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The Bittersweet Song of the Gay Men's Chorus : AIDS has taken its toll on the group and, ironically, given it new life

December 11, 1988|DAVID COLKER

There is no performing group in town that has been more affected by the AIDS crisis than the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles.

No one here to guide you,

now you're on your own

On a recent Sunday the 120-member chorus stood on a makeshift stage in a West Hollywood disco, singing Stephen Sondheim's "No One Is Alone." The event was a short concert to raise funds for the chorus and to publicize its Christmas concerts next Saturday and Sunday.

The song was written for a Broadway musical about storybook characters and is not about acquired immune deficiency syndrome. But as the sound of the chorus swelled in volume and broke into two- and three-part harmonies, a few people in the crowd began to cry softly.

Only me beside you,

still you're not alone

The decade-old chorus cannot sing a sad or bittersweet song of any variety without the specter of AIDS hanging over the proceedings. Even a song that celebrates life, such as "I Sing the Body Electric" from the movie "Fame," can have a chilling and ultimately cathartic effect when sung by this group of men who have had so many peers die long before old age.

More than 20 men who were members of the ensemble have been struck down by the disease, as was the conductor who forged them into a serious musical unit.

No one is alone, truly,

no one is alone.

The deaths and suffering were horrible, but, for the chorus, not in vain. Two years ago the Gay Mens' Chorus was a foundering organization, in danger of extinction. It was half its current size, financially unstable and demoralized.

The terrible irony is that AIDS gave the chorus new life.

"This started out as a group that had 'Give us some men who are stouthearted men' as its theme song," said Craig Woodbury, 43, the current president of the group which was formed in 1978.

"Originally, we just wanted to have an organization where gay men could meet outside a bar situation and be in an atmosphere of mutual support," he said. "It was a social organization."

In those days, anyone who wanted to join the chorus could do so by signing up. There were no auditions.

"We had some unusual voices in the chorus," Woodbury said with a laugh, "but we got a huge response right from the beginning. We thought we really must be good, but we could have done anything up there and still have been a hit. Our audiences were almost totally gay, and they had never seen anything like us.

"It was like singing for your mother when you are in grade school. You can't go wrong."

In 1980, Jerry Carlson, who was to be the most important figure in the chorus' building years, joined the group. A co-founder of a gay chorus in Chicago, Carlson took over as conductor of the local group and steered it toward a more professional sound.

"There was a strain between those who wanted to just have a good time and those who wanted to get more serious," said chorus member Rich Newcome during the break at one of the group's weekly rehearsals at First United Methodist Church in Hollywood.

"We didn't want to give up being a social organization," Woodbury added, "but most of us realized the real reason we were getting together was to make music, and to do that in a serious way we had to make changes."

Auditions were inaugurated, and Carlson, while keeping pop music in the chorus' repertoire, also worked his singers to the point where they could tackle music as serious as Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms."

"Jerry was taking us further and further," Woodbury said. "We were thinking about playing the Music Center, having music commissioned just for us.

"It was an exciting time."

The first AIDS death of an active chorus member came at Christmastime, 1984.

"Ever since then, we've never been without at least one person in the group who had AIDS," Newcome said. The chorus sang at memorial services, when asked, and at AIDS masses at area churches.

The chorus continued to progress musically. One major triumph came in 1985 when the group won a "blind" audition--judged from tape recordings by a panel who knew nothing of the makeup of the chorus--held by the American Choral Directors Assn. With the victory was supposed to come an invitation to sing at the choral association's western division conference to be held in San Jose. But when the association found out just what kind of group had won, it tried to withdraw the invitation.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Gay Men's Chorus brought suit against the association and the association gave in, extending the invitation.

Jon Bailey, chairman of the music department at Pomona College and formerly head of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, was in the audience, hearing the chorus for the first time. "It was a powerful experience," he said. "They sang very well, with great confidence. There were standing ovations."

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