Heartland Men’s Chorus welcomes new artistic director

Ciara Ried | Liberty PressCOVER_LibertyPress-shadow_Dec14n

The Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC) has announced Dustin Cates as its new artistic director. A life-long Kansas Citian, Cates says he has always enjoyed attending HMC performances and appreciates their impact on the community.

A search committee that included chorus members, past board chairs, community arts leaders, donors and chorus staff conducted an extensive nationwide search to fill the position. Cates is thrilled to become the next artistic director of HMC. “If you would have asked me a year ago if I would be doing anything but teaching high school choral music I would have told you that you were nuts,” he says. “Second only to my husband and our little boy, teaching high school choir was my life’s greatest joy. The opportunity I had to impact the lives of the students that sat in my classroom every day was a reward like none other.”

An opportunity presented itself last spring; Cates was given the chance to work with HMC as a guest conductor for last spring’s concert, I am Harvey Milk. Through this experience, he was able to get to know the men in the chorus. “They shared with me their stories, I saw the support and genuine care they had for one another and most importantly I saw the powerful impact they had on our city,” he says. “I quickly came to realize that, while I was stepping out of a role where I felt as though I was making a difference, my leadership role as the artistic director of Heartland Men’s Chorus allows me to continue to work to make our city and our world a better place in some pretty amazing ways!”

In addition to his guest conductor role, Cates says his previous experience prepared him well for this artistic director position. He attended college at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. He taught high school choral music for 11 years, and served on the music ministry staff at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, and performed with theater companies throughout Kansas City.

“I work to be the kind of person who sees every experience as preparation for what comes next,” he says. “Each of these experiences has shaped who I am and the kind of artistic director I strive to be for Heartland Men’s Chorus.”

Cates joins HMC as the organization prepares to begin its 29th season. The first show of the new season will be Kansas City Christmas, HMC’s official annual kick-off to the holidays. “The concert features seasonal classics that we know and love, fun holiday songs and some outrageously hilarious and campy numbers as only HMC can do,” Cates says.

Given the amount of buzz Kansas City has experienced recently (how about those Royals?), Cates says the holiday show will cast the spotlight on local pride. “Especially with the recent national spotlight on our city I think there is a sense of civic pride that I’ve not encountered in a lifetime of living here,” he says. “With Kansas City Christmas, we will celebrate that civic pride, some of Kansas City’s finest composers, performers and of course, Kansas City’s own, Heartland Men’s Chorus.”

The second show under Cates’ direction will be an original musical documentary that celebrates and tells the story of the changing face of the American family. The final show of the year will celebrate the music of famed contemporary musical theatre composer Stephen Schwartz, whose works include music from Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, and Prince of Egypt.

Cates says the concert will also include the Midwest premiere of Testimony, a work written by Stephen Schwartz utilizing material from Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project.

KANSAS CITY CHRISTMAS Opens the 29th Season of the Heartland Men’s Chorus

Steve Wilson | BroadwayWorld.com

Kansas City ChristmasThe Heartland Men’s Chorus celebrates all things Kansas City December 5-7 with their holiday concert Kansas City Christmas. The first concert of their 29th season takes the stage at the Folly Theater under the direction of the Heartlands new artistic director Dustin S. Cates.

The program contains a mix of traditional carols, sacred music, and the outrageous humor of the chorus. The Saturday evening performance will feature a “sly” surprise, with special guest Kansas City Mayor Sly James. Mayor James, a longtime supporter of the arts in Kansas City, will perform a solo in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

“Pride in our city and our community is at an all-time high,” says Cates. “It seems like every week Kansas City is included on a ‘Top Ten List’ of the best places to live, to work, or to visit. And the performance of the Kansas City Royals in the World Series has renewed pride in our city like I’ve never experienced before. I wanted my first concert as artistic director to reflect the spirit, flavor, and music of my hometown.”

The holiday concert, Kansas City Christmas, features music written and arranged by local composers. The chorus will perform “Gloria,” written by Eugene Butler, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Variations on Jingle Bells” arranged by Mark Hayes, and arrangements of “Bashana Haba ‘ah” and “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming” by John Leavitt. “I Saw Three Ships” by Lyndell Leatherman and “Three Messiah Settings for Men’s Chorus” by Jacob Narverud will be debuted in the productions.

