By Andrew Gans
17 Dec 1999
It was during a performance with The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus that the exuberant singing actress Nell Carter decided that the concert should be recorded, sold, and all proceeds should go directly to the Chorus' Financial Assistant Network Club (FAN Club). One problem. The show had not been set up for a professional live recording. Thankfully, however, the show was being taped for the company's archives, and that recording -- in good enough condition for release and featuring Carter's glorious performance -- is now available on compact disc.
It's been a decade since Carter's brother, Dr. Bernard Taylor, lost his battle with AIDS, and the gifted conductor/pianist, Carter says with a catch in her throat, was "the best friend I ever had in my life." Reached by phone from her Beverly Hills home, the Tony Award-winning Ain't Misbehavin' star spoke lovingly about her late brother and the San Francisco Chorus, whose music touched both her and her brother's lives deeply. It's only natural that Carter, who nabbed a Tony singing the music of Fats Waller, should believe that music has healing powers: "I think music and laughter are the two things that can keep you alive. Someone who is really depressed, tell them a joke, and they may come out of it for even just a moment. Or play them something. For me, you can put on something by Bach, and I'll feel better. Or put on 'Sexual Healing' or anything by Eric Clapton." Because she believes in music's medicinal powers, Carter wanted to insure that the men of the chorus -- who so inspired her brother and herself -- would be able to continue singing should any hardship befall them. "I wanted to set up a fund," Carter explains, "because people don't know that you have to pay to be in a choral group. You have to pay to be a member, you have to pay to keep these tuxes. And if you're ill or if you're laid off, who's gonna take care of you if you can't afford your dues? I wanted the guys," she emphasizes, "to have money, to have dignity when they need medicine, when they need a new tie, when they don't have shoes, when they don't have food or are too sick to get around. I wanted to do something."
Carter's mid-performance inspiration, she believes, has much to do with her love for her brother and for her difficulty in letting him go. "When my brother was dying, I had everything I thought, but I didn't have a cure. I spent so much time trying to find the cure and blaming people for not having a cure that I missed the time just sitting with him and listening to the music he loved . . . I was going through a time at that moment of letting my brother go. I thought that the concert should be recorded and that proceeds should go directly to the FAN club."
Carter has been blessed with the gift of music, possessing a voice that can swing with the sounds of Waller or Duke Ellington or belt out a Broadway show-stopper. Her way with a song is currently on display in the just-released video of "My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies," which aired on PBS stations earlier this month. About that starry evening of diva worship, Carter had this to say: "All the performers were glad to be together, rooting for each other. I shared a dressing room with Bebe [Neuwirth] and Linda [Eder] . . . Everyone had a dressing room, but everyone hung out in the big green room and applauded for each other and wished each other on. It was a really, really great night." Carter was a bit shocked, however, to learn that Dorothy Loudon's heartfelt rendition of Ballroom's "Fifty Percent" was omitted from the PBS broadcast (it will, however, appear in the in-store version). "That I don't understand," Carter says, "People cried. It was so beautiful. It was a heart-breaking moment. And [Dorothy] played it. That's what I call theatre. When a performer can make you feel that you're in a room with them and them alone and they are sharing something very intimate." Carter, too, has offered her share of such theatrical moments, and when asked about a return to The Great White Way, she enthusiastically admits, "I would love to come back to Broadway, but I have to find something where I can feel safe. It would have to be where my children's [needs] would be considered, too."
But, for now, her mission is to have this new 11-track recording reach as many people as possible. It's truly a mission of love, of giving back to a group who has offered happiness to many. "I am not looking to get famous from this," Carter insists. "I am not looking to make one penny. Not one penny goes to me and not one penny goes to management either. I made that clear to them. Nothing goes to the front office. Every cent goes to the guys. I wish that people could understand that people need to laugh. They need to sing. They need to create their own joie de vivre." And, who better to create a sense of joie de vivre than the ebullient, multi talented stage performer Nell Carter?
"Misbehavin' with Nell Carter and The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus" is available by calling (415) 863-4472 or by visiting www.sfgmc.org.
A JOYOUS CHRISTMAS CONCERT
What better way to celebrate the holiday season than a concert starring the vocal magic of Betty Buckley, a holiday playlet by Terrence McNally -- earnestly acted by Julie Harris, Cherry Jones and Victor Garber -- all surrounded by Christmas standards sung by the St. Bartholomew Choir and Choristers? Certainly none that I can name. Entitled "A Joyous Christmas Concert," the evening to benefit both St. Bartholomew's Church and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS began with several Christmas tunes splendidly sung by the choirs, "Once in Royal David's City," "Shepherd's Pipe Carol," "Il est ne le divin enfant" and "Child in a Manger." The audience was then invited to join the chorus for several sections of the well-known holiday anthem, "The 12 Days of Christmas."
The first of three letter reading sections -- all written by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally -- was then offered. Simply titled "Some Christmas Letters," the often touching and humorous piece concerned a celebrated actress and mother (Harris), her married daughter (Cherry Jones) and her gay son, a classical music composer (Victor Garber). The first set of letters was set on December 24, 1979, the second a decade later on December 22, 1989 and the third set in the present, on December 23, 1999. Through the decades we see the mother's growing acceptance of her son's sexuality and her mourning for his first lover, who died of AIDS. It was a real treat to see and hear Harris, one of the theatre's most acclaimed actresses, read the words of Terrence McNally. Jones and Garber, too, offered fine, honest and emotional work.
Two more Christmas tunes followed, "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" and "Jessye's Carol." Then, Tony winner Betty Buckley took to the stage to woo the crowd with song, offering spell-binding versions of "God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen," "We Three Kings" and "For the Beauty of the Earth." Buckley's voice, which always impresses with both its power and its beautiful shades of color, was even more overwhelming in this space, her strong tones echoing throughout the cavernous church. The first half of the evening concluded with the 18th-century carol "O Come, all ye Faithful."
The second portion of the concert began with Mendelssohn's "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!" and was followed by the second segment of McNally's "Some Christmas Letters." "Ave Rex -- A Carol Sequence" displayed the talents of the choirs beautifully, and the final portion of the Christmas letter reading was next. Buckley returned to the stage for two more carols, "What Child Is This?" and "Silent Night," both arranged by her long time musical conductor and pianist Kenny Werner. Buckley wrapped her magnificent tones around both songs, particularly brilliant in her version of "Silent Night," which built to a thrilling climax of vocal prowess. The "Joyous Christmas Concert" concluded with a rousing, inspirational version of "The First Nowell" for which the audience was again invited to lend their voices. A joyous concert, indeed.