As quick preface, my enormous thanks go out to all the artists involved in making Unbreakable possible. Additionally, thanks to Ghostlight Records and to the team of supporters who made this recording possible. Finally, to Dr. Timothy Seelig and The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. You are, without a doubt, Unbreakable.
The task was this: Write a follow-up to my concert work I Am Harvey Milk for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus to premiere in June 2018. My thoughts turned to August Wilson. Why? August Wilson wrote a 10-play cycle about African-American experience in the 20th century. I thought, “What if I wrote a series of songs/choral pieces that chronicled the LGBTQ experience of the American Century leading up to today?” Very quickly the word “Unbreakable” sprang to mind. Why? This is a word that, for me, describes the LGBTQ community. When we hold hands, when we stay close together as a community, we are unbreakable. There have been challenges, yes. There have been diseases and distortions, yes. But, to paraphrase Mr. Sondheim, we’re still here.
You can stream and download Unbreakable here!
This movement—the only one that defies or delays the chronology of the entire work—is a song about the word “gay” itself. Where did it come from? Why do we use it to describe ourselves? Why can’t it mean “happy” or “carefree” anymore? The etymology of this word fascinated me. “It started in France/Like the finer things do/And it meant ‘full of joy.’” For me, it still does.
“Go To War”
Many of our gay brothers and sisters have fought in every American war. During World War I they certainly weren’t out, but they certainly were there. The chorus, in this movement, represents the voice of the larger culture, the culture that says “Be a man/Mister Someone/Be a man/ They’ll omit you don’t fit their master plan.” LGBTQ troops, even to this day, don’t get equal treatment and yet they put their lives on the line. As a certain president might inveigh: “Unfair!”
The story of Harvard’s Secret Court of 1920 was one I stumbled on. Briefly: In 1920, the leadership of Harvard University set out to systematically expose and expel any known (or discovered) homosexual students, faculty, or staff. A young student named Cyril B. Wilcox was such a young man. He had been having an affair with an older man in his 30s in Boston. When this affair was discovered, the Secret Court brought Cyril up on charges, where he faced a tribunal of professors along with the president of the university. He was ultimately found “guilty of homosexual practices” and the president, after having coerced Cyril into writing a letter to his parents explaining what happened, followed up with a letter of his own to make sure Cyril would forever be shamed. Ultimately, Cyril committed suicide as a result of this public debacle. “Already Dead” is my attempt to inhabit what Cyril might have been thinking and/or feeling as he faced the onslaught of the leadership of Harvard. To this day, there has been no formal apology from the university.
“Just A Woman”
Gertrude Stein was, by the 1930s, living in Paris and running what might have been described as the salon in Paris. Her art collection was as impressive as her wit. Her celebrated and oft- chronicled relationship with Alice B. Toklas has long been esteemed for its longevity and its high- profile status during a time when people didn’t speak of lesbian relationships in public. Stein was a writer with an acid tongue, and in “Just A Woman” she uses it. I also wanted to show her emotional side (granted, my imagined version of her emotional side), therefore, the middle section where she sings directly to Alice. “Alice, my dear/If we opened a door/What did we hope would pour through? Love!” I like how the “love is love” section of this piece goes on and on towards the end. Seems to me that word can bear that much repeating!
“The Room Next Door”
Lem Billings was JFK’s best friend from their days at boarding school. He followed Jack all the way to the White House and was a fixture in the Kennedy family. In fact, when JFK was assassinated, Lem was sometimes derisively, always privately, referred to as “one of the Kennedy widows.” Was Lem in love with JFK? There’s no hard evidence. Did they ever, even as schoolboys, have any kind of romance? There’s no hard evidence. But people are people and feelings are feelings and, well, Lem surely felt something. It’s that something I’m writing about here. Here was a guy who devoted himself, often to the detriment of his own well-being, to the man who would be king. A worthy goal to be sure, but Lem had little to no personal life. Even Jackie, in my imagination, had something to say about it.
The Lavender Scare was a legitimized, government-backed and supported attempt to root out gays and lesbians from serving in any capacity of employment in the U.S. government. In 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, effectively banning all known or suspected homosexuals. The criteria for “suspicion” was, as you can imagine, lax. Guy Gabrielson, then Chair of the Republican National Committee, stated simply: “Sexual perverts who have infiltrated our government in recent years are perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists.” Yes. Read that again. The Chair of the RNC said this. In 1953. This movement starts with a low pedal tone—the ominous sound of stasis—that, after a long period, lands on the chorus singing “Get rid of them/Just get rid of them.” There’s something devious and powerful about a large group of gay singers singing the sentiments of those who would see them eradicated. The piece shifts and, suddenly, the Russians are singing the anthem of the USSR while some of the men sing about communist agitators. Then the piece shifts again to the confessions of an individual who had tried to serve his country but had been thwarted. It’s the point of view of a man who had fought in Korea, who had served with honor, and who was, like many were, thrown out of public service without a second thought, a severance package, a pension.
Bayard Rustin was an out, gay civil rights leader who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. His story and name are less well-known than that of Melgar Evers or Jesse Jackson or Malcolm X. And yet he was a radically important figure. “Radical” in part because he was an out gay, black man who insisted on being seen. His remarkable philosophy led him to conclude there were five things necessary for life in an equitable society: non-violent tactics; constitutional means; democratic procedures; respect for human personality; a belief that all people are one. Agreed!