Other performers include Dustin Rapier, Soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson, and the Park Hill South High School Drumline will perform a choreographed interlude to “The Little Drummer Boy.” From the world of drag, DeDe Deville joins the chorus in a tribute to the ubiquitous Disney film “Frozen” and Genewa Stanwyck appears as “Angie, The Christmas Tree Angel.”

The Heartland Men’s Chorus is Kansas City’s gay men’s chorus, regularly performing with more than 120 singers. Evening performances on Friday and Saturday begin at 8 p.m. and the Sunday performance at 4 p.m. Purchase tickets by calling 816-931-3338 or online at the Heartland Men’s Chorus website. Photo courtesy of the Heartland Men’s Chorus.

Heartland Men’s Chorus Offers Up Kansas City Traditions

Kellie Houx | KC Studio

KC StudioThe Heartland Men’s Chorus has a new artistic director and he plans on capturing all the positivity he can when it comes to hometown pride during his first outing as director. The season opener is called Kansas City Christmas. New Artistic Director Dustin Cates is getting about 150 members ready to presents “more sparkle than the Plaza lights.” The concert includes new arrangements of holiday favorites by five local composers, including an arrangement of some of Handel’s Messiah choruses set for men’s voices. There will also be special guests from the worlds of local politics, drag, pop and classical music. The season opener is 8 p.m. Dec 5, 8 pm. Dec. 6 and 4 p.m. Dec. 7.

Cates is not unfamiliar with the Heartland Men’s Chorus. He was the guest director for I Am Harvey Milk, an oratorio by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa celebrating the life and legacy of the civil rights hero. “I love the concept of social justice that is part of this group’s DNA. HMC really strives to make the world a better world. The better world can include enjoying the holiday season.”

Cates is native to Kansas City. He holds a Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, and a Master of Science in School Leadership from Baker University. He is a member of the National Association for Music Education and American Choral Directors Association. He serves on the Alumni Board for the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance and the UMKC Chancellors LGBTQIA Advisory Board. Cates is the President-Elect of the Kansas Choral Directors Association, a group that awarded him the Kansas Outstanding Young Choral Director Award in 2009. He was previously a teacher at Raytown South and Shawnee Mission South, including supporting a significant theater program that staged two musicals annually. He worked for six years as Director of Choral Activities at Olathe East High School and is a member of the music ministry team at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.

Kansas City Christmas“I also went to college with Joe Nadeau (the previous HMC artistic director) so I knew a lot of the wide variety of music and the work of the organization,” he says. “Changing from teaching to serving as artistic director hasn’t really changed my excitement. Whether it is with the kids or the community singers, I knew I wasn’t losing anything. I knew there would be incredible purpose.” With the Dinner of Note in early October, Cates started building relationships. He also ventures out on calls with prospective donors, seeking support.

As the group prepares for Christmas, Cates makes sure that the men find a positive environment. “Rehearsals are a place where everyone can feel comfortable, emotional and vulnerable. If I show these traits, we all rise in these qualities and the music gets better.”

With Christmas, the men are working on music that is a veritable potpourri of sacred music, holiday favorites and a few farcical tunes. “There really is something for everyone,” Cates says. He has brought in five composers. Jacob Narverud has a master’s degree in conducting from the UMKC Conservatory and Cates and he met through the Kansas City Chorale. His contribution to the performances are the choruses from The Messiah, arranged for men’s voices. Soprano Sarah Tannehill will perform with the group. Eugene Butler is another composer who specializes in providing choir music for high schools, churches and colleges. Lyndell Leatherman orchestrates and composes. He has combined the traditional I Saw Three Ships with a humorous piece called Pirate Song. “We are calling this area the Songs of the Sea –son,” he explains. “The first half will be more lighthearted. The second half will include Mark Hayes, one of the biggest choral composers. He may even play with the chorus. His piece is an arrangement of I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Then there is John Leavitt as well. He has several Christmas pieces in his repertoire.”

Cates promises the traditional pieces, but even a few of those will be turned on their collective heads. As an example, there is a Variations on Jingle Bells that has a Sound of Music feel. “With each number, we are featuring a Kansas City artist, composer, performer or more. Christmas in Kansas City features the pop stylings of Dustin Rapier.” A drum line, most likely from Park Hill South, will join the chorus on an arrangement of Little Drummer Boy.

