Arts & Culture » Music

Queer historical choral work out on CD

by David-Elijah Nahmod

"Unbreakable" composer Andrew Lippa. Photo: Matthew Murphy
"Unbreakable" composer Andrew Lippa. Photo: Matthew Murphy  

"Unbreakable," an epic choral work performed with San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus last summer, is now available on CD and streaming platforms. The piece, which had its world premiere at the Nourse Theatre in June 2018, features music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, the composer of the groundbreaking work "I Am Harvey Milk."

The episodic work recounts little-known chapters in LGBTQ history from 1900 to the present day. Among the stories it shares is that of Bayard Rustin, a sometimes forgotten gay African American man who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King in organizing the historic March On Washington in 1963. Another is the life of Sylvia Rivera, a gay and transgender activist from the Stonewall era.

"Unbreakable" first came about when Dr. Timothy Seelig, SFGMC artistic director, approached Lippa and asked him to create a new work that the chorus could perform in conjunction with their 40th anniversary. In an interview, Lippa told the B.A.R. that he was given carte blanche to create whatever he wanted.

"I wanted to write something about the LGBTQ community, and I thought about our history," Lippa said. "I thought of August Wilson, who wrote his cycle of 10 plays about the 20th-century African American experience. I thought, this has never been done with LGBTQ life, and that was what gave me the idea for 'Unbreakable.' I was looking for LGBTQ stories, the good, the bad and the ugly, the happy, the sad, and everything in-between. Some of them are well-known stories, and some are hardly-known stories. I wanted to combine them all into one evening so the audience could get the breadth of some of the experiences of the LGBTQ community throughout the decades."

In addition to the vocals of the Gay Men's Chorus, "Unbreakable" features solo performances by Broadway's Britney Coleman, tenor Marcus J. Paige, soprano Lisa Vroman and Lippa himself. All of them portray historical figures whose stories are told in the piece. One of the lesser-known figures brought back to life is Jane Addams (1860-1935), a lesbian who won the Nobel Prize in 1930. In 1889, Addams co-founded Hull House, a settlement house to help the poor in Chicago.

"She couldn't be out as a lesbian in the early 1900s," Lippa said. "Yet she did all this incredible social activism work helping so many people."

"Unbreakable" ends with a song called "Good Things Take Time," an idea Lippa said he got from a greeting card.

"Education, relationships, progressiveness and democracy take time," he said. "At the very beginning of 'Good Things Take Time' the chorus sings, '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.' Community is the answer, and the question. Can you be part of a community? Can you hold together and be unbreakable? What makes one unbreakable? And the answer is that we just have to hold hands and work towards something better."

Lippa noted that of all the stories in "Unbreakable," his favorite is the fourth, "Already Dead." It's the story of a young man at Harvard in 1920 who was accused by the school of being guilty of "homosexual practices."

"This boy asks the question, Why does it feel like I'm already dead?" said Lippa. "What does that mean? Are you dead emotionally and spiritually? Are you in hell right now?" The chorus relentlessly sings, "Guilty of homosexual practices" as the boy sings, "I'm not alone, I know I'm OK."

Lippa said that his hope for "Unbreakable" is that it will open minds. He hopes that listeners will get a sense of personal and communal responsibility, community involvement and community engagement.

"The whole point of gay and lesbian choruses across the country is to present excellent music, but also to create community," he said. "Both for the LGBTQ community and the community at large, so that people can say 'Hey, we're fine, we're people, we have feelings, we're not going to hurt you, we're not going to take away your religious liberties.'"

Lippa is delighted that "Unbreakable" is coming out on CD. It's his 11th CD, and he's touched by the fact that he's created a number of works over the past 25 years that people are interested in. He recalls that when his first CD came out in 1996, his father went to a record store to purchase the disc, recognizing that his son's musical career was real and not a hobby. Whenever Lippa produces a CD, he said, it feels like that moment with his father.

"I'm a professional, and I make things, and I hope that other people can get something out of them," he said. "It's a wonderful way to live your life."

Unbreakable is available at Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify and iTunes.

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