'Hello Yellow Brick Road' — SF Gay Men's Chorus pays homage to Elton John and Oz

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday July 11, 2023
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San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (photo: Gooch)
San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (photo: Gooch)

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sir Elton John's landmark album "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" on July 19. The album's title track makes subtle references to the themes explored in the classic musical fantasy "The Wizard of Oz" and so the chorus will perform songs from the 1939 Judy Garland film along with songs from "The Wiz" and the blockbuster musical "Wicked."

This concert, titled "Hello Yellow Brick Road," marks the chorus' return to Davies Symphony Hall, where they will be supported by the San Francisco Symphony.

The story of Dorothy's journey down the Yellow Brick Road to the land of Oz has always resonated with the LGBT community, making this concert the perfect cap to SFGMC's 45th season, according to chorus CEO Chris Verdugo.

"Now, with our rights and freedoms being threatened across the country, this concert serves as both comfort and a powerful rallying cry for action," Verdugo said in a statement.

But there are other reasons that "The Wizard of Oz" means so much to the LGBT community, according to Jacob Stensberg, artistic director of the Chorus.

Jacob Stensberg, Artistic Director of SF Gay Men's Chorus  

"Just like the SFGMC, 'The Wizard of Oz' is an intergenerational masterpiece," Stensberg said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "The film itself is an incredible piece of art. Its groundbreaking use of color, dynamic musical score, and instantly lovable characters make it a film that truly transcends time. Dorothy's acceptance, inclusion and celebration of her new friends that are different from her resonates with me personally as a gay man. More people in the world like Dorothy, please."

Some of the Oz-themed songs that the chorus will perform include "One Short Day" from Wicked," "Home" from "The Wiz," and a mash-up of "Over the Rainbow" and "Defying Gravity."

"These songs capture the magic, the hope, and the resilience that we need in our lives," said Stensberg.

Stensberg admits to being a big Elton John fan and has wanted to perform a concert of his music for a long time. With the 50th anniversary of the "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" album and Sir Elton wrapping up his farewell tour, the time had come to make this dream come true. The album's title track very much plays into the themes of "The Wizard of Oz," such as the lyric "I should have stayed on the farm, I should have listened to my old man," words which conjure up images of Dorothy intoning "there's no place like home" in the movie.

"I think 'there's no place like home' is definitely a part of it," Stensberg said. "But I believe there's a complex tension of opposites nestled in there as well. The lyrics definitely speak to returning to one's roots, but it's the world beyond, 'Oh I've finally decided that my future lies beyond the yellow brick road' that strikes me. So it's like that journey home isn't about never following the path ahead. It's about braving that wilderness and ending up at home at the same time."

Elton John's 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' album cover, designed by Ian Beck  

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" remains a popular tune fifty years on, and Stensberg feels that it has achieved classic status, because like many other classic songs it possesses an incredible poetry.

"This song has it," he said. "Bernie Taupin's lyrics feel personally relatable to all of us, even though the song is a bit autobiographical for him, and Elton's songwriting is almost mystic. The verses start low and conversational, then escalate to a high-pitched falsetto in the chorus. It's brilliant and balanced songwriting."

There are several classic tunes on the "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" album, such as "Candle in the Wind" and "Bennie and the Jets." As the show begins, the orchestra will perform a brief overture of themes from the concert in a Broadway-esque style, then the chorus will give the audience a taste of "Bennie and the Jets." The chorus will then perform "Saturday Night's Allright" and end with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." A total of thirteen Elton John songs will make it into the concert, along with songs from the musicals.

As with most SFGMC concerts, there will be solo numbers, costumes and dancing. At one point the entire chorus will dance.

"And I'm going to make sure we find a way to get some drag into the show," said Stensberg. "Because we're queer and drag is not a crime."

Stensberg was delighted to report that none other than Sir Elton himself has been made aware of the concert. His response: "Brilliant! I'll look into it!"

"I'm still hoping for a deeper follow-up," Stensberg said. "If you know anyone who knows anyone, let me know."

San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus' 'Hello Yellow Brick Road,' July 19, 7:30pm. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave. $69-$175. www.sfsymphony.org www.sfgmc.org

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