Kansas City ChristmasThe campy parts will have chorus members dressed as monks for Christmas in the Cloister. This opens the second half, he says. “It’s irreverent and continues with Christmas Tree Angel with drag queen Genewa Stanwyck trying to climb onto the top of a Christmas tree.”

Like most parents of a 3-year-old, Cates and his husband have seen and listened to the music of Frozen a lot. “We have a parody with DeDe Deville channeling her best Elsa,” he says. “Then we have a little more fun with Hanukkah in Santa Monica, written by the great parody and humor composer Tom Lehrer.”

Cates vows that the chorus will continue the driving concept of TLC – tears, laughter and chills. “Any good choral programming has to include laughter, some high art, some emotion … it is about crafting a program that is robust and provides a full experience.” The concert will run about two hours.

With the shows scheduled for early December, Cates hopes to attract some choral lovers who want to help kick off their holiday season. “As a former audience member, I know that the holiday performance set the mood for the season. I want to provide fun music and a great show that becomes a tradition for others. We want to be included in all those thoughts about what is traditionally a Kansas City Christmas.”

Personally, Cates and his husband Dr. Raymond Cattaneo celebrate St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. Plus Cates loves Christmas trees. There are at least eight decorated throughout their home. “We have too many to mention,” he says. “This year, I am thinking about adding one where all our medals from various races are the ornaments and the bibs with our race numbers are turned into the tree skirt. As a high school choral director, I loved preparing for the big holiday concert. It’s my tradition and with the Heartland Men’s Chorus, I get to continue that tradition.”

Heartland Men’s Chorus appears in T-Mobile World Series commercial

Lisa Gutierrez | Kansas City Star

In case you missed it, the Heartland Men’s Chorus appeared on TV during the World Series broadcast Saturday night.

A T-Mobile commercial featuring dozens of people across the country singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” included an oh-so-fast glimpse of the Kansas City chorus singing the song. You can see some of the guys at the 0:29 mark below.

But that was really all too brief, wasn’t it? Hardly enough time to enjoy one of our favorite choruses in town.

Check out the full song below.

Heartland Men’s Chorus Brings Vegas Strip To Folly Stage

Julie Denesha | KCUR

Vegas BabyKicking off the summer with a trip to the Vegas strip, Heartland Men’s Chorus is bringing “Vegas Baby” to the Folly Theater in Kansas City, Mo., in what’s envisioned as a lavish spectacle. The chorus, with 150 singers, will be joined by magicians, showgirls and aerial acrobatics.

Guest conductor Anthony T. Edwards says one of the highlights for him will be seeing Quixotic perform onstage as the chorus sings Cirque du Soleil’s Let Me Fall.

“It’s like directing a circus. We’re going to blow the walls out of that place,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a really high energy evening.”

Not too close to bump headdresses

A 20-year veteran of the chorus, Dudley Hogue, performs as one of five showgirls during the concert.

“This is a big show and the Folly stage is very small,” Hogue says. “We know that we have to be very close to each other, but we can’t be too close to each other because we’ll bump headdresses or something like that.”

In step with the Vegas theme, the showgirl costumes will be outsized. So a big challenge for Hogue is the headdress that he and the other showgirls will be wearing.

“As I was told during one of my costume fittings, showgirls never put their heads down and there is a reason for that because your headdress will be on the floor,” he says. “We’ve been practicing knowing that we are going to wear these big headdresses; trying to hold our heads still and not bending over.”

Doing what the chorus does best

Featured soloist Keith Wiedenkeller will perform Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way.” Wiedenkeller says that putting on a show is what the chorus does best.

“We are hardly ever a stand and sing chorus,” he says. “We always consider our concerts more of a show than a concert, but this concert definitely takes the show concept to a whole new level.”

Edwards says it’s been fun for him as conductor to watch the chorus sing music they enjoy, but he hopes it will be fun for the audience as well.

“The GALA (gay and lesbian) chorus movement was born out of the AIDS crisis. And I told the chorus last week, ‘Who’s to say that if somebody smiles or somebody laughs or has a good time or hums along, we might be curing cancer,'” says Edwards. “Enjoying yourself is a big part of medicine.”

