committed on our brothers and sisters here. In other parts of the U.S. and in other countries, LGBT people are still experiencing discrimination and hate. GMCW will be relevant until those things stop. Even then, there will always be a reason to sing.
JERRY BLACKMON: GMCW reaches people through music, which is one of the most powerful, resonant and deepest ways to move a person. The songs the chorus sings impact people at a guttural level. We speak to souls and move the spirit. There aren’t many other groups quite so influential.
SAM LEE (32, 2 Years, Bass): We sing for those whose voice has been silenced. The voices we lost to suicide and violence against them. No amount of social progress will bring back that silenced voice, so it’s our mission to make sure they are heard. That’s why “Make Them Hear You” is our anthem.
TOM BOEKE: There are still so many people that need to hear our strong and proud voice for equality. You can see our effect in the faces of the young GenOUT singers who see a brighter future for themselves. You can see it in the faces of fans at a Nats Game after the National Anthem, who likely have never been to one of our concerts, but always remark “That was amazing” as we walk off the field.
CHRISTOPHER GRIEDER: It is an affinity group that presents the gay experience to people who wouldn’t otherwise know of it. It brings awareness of gay people to communities which don’t have a gay community. It reinforces to the gay community that we do things worthy of pride, worthy of acknowledgement, and supportive of more than just gay people. It has a place even if the world fully integrates.
DAN KAUFMAN: We still have stories to tell, we still have fights to fight. I can’t tell you how many guys have used their participation in the chorus as a catalyst and conduit for coming out to their families. Political gains are one thing, and they’re awesome. But we will always be coming out, always be needing to tell our stories, always growing.
SHAWN MORRIS (40, 1 Year, Baritone): Not only is it super important to the community we serve, but also to the gay men that need it. There are men in the chorus that will tell you that in one way or another the chorus saved their life, or at the very least, changed it. I’m one of those. The chorus has been a real life changer for me, and most probably a life saver as well.
ROB FINN: The story of our community’s progress is still being written. Battles are still being fought. It would be tragic to become complacent now, and even more tragic to forget our history. So many struggled and sacrificed so much to achieve this tremendous progress. We owe it to them to keep telling their stories and to make sure that nobody forgets where we’ve come from.
THEA KANO: We have made tremendous progress, but there are still so many people who need and want to hear us. Each time we go beyond the Beltway we are reminded of that. Until all minds are open to equality for all, our work will not be done.
JJ VERA (25, 2 Years, Tenor 2): To say that there has been tremendous progress is an understatement, but at the same time, to say the work is done is hardly true. There are millions of people that need to hear our message, and we’re getting to them one by one. Our audience is slowly growing, but to touch the soul of even one person has always been the goal.
LUCAS REGNER: I daresay that a majority of people in the chorus, and people who see our shows, weren’t born and raised in D.C. So the 23-year-old grad who just moved to D.C. from Alabama might find messages of love and acceptance in our show that the governor failed to communicate to him back home. We’re here for him.
JAMI RODGERS: As long as there is bias, hatred, and inequality, we will continue the push to change hearts and minds through our music. For every divisive law that is passed, child that is bullied, or demeaning joke that is told, we will raise our voices in song to counteract hatred. In the end, we could all use a little more love in the world.
KEN WOODHOUSE (35, 2 Years, Tenor 2): As Thea always tells us before a performance, “Never miss an opportunity to make an impact. Someone in our audience needs to hear you today.”
JIM GRUSCHUS: We’re ambassadors of gay fabulousness. Society needs us.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s 35th Anniversary Concert, featuring guests Gallim Dance and the New York City Master Chorale, is Sunday, May 8 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 to $81. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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