“Okay. Put me on the spot.”
Thea Kano had already rattled off a handful of Whitney Houston classics that factor into “Whitney,” the upcoming concert by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. But when asked if a particular favorite was also part of the setlist, the choral group’s artistic director came up short.
“I was gonna say, I’d be surprised if anyone walks away saying my favorite song wasn’t in there,” Kano says. “Well, I guess I stand corrected. But if you had a list of maybe your top three, I’m pretty confident [at least two will] be represented.”
“So Emotional” is in there, and Kano adds, “That’s gonna be a lot of fun with 17th Street Dance.” The chorus’s in-house dance troupe will also perform during a rendition of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
Despite the bitter fact that we lost her far too soon, at only 48 years of age, Houston left a diverse and extensive repertoire, with far too many hits to even attempt to cover all in one concert. For certain songs not included in the final program, Kano says, “maybe I didn’t come across a choral arrangement of that one. Or maybe it just, for whatever reason, didn’t make the cut. You know, we want to make sure that it doesn’t become a three-hour show.”
When asked about a particular favorite or highlight from the program, Kano calls up one of Houston’s hits from The Bodyguard.
“‘Run to You’ is my favorite to conduct,” she says. “It’s very choral. It’s just so beautiful! And the soloist and the chorus bring so much emotion to it. It really has a journey. The arrangement starts simple and it just really gets nice and big where it needs to.
“I’m also looking forward to ‘I Will Always Love You’ — and yes, that is in the show,” she says. “I can imagine the emails we’d get if we didn’t include that one.”
Planning a show for a 200-member choral group performing nothing but songs associated with the late Houston presented some specific challenges, different from the Judy Garland-themed program, which was the focus of the first concert in the current “Phenomenal” season, which in June will focus attention on Dolly Parton.
“It’s a choral program,” says Kano. “You don’t want it to sound choral-like, you want it to sound like Whitney.”
Ultimately, for a few selections, the only way not to sound choral is to keep the chorus on the sidelines. “A couple of the pieces will be strictly solo with no chorus.” Others could use more than the chorus to keep things lively and up — perfect for an additional boost from 17th Street Dance.
And still others sound best with a little bit of everything. Take “How Will I Know,” for instance, which becomes a full production number involving the entire company.
“There is a soloist who starts out and continues to sing as the chorus joins to really bring that nice big sound that the chorus is capable of doing.”
Another full production number centers on a standard, “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” that Kano expects will surprise many fans when they hear it.
“Even before we held auditions, someone said, ‘Now that can’t possibly be a chorus number. That has to be a solo, because there are so many words going by so quickly.'” Kano concedes the challenge is real. “We’ve been working on that section, a lot,” she says. “Slowly, and getting it faster and faster. Lots of diction.”
Another critical aspect of a Gay Men’s Chorus concert focused on Houston that distinguishes it from other artist-focused programs, including this season’s Garland and Parton revues, concerns Houston’s sexuality — an issue that others, especially Houston’s family, would just as soon skim over.
In brushing up on Houston’s life, one thing that stood out for Kano was “the pressure on her. And that’s actually a point that we’re going to be touching on when we acknowledge that she was a member of the queer community: That she had this pressure [from] the music industry and her family saying, ‘You gotta start dating men. You gotta be seen holding hands with men.’
“She was the biggest voice — literally, her nickname was The Voice — and to be silenced at the same time. The irony is incredible.”
During rehearsals for the show, particularly while working with the selected soloists, “I just keep stressing to them, ‘Don’t try to sound like Whitney. Don’t try to do exactly what she does. Because she was so brilliant at communicating through her riffs. And you can’t emulate those note for note. The more you try to be like her, the more you’re going to be compared. And again, you’re not gonna hit the mark because she was brilliant. She was phenomenal.”
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington present “Whitney” on Saturday, March 11, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 12, at 3 p.m. At the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $65. Visit www.gmcw.org or call 202-888-0050.
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