Heartland Men’s Chorus presents “Vegas Baby,” June 13 – 15, Folly Theater, 300 West 12th Street, Kansas City, Mo., 816-931-3338.

Liberace, Quixotic and Vegas

John Long | Camp

Anthony EdwardsA Liberace impersonator, magicians and aerial dancers at the Folly Theater? Why yes! After all, it is a Heartland Men’s Chorus concert. 

HMC’s June concert typically takes on the theme of Gay Pride Month, and what better way this year than with a Las Vegas “over-the-top” themed concert? 

“Vegas, Baby” will feature Anthony Edwards, Kansas City’s premier musical director from the local theatre scene. He has been the musical director for the American Heartland Theatre, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the Coterie and more. He now is the musical director at Starlight Theatre. And many will know him from his work at AIDS Walk every year, where he directs the musical program on stage before the walk. 

For Edwards, this concert is in some ways coming back full circle. 

“When I was in Kansas City years ago, I was the accompanist [for HMC”],” he said. “I also worked on the first CD they ever recorded. So it’s very interesting to continue my long history with the Heartland Men’s Chorus. That’s why the concert is so meaningful to me. I get to be with a number of men that I’ve known for 25 years. I’m thrilled to be a part of this concert.”


Longtime artistic director Joe Nadeau left the HMC to become the artistic director of the Los Angeles Men’s Chorus, and the HMC has featured guest conductors for the March and June concerts. Now the chorus has announced that they have hired a new artistic director, Dustin Cates, who will take over the reins later this summer. 

Edwards said that the HMC approached him about doing the Vegas concert primarily because of his theatre background. He added that his experience with large productions at the Starlight Theatre was also beneficial. 

“They [HMC”] knew that I wouldn’t be afraid of the enormity of this concert. It’s not just the chorus standing and singing. It’s Vegas, baby,” he said, with a laugh. 

“The first half of the concert is Vegas of yesterday,” Edwards said “It’s before Cirque du Soleil. It includes music by many different artists, including Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, etc. The jazz sound, Liberace, and the Vegas of yesteryear. The second half of the concert is more current.” 

Anthony said it includes the music of Cher, Celine Dion and Elton John as well as the aerial dancing of Quixotic. He said that working with Quixotic has been a pleasure. 

“Anthony Magliano [artistic director of Quixotic”> is so inventive. They have been so incredible in their collaboration,” he said. 

Edwards said that this production of “Vegas, Baby” will be different from any versions produced in other cities. 

“This concert is completely unique to Kansas City. A couple of the choruses have done Vegas shows, but we’re not doing the shows they did. This is completely HMC and Anthony Edwards productions,” he said, with a laugh. 

He credits the uniqueness of this concert to the collaboration of Florida-based Liberace impersonator Martin Preston — the only performer who was granted express permission by the Liberace estate to appear and perform as the pianist — as well as Kansas City area magicians David Sandy and Lance Rich, Quixotic and HMC. 

The smaller HMC ensemble called The Heartaches will be performing with a Bette Midler theme that Lamar Sims, the HMC’s musical accompanist, has stylized. Members of the chorus will also appear as dancers and showgirls throughout the performance. 

This concert will be performed over three days, rather than the usual Saturday and Sunday schedule, so that more people will be able to see it. 

“It’s so fun for Kansas City to see different arts organizations work together and have successful collaborations,” Edwards said. 

The artistic director just celebrated his 18th anniversary with his partner, Scott Henze. The couple share a Brookside home with their Cairn and West Highland terriers. Edwards moved to Kansas City in 1989 to study at the Conservatory, left briefly in 1995 to work in Denver, where he met Henze, and returned in 2000. 

“We love calling Kansas City home,” he said when speaking about his career with Kansas City theatre groups. He also worked with Missy Koonce and J.D. Mann at the theatre bar and restaurant called bar Natasha, playing piano and directing talent. 

“I can’t forget about bar Natasha, although there’s a lot of things about bar Natasha I can’t remember,” he said with a laugh, “and you can quote me on that.” 

Heartland Men’s Chorus presents “Vegas, Baby” at 8 p.m. June 13 and 14, and 4 p.m. on June 15. All performances are at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, Mo. Tickets are $15-$40 and are available at HMC or by calling 816-931-3338.

