Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC, concerts never lack for inspired high concepts and ingenious themes. Whether featuring love songs, cowboy songs, nostalgia songs, or who-knows-what-they’ll-come-up-with-next songs, GMCW shows are as much about genius programming as about glorious performances. But with And the Tony Goes to… the chorus may have raised its own bar. Because kicking off DC Pride Week was as thrilling and moving a musical tribute to the LGBTQ movement as anyone could wish for.
The concept (credited to the late visionary director John Moran) was dubbed “a musical history of gay Broadway,” a tagline that barely begins to say what was so extraordinary about the event. Introducing the program, Artistic Director Theo Kano (wearing a shimmering gold sheath) explained (I’m paraphrasing) that the concert would illuminate the two-way influence of musical theater on the movement and of the movement on musical theater. And wow, did that brilliant idea make for some uplifting singing and stirring storytelling.
The music-and-movement confluences go back to the 1969 Stonewall riots, which sparked the modern LGBTQ movement. Those protests were prompted by not only police suppression but also grief over the death Judy Garland. So beloved was this icon in the pre-Stonewall subculture that being “a friend of Dorothy” was code for being homosexual. Thus when GMCW began with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (with a fine solo by Jon Perry, in tux and ruby-red heels), the emotional floodgates began to open.
As a scrim lifted, the black-tie-attired chorus members appeared standing five rows high the entire width of the Lincoln Theatre stage. Then the backdrop came ablaze in the colors of the rainbow. It was a spectacular reveal. Accompaniment was provided by an on-stage band (Theodore Guerrant on piano, Tim Gillham and Tim Smith on keyboards, Mary Scott on bass, and Kevin McDonald on drums).
During the program, that scrim would now and then come down and there would be scenes of song and dance enacted in costume before it. The deft stage direction by Frank D. Shutts II and choreography by Craig Cipollini and James Ellzy combined with Kano’s rousing musical direction made for a show with a surprising range of content.
Credit for the show’s insightful breadth and depth goes to Lisa Biskin and Bill Cutter who wrote the script, and James Harlow who narrated it. As year by year followed the Stonewall riots in 1969—the first Christopher Street Pride Parade…the American Psychiatric Association’s unpathologizing of homosexuality… the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell…the end of DOMA…onward to today—the audience was gifted with both pivotal chronological remembrances and fascinatingly connected musical numbers.
The instances of cross-influencing between Broadway musicals and the LGBTQ movement that Biskin and Cutter assembled ranged from the first openly gay character (in Coco) to the first transgender character (in Hedwig) to the flourishing of drag (in La Cage) and the first openly lesbian character (in Fun Home).
Name checks in the narration were a who’s who of both setbacks and progress: Renee Richards, Leonard Matlovich, Billy Crystal (in Soap), Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk, Gilbert Baker (designer of the rainbow flag)…. The AIDS crisis was remembered both in sorrow and in song, with musical numbers from Rent and Falsettos. The result was a memory lane as listenable as it was enlightening.
Several acting-and/or-dancing ensembles performed, four formed of grownups (Potomac Fever, Rock Creek Singers, Seasons of Love, 17th Street Dance) and one wonderful youth group, GenOUT Chorus, whose rendition of “Expressing Yourself” from Billy Elliot was an audience fave.
Among the numerous other highlights were James Trinidad’s moving performance of Paul’s monolog from A Chorus Line, Marcus Brown’s Motormouth Maybelle solo on “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray, GMCW’s rendition of “One Song Glory” and “Seasons of Love” from Rent, JJ Vera’s outrageously fun solo on “Wig in a Box” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Robert T. Boaz’s beautiful a cappella arrangement of “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hanson. The variety of costume designs (a few of which can be seen in these photos) was Gary Turner’s doing, and it was dazzling.
I’d guess that nearly everyone in the audience had at least one moment when—overcome by feelings triggered by a song, an event, a vocal, a memory—they lost it. For me this happened with the last number before the intermission. Members of the chorus, now wearing red ribbons on their tux lapels, had filed off stage and into the aisles of the orchestra. Then suddenly, as though the song needed no narrative introduction, they filled and thrilled the theater with “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime. Never mind that Ragtime had no particular LGBTQ “hook”; Coalhouse Walker’s anthemic exhortation to resist belonged to everyone.
The sweep and scope of GLBTQ history’s connection to musical theater became a powerful story in the hands of these artists. And the Tony Goes to… is a concert concept that deserves to be revived. And had there been a CD for sale in the lobby, I would have snatched it up in a heartbeat.
“Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (Soloist: Jon Perry).
“A Brand New Dress” from Coco (Soloist: John Knapp).
“But Alive” from Applause, with 17th Street Dance (Margo: L. Owen Taggart; Duane: Alon Mazor; Bartender: James Ellzy).
“Being Alive” from Company (Soloist: Myron Kimble-Marvel).
“It’s Not Where You Start” from Seesaw, with 17th Street Dance (Soloist: Michael McGovern).
“I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line (Paul: James Trinidad; Zach: Craig Cipollini; Soloists: James Ellzy, Will Hernandez, Michael McGovern).
“A Little More Mascara” from La Cage Aux Folles (Les Cagelles: Rob Hall, D’Andrew Parker, John Robinson, Alex Tyson).
“I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles, with GenOUT Chorus (Soloist: Rob Hall).
“What More Can I Say?” from Falsettos.
“Dressing Them Up” from Kiss of the Spider Woman (Molina: Michael Dumlao; Valentin: Ben Aparicio-Coto).
“One Song Glory” from Rent (Soloist: Richard Bennett).
“Seasons of Love” from Rent (Soloists: Jarrod Bennett, Marcus Brown).
“Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime (Conductor: Chipper Dean).
“Willkommen from Cabaret, with 17th Street Dance (Emcee: Tim Tourbin).
“I Know Where I’ve Been from Hairspray, performed by Seasons of Love (Soloist: Marcus Brown).
“If You Were Gay” from Avenue Q (Nicky: Cory Claussen; Rod: Matt Holland; Rod’s Right Hand: Bill Lipsett).
“Not My Father’s Son” from Kinky Boots (Soloist: Dana Nearing).
“Wig in a Box” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Hedwig: JJ Vera; Wigettes: Harry Murphine, Josh Peterson, Joe Wenninger).
“Expressing Yourself” from Billy Elliot, performed by GenOUT Chorus (Soloist: Becca Schaefer)
“Ring of Keys” from Fun Home, performed by GenOUT Chorus (Soloist: Daniella Zapata).
“Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen, performed by Potomac Fever ensemble (Soloist: Kevin Thomaso).
“What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line (Soloist: Kevin Thomason).
“Raise You Up/Just Be” from Kinky Boots, with 17th Street Dance (Soloist: Ryan Williams).
And the Tony Goes to… was presented by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC on Saturday, June 3, and Sunday, June 4, 2017, at the Lincoln Theatre – 1215 U Street, in Washington, DC. For future GMCW concerts and events go to their website.