“A Purple Menace/The Happy Homosexual”
Dr. Charles Socarides was, in the 1970s, an esteemed leading American psychiatrist, who believed homosexuality could be cured. He believed conversion therapy was real, could and did work, and that he could spot a homosexual quite easily. He also famously said, “There is no such thing as a happy homosexual.” As he saw it, homosexuality was a “purple menace” that needed to be eradicated and, as he believed, psychiatry was the way to do it. My fantasy musings here suggest that perhaps the good doctor was hiding some of his own feelings behind his earnest and dangerous dogma. His son, Richard Socarides, is gay and an outspoken advocate of and for the LGBTQ community. Talk about a purple menace!
On July 3, 1981, The New York Times printed an article, buried somewhere in the A section of the paper, whose headline stated “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” Little did anyone know at the time, this “rare cancer” was caused by AIDS which, as of 1981, was unnamed and unknown. In wanting to pay homage to all those lost to AIDS I wrote a piece that starts with the chorus singing about those 41 men but switches point of view to become just one of those men begging for healing. And even that, in my thinking, wasn’t enough. Following that cry for help is the singing of the numbers 1 through 41 by the entire chorus, as the orchestra rages on with the melody previously sung as a lullaby. These numbers, representing the unknown names of 41 souls, finally lead back to that simple prayer: “Heal me, someone/Heal me/Free me from this hell.” And, as the chorus holds the word “hell” in unison—a musical notion of togetherness—the orchestra tries to muscle in with several ugly chords. It can’t, however, break the spirit of that unison note, sung by hundreds of men who refuse to be broken. This movement allows for what I think theatre songs do best: play with dark and light at the same time. This piece is in a major key despite the horrors of the text that might suggest darker or moodier music. This conflict—between the images conjured by the text and the hope and uplift conjured by the music—is what I believe makes for something unique, moving, and ultimately life-affirming.
What else could follow something like “41” but a declaration of survival? “Survivors” felt necessary as it spoke of and spoke to all of us who suffered great losses, whose lives were irrevocably changed by HIV/AIDS, and, most importantly, those of us who chose to stand “hand in hand in hand in hand” to face whatever was next for us—surely (hopefully) nothing that would follow could ever be worse. The year 1996 brought with it the anti-retroviral “cocktail” drugs that began to work, that actually gave people hope of surviving this plague. I’ve heard from many members of our community. Some, who endured such painful losses, felt they might never love again. They did. Some, who believed their lives would soon be over, flourished. Cheating death isn’t a momentary victory. It’s an ongoing process of renewal, of gratitude, of growth. We are survivors, as this piece asserts:
When they asked us what we gave every life we tried to save
We remembered and repeated
What we did and where we stood when the world was growing black none among us turned his back
We remembered and repeated what we could: We are good
We are good
We are good!
We are good, indeed. And every one of us deserves the chance to express our goodness in our own way. Enter Sylvia Rivera, trans activist. Sylvia was a fixture in the LGBTQ community for a long time, served the community, and lived her life her own singular way. This piece is a celebration of her queerness and her defiantly joyful and in-your-face approach toward gender identity, toward pronouns, and about facing the world with dignity. She asks, in this song, “You wanna know what you should call me?” I call her amazing, fantastic, beautiful, and unbreakable. I wish she were with us still.
“Gay Word – Reprise”
This was an opportunity to bring all the themes of the evening together: loss, love, hope, fear, those who believe in us, and those who would rather we simply went away. I love writing counterpoint and this little piece is loaded with it. The last section is the final reprise of the soft- shoe from “Gay Word” that is later reprised in “The Happy Homosexual.” Here, it’s the soloists, rather than the chorus, singing it. And there are those giant rests in between each line. Why? I want to make the audience uncomfortable in the silence. I want them to consider what they just heard and to give them time to consider it. It takes time to absorb these cries for change. Thus, this movement leads to the final one.
“Good Things Take Time”
I was in a gift store in Columbus, Ohio, where I happened on a greeting card that said: Good Things Take Time. It was an “A-ha!” moment for me when I realized the truth of this statement. Progressivism. Loving yourself. Educating a child. Democracy. Mastering a skill. Building community. All of these do indeed take time. Yet it’s not only worth reminding ourselves it takes time for change to truly happen, but force also. As Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP famously said, “Good things don’t come to those who wait. They come to those who agitate.”
It opens with the chorus intoning, “I’m not afraid of what’s to come/I know there’s work I still can do/With you my hands are strong/With you it can’t be wrong/I’m right where I belong.” This is the final assertion of “us-ness” the entire evening is preaching. It grows into its thesis: “Good things take time to grow/And some can take forever/Bad things take time, you know/To go from now to never.” This leads to a joyful musical repeat of measures of 5/8 and 3/4 building to the final statement of the melody. This multiple metered idea—5/8 being “irregular” and 3/4 being “regular”—is a musical notion of the expected and the unexpected coexisting.
Ultimately, the chorus and soloists land on a very complicated chord—complicated enough to, I hope, express the complexity of our community, our issues, our needs, our loves—and, in the final moment, the chorus sings “Take time.” They sing this quietly—which is a marked difference from the urgency that preceded it—and as musically consonant as possible. It’s that final moment where I wanted to say, “We will be fine. Stick together. Go slowly. We’ll make it through.” If the audience reaction, captured beautifully on this live recording, is any indication, the message made it through, too.