BWW Previews: The Heartland Men’s Chorus Brings VEGAS BABY to the Folly Theater

Steve Wilson | Broadwayworld.com

QuixoticThe Heartland Men’s Chorus brings Vegas Baby to the Folly Theater in Kansas City, to mark their summer concert. Expecting large crowds for the event, a third night’s performance has been added to the star-studded affair. Vegas Baby appears at the Folly Theater Friday June 13 through Sunday June 15.

Anthony Edwards conducts the chorus in musical numbers celebrating the “Rat Pack” era and modern headliners such as Cher and Celine Dion. “Anthony has worked as musical director for virtually every professional theatre in Kansas City,” says Rick Fisher, executive director of HMC. “When we were searching for a guest conductor, his was the only name we considered. With a show of this size and scope, we needed a conductor who could bring out the best of our singers as musicians and integrate all the various production elements to make the concert as spectacular as a Las Vegas extravaganza.”

Joining the Heartland Men’s Chorus and Anthony Edwards on stage is special quest Quixotic, a Kansas City based aerial acrobatics troupe. Quixotic amazes audiences with dance, aerial acrobatics, high fashion, original live music, and projection mapping. The athleticism of the dancers as they soar across the stage excites and entrances the audience.

Vegas Baby is the first collaboration of Quixotic and the Heartland, which Edwards initiated after joining the production. “The concert will represent all things Las Vegas, and having Quixotic on the program will allow us to stun the audience with the aerial work that has become so dominant in Las Vegas in the last fifteen years.”

Martin Preston is the only performer granted permission by the Liberace estate to appear and perform as the late entertainer. Preston joins the chorus playing a rhinestone-covered grand piano (complete with Liberace’s trademark candelabra). His series of costumes are based on the original designs worn by Liberace. “My opening costume has a quarter of a million hand-sewn sequins, beads, and crystals, not to mention over ten pounds of Swarovski rhinestones,” says Preston.

The show will be magical as David Sandy and Lance Rich perform trickery and illusions to the accompaniment of the chorus’s rendition of “That Old Black Magic.” Continuing the persona of Las Vegas members of the chorus dance and appear as showgirls throughout the performance.

The concert closes out the 28th season of the Heartland Men’s Chorus, Kansas City’s gay men’s chorus. The chorus performs regularly with 120 members and brings in the largest audience for choral music in the region.

Vegas Baby at the Folly Theater begins at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday with a 4 p.m. performance on Sunday. Purchase tickets by calling 816-931-3338 or visit the Heartland Men’s Chorus website.

Heartland Men’s Chorus finds meaning in ‘I Am Harvey Milk’

Lisa Gutierrez | Kansas City Star

zstzt.St.81The song is called “Sticks and Stones.”

The first time the Heartland Men’s Chorus sang it preparing for this week’s show was a little dicey for some of the guys.

The song includes a litany of gay slurs, words of hatred that would have to come out of their own mouths, harmoniously no less.

They would have to sing that word, the f-word.

Faggot.

How many times they’ve heard it, how many times someone has called Greg Maupins that name, whispered under the breath.

Cowards shoot from the shadows.

“It’s usually something as you’re walking by,” says the retail sales manager, a member of the chorus for 15 years. “It’s close enough so only you hear it. That’s when those names come out.”

There’s a lot in “I Am Harvey Milk” that resonates with Maupins and his fellow chorus members, who will perform it this weekend with members of another gay chorus, the Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis.

The oratorio by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa — part theater, part choral performance — celebrates the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.

In the era of Donna Summer, leisure suits and disco naps, Milk ran in San Francisco to give gay people a voice. He asked much of them at a time when even the cops were harassing gays. He challenged them to be visible, to live their lives authentically. He asked them to come out of the closet.

His stump line became iconic: “My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.”

1cNCQW.St.81On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were gunned down at city hall by Dan White, a former city supervisor. Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of the slain activist in the 2008 movie “Milk.”

As a gay advocate himself, chorus member Randy Hite knew Milk’s story well but says some younger singers did not until they started working on this production.

“It’s so important that we tell our stories. We have to keep them alive,” says Hite, who works for the U.S. Postal Service. “And, as a postal employee, I’m so excited that there’s a Harvey Milk stamp coming out this year. In a way, with this music and that stamp, it’s kind of like his time has come.”

