Singing Superbly, Gay Men’s Chorus Praises Queer History In ‘Unbreakable’
Composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa’s Unbreakable is an interesting but uneven mix of pageant, oratorio, and musical theater styles illuminating both well-known and relatively obscure events and people in American LGBTQ+ history. Lippa’s work, first performed by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in 2018, received a pandemic-delayed East Coast premiere from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. (GMCW) on June 4. Their choral sound, as always, was superb.
The lesser known characters and stories are the most fascinating. As Lem Billings, a closeted gay man who was John F. Kennedy’s longtime best friend, Michael E. McGovern sang a compelling “The Room Next Door,” developing his character as someone who found a degree fulfillment, with an undertone of frustration, in a life adjacent to the charismatic president.
McGovern also had a comedic and satirical moment in “Purple Menace” as Dr. Charles Socarides, the prominent New York psychiatrist who once said, “There’s no such thing as a happy gay man.” Socarides maintained his belief that homosexuality could be “cured” by psychiatry, long after the American Psychological Association’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its definition of mental illness. As one program note points out, one of his sons, who is gay, became a prominent gay rights advocate.
In the 1920s, the Harvard University administration expelled several students for being gay. In “Already Dead”, Joval Martin sings with emotion of the despair that Lippa imagines one of them, Cyril Wilcox, may have felt before committing suicide.
The 1950s “Lavender Scare” was a much bigger purge. The federal government fired or forced out of office thousands of employees for being gay, believing them to be at risk of communist blackmail. This shameful episode has already been the subject of several good books and at least one play (Topher Payne’s Perfect layout). Lippa handles the issue through one of the show’s least successful numbers, “Executive Order,” in which the chorus repeatedly intones “get rid of them” before turning into a rendition of the anthem. Soviet national.
The highlight of the evening for the choir was “41”. The play takes its title from an article that appeared in the back pages of the New York Times in July 1981 reporting that 41 homosexuals had been identified as having mysterious cancer. A screening noted that the item appeared just five days after the initial GMCW rehearsal. Most of the piece is a tender, harmonious elegy to those who have died of AIDS, combined with a plea from the afflicted (“Heal me, free me from this hell”) and a countdown to the first victims of the plague like a man places 41 roses in an urn. Musically and dramatically effective, “41” could rightly become a staple of choral performance outside the context of Unbreakable.
The presentation of the music is most successful when, as in ’41’ and some of the other choral and solo passages, the orchestral accompaniment is kept rather light. This is not a criticism of the orchestra’s playing which, under Thea Kano’s direction, was excellent throughout. But the orchestra frequently drowned out the singers, especially in large numbers, making their lyrics difficult to understand. I often found myself wishing for surtitles.
More well-known personalities also receive their due. In a pageant-like anthem, “All People,” Martin articulates the core beliefs of civil rights movement icon Bayard Rustin. Sylvia Rivera, a transgender/drag activist who, along with Martha P. Johnson, was a key figure in the Stonewall Uprising and the early years of the Pride Marches, gets a good Broadway diva treatment from Nova Y. Payton in “Sylvia “. In “Just a Woman,” smart villain Gertrude Stein (Amy Broadbent) sings both wryly and lovingly about life and her relationship with her partner Alice B. Toklas. “Love is love is love,” she repeats.
In the title track and in the conclusion “Good Things Take Time”, the combined musical forces movingly express Lippa’s belief that, despite obstacles and bigotry, the LGBTQ+ community will prevail. During the show’s latest issue, images of hopeful moments in the community’s history are projected against the backdrop: joyful images from the Pride Parade, same-sex weddings, photo series with Presidents Obama and Biden, Pete Buttigieg and her husband.
The start of Pride Month is an appropriate time for this musical message of celebration of what has been accomplished, often at great expense, over many years of hard work. But the song is not over and the work must continue. Given the proliferation of attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, whether by banning books or making gender-affirming medical care unavailable, “Love is love is love” is a good sign to wear in this month of June. The same goes for a sign I saw at the Martinsburg, West Virginia Pride Festival earlier today: “Pride is always a protest.”
Duration: 1h15 without intermission.
The program for Unbreakable is online here.
The next production of GMCW, It’s a GAS, a cabaret celebrating music from the Jazz Age, will be presented on June 26, 2022 at 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. at Capital One Hall, 7750 Capital One Tower Road, Tysons, VA. For more information and tickets, visit on line.