The night of the assassinations, the fledgling San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus made its public debut on the steps of City Hall during a somber candlelight vigil for the slain men.

To mark its 35th season, the San Francisco group — and five gay men’s choruses, including Heartland — commissioned this work. Audiences that saw the premiere in San Francisco last year were moved to tears.

“I saw the chorus with candles in their hands, and it took my breath away,” wrote one reviewer for Broadway World. “As they stood onstage, more members walked down the aisles re-creating the candlelight vigil that happened 35 years ago. You felt Harvey’s presence in the hall.”

Lippa, the show’s composer, portrayed Milk that night. Heartland member Tom Lancaster, a professional actor who has sung with the chorus since 2000, will fill that role in Kansas City.

“For me, there’s a lot of weight on my shoulders to represent this man. You’re playing an American civil rights hero,” says Lancaster. “I did a ton of research … tried to get the specifics of who he was in my bones. But it’s a very basic story of a very simple man who tried to get a platform for his voice.”

Lippa, the Tony- and Grammy-nominated composer of “The Addams Family” and “Big Fish,” has said in interviews that he felt a special kinship with the older Milk, who took office about the time of Lippa’s bar mitzvah.

“I Am Harvey Milk” is less chronological biography than it is a musical highlight reel in 12 movements that celebrate key themes of Milk’s life.

One of Lancaster’s favorite songs is “San Francisco.” As the choruses sing, images of the city appear on a screen where photos and footage of Milk’s life are shown throughout the performance.

“It’s almost a prayer to that city and what it meant to gay men and women as a place where they could go and come out,” Lancaster says.

Hite was also moved by the tribute to the city that so famously gave harbor to the gay community.

“There’s a line in that song that says, ‘I am broken,’ ” Hite says. “That’s an emotional line for me to sing because there have been times when I have — as we all have — been broken.”

Maupins, who came out when he was in his late 20s, connected with a song called “Was I Wrong,” sung by soprano soloist Sylvia Stoner.

“Like a lot of people who have had children come out to them, my parents went through this whole deal: ‘What did we do wrong? Why is it this way?’ ” Maupins says. “It took me time to convince them that this is who I am , and as far as I have memory, this has been a part of me. Don’t try to take responsibility.”

He told his dad that being gay didn’t negate anything he’d accomplished thus far in life. He was gay when he went college, and he was gay when he served in the Air Force.

“You can’t revoke your pride now,” he told his dad. “You can still be proud.”

The show ends with a song called “Tired of the Silence.”

As images of public figures who have come out flash on the screen, the choir sings “Come out, come out, come out. …”

Dozens of times they sing it, forcefully, passionately, like preachers calling souls to salvation.

Saturday and Sunday

“I Am Harvey Milk,” a celebration of the life and legacy of civil rights icon Harvey Milk by the Heartland Men’s Chorus and Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis, has two performances: 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Folly Theater, 300 West 12th St. Tickets are $15-$40 through HMCKC.org or 816-931-3338. Soloists include Tom Lancaster, Cam Burns and Sylvia Stoner. Thirty minutes before each performance, Stuart Hinds, director of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, will talk about “An Emerging Community: Gay Kansas City in the ’70s.”

 

Two Men’s Choruses Unite to Celebrate Harvey Milk

Bradley Osborn | Camp

On the last weekend in March, Kansas City’s Heartland Men’s Chorus and Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis will combine their voices to perform the Midwest premiere of the oratorio I Am Harvey Milk. Part choral performance and part theater, the piece celebrates Milk’s life, from his childhood to his public career in San Francisco to his assassination.

A preview concert was held in Columbia, Mo., on March 8, and an encore concert is scheduled for April 5 in St. Louis. San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus artistic director and conductor Tim Seelig, who conducted the June 2013 world premiere in San Francisco , will conduct the Missouri performances. The Kansas City concerts will be at 8 p.m. March 29 and 4 p.m. March 30 at the Folly Theater.

I Am Harvey Milk, with music and words by Andrew Lippa, was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, along with Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, Vancouver Men’s Chorus and Heartland Men’s Chorus.

The newly formed San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was scheduled to rehearse on the evening of Nov. 27, 1978, the day that San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated. Instead, members gathered on the steps of City Hall. There, during an impromptu vigil for the fallen leaders, the group’s blended voices were first heard in public.

For the Missouri performances, Tom Lancaster of Heartland Men’s Chorus will play the adult Harvey Milk. He said his appreciation of Milk’s work grew throughout the project:

I don’t have any personal memories of Harvey Milk. I was only 9 years old when he was assassinated. But I have vivid memories of Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children campaign, which fought so bitterly against the gay rights movement. I remember seeing her interviewed on television and seeing my parents nodding their heads in agreement with what she said. I learned later that Save Our Children helped introduce Proposition 6 in California, the proposed law that would make firing gay public school employees mandatory. The proposition failed, largely due to the work of Harvey Milk. It was his first major political victory.

I’ve learned a lot about Harvey while doing research — most striking was his connection to music. He loved opera from the time he was a child, and in the early 1970s he assisted the director of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Broadway. I love that we’re telling his story in a medium that resonated with him.

I hope audiences respond to the piece the way I did when I first heard it. It’s so easy to become complacent — to become apathetic about the struggles we still face. Experiencing Harvey’s story told in this music sparked a fire in me — I wanted to get up and march in protest, I wanted to write my congressman, I wanted to make my voice heard as a member of the LGBT community. It helped me connect to a passion that had dulled over the years. I hope everyone who experiences the concert will react as passionately.

To learn more about the composition, go to I Am Harvey Milk

Just Before the Concert, a Chance to Hear About 1970s Gay K.C.

If you like local history, you should arrive early to one of the Heartland Men’s Chorus concerts in late March. Thirty minutes before each show, Stuart Hinds, co-founder of the Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA), will present “An Emerging Community: Gay Kansas City in the ’70s” to warm up audiences for the main performance of I Am Harvey Milk.

HMC asked Hinds to discuss Kansas City during the time of Milk’s rise as a politician in San Francisco.

“It’s a really interesting period, with the emergence and disappearance of several advocacy groups and community efforts, lots of bars opening and closing, interesting developments in the world of female impersonation, founding of the lesbian and gay amateur sports league and the first Pride celebrations,” Hinds said.

Hinds’ presentations will be at 7:30 p.m. March 29 and at 3:30 p.m. March 30 at the Folly Theater.

Now almost four years old, GLAMA is a partnership between the Kansas City Museum and the LaBudde Special Collections of the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Its mission is to collect, preserve and make accessible materials documenting the LGBT community of Kansas City.

In April, two GLAMA-related conference appearances are on the calendar. A UMKC history graduate student will present his GLAMA-based research on the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom at the Missouri Conference on History in Jefferson City, Mo. And Hinds will sit on a panel at the Midwest Archives Conference in Kansas City, Mo. The focus of the panel will be the different approaches that Missouri’s three LGBT archives – in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield — take to developing their collections.

Archive’s new acquisitions

The archive contains historical images, periodicals, oral histories, local LGBT history overviews and a growing number of donated personal collections. Here are some of the latest acquisitions, with descriptions from Hinds:

Linda Wilson Collection — Longtime Willow Productions producer extraordinaire Linda Wilson turned over to GLAMA drawers full of material related to Willow, including the many performers who came to Kansas City, audio and video recordings from concerts, and much more. In addition, the collection features papers related to the founding and operation of Womontown, a lesbian enclave located in midtown Kansas City that was founded by Wilson’s partner, Barbara Lea.

Wick Thomas Collection — Activist Wick Thomas recently donated a group of items related to the queer youth group EQUAL, fliers from the local trans community, and promotional material highlighting Kansas City “homo-core” rock bands.

Dean Galloway Collection — These materials come from Kansas City’s leather community and include paperwork from the Mr. Dixie Belle and Heart of America Leatherboy contests from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Martin Shapiro Collection — A small but very rare collection of newsletters and other papers from Kansas City-based advocacy groups in the 1970s.

For more information on the Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, go to glama.us. There you can browse its contents and perhaps consider making your own contribution.

“An Emerging Community: Gay Kansas City in the ’70s”
This presentation by Stuart Hinds of the Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America will precede each concert.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 29 & 3:30 p.m. Sunday, March 30
Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, Mo.

I Am Harvey Milk 
The concert will feature Kansas City’s Heartland Men’s Chorus and Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis.
8 p.m. Saturday, March 29 & 4 p.m. Sunday, March 30
Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, Mo.
For tickets, go to HMCKC. Prices vary.

PREVIEW: “I Am Harvey Milk”

Kristin Shafel Omiccioli | KCMetropolis.org

Harvey MilkGay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk made history in 1977 as the first openly gay person elected in California, serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. After nearly 11 months in office, Milk was assassinated by recently resigned fellow city supervisor Dan White, who wanted his position back. An early advocate for gay rights, Milk’s legacy has been immortalized in films, books, opera, and now a new 60-minute oratorio by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family, Big Fish, The Wild Party). KCM executive editor Kristin Shafel Omiccioli spoke with Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC) executive director Rick Fisher and HMC member Tom Lancaster about the HMC’s upcoming presentation of I Am Harvey Milk.

Kristin: I listened to a recording and it’s clear that, while Milk and his life are the central focus of I Am Harvey Milk, the themes run deeper than simple biography and go far beyond politics. Can you speak to some of the broader themes—bullying, activism, community, hope, pride, authentic living, etc.?

Rick Fisher: The piece is not really biographical, and listeners wouldn’t necessarily walk away knowing Harvey Milk’s life story. To provide the background, we’ve marshaled a number of educational resources in conjunction with the concert. These include showings of the movie Milk and the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, notes from the composer in our printed program, a pre-concert talk 30 minutes prior to curtain by Stuart Hinds of the Gay & Lesbian Archives of Mid-America (GLAMA), and extensive background information on our website. All of the themes you listed are found within the musical—universal themes of contemporary relevance, even 35 years after Harvey Milk’s assassination. What is remarkable is that they are drawn from the life and work of a man who was not particularly remarkable by most accounts. Yet he stepped forward and did remarkable things, becoming a hero and a martyr for what he believed. Lippa’s goal was that every single person who hears this would somehow resonate with the person who was Harvey Milk and look for the part of Harvey within them—the hero. Thus, the title: I Am Harvey Milk.

Tom Lancaster: It’s been interesting to experience reactions of chorus members during the rehearsal process. Some didn’t know anything about Milk when we began; others only knew his name or had seen the 2008 movie. But during rehearsals, chorus members started to relate to Harvey’s story in very specific and personal ways. The song “San Francisco” is about the promise that city held for so many young gay people in the 1970s. During rehearsals, members of the chorus talked about “their” San Francisco. For some who grew up in rural Kansas or Missouri, they looked at Kansas City as a place where they could find other people like them. In some cases it was a first love that was “their” San Francisco. Some even shared that HMC is “their” San Francisco—a place where they could be safe and be accepted and heal.
The song “Sticks and Stones” includes repeated use of the word “faggot” and other slurs, and chorus members have talked with one another about what it means to sing that word, and they’ve shared their experiences with childhood bullying and name calling. For some it’s been a difficult process to sing those lyrics. They’ve had to work past the hurt experienced hearing those words in their lives. [Guest conductor] Tim Seelig has been very helpful in getting chorus members to form a personal connection with this material, and because so many of the themes are so universal, it’s been easy to do.

KSO: With people in the public eye coming out more frequently (U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam) and freedom to marry sweeping states one by one lately, how timely is it that we look back at the life and work of Harvey Milk now? His accomplishments obviously still resonate.

RF: Milk was one of the early generation of pioneers for LGBT acceptance and equal rights. In recent years, we have seen remarkable advances in civil rights for LGBT people. This is the legacy of Milk and other early pioneers, who courageously came out at a time when that was neither safe nor accepted. Today, young people are coming out at increasingly younger ages. It is so important that we remember where we came from, honor our heroes and teach our history, and this musical provides a compelling way to do that.

TL: It was surreal to rehearse this material and read news of LGBT victories and challenges happening at the same time. One day there would be a ruling striking down a ban on same-sex marriage in a particular state. The next day, I’d read of proposed legislation allowing people to discriminate against gays and lesbians based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Civil rights struggles in Uganda and Russia were in the news cycle as we were rehearsing. When Michael Sam came out, there were journalists on television asking why, in 2014, it was even important to come out publicly. But it is. I still know young men and women who are closeted among some family and friends. Just a few days ago, I had a friend tell me he couldn’t post certain pictures on Facebook because his boyfriend isn’t out at work. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way still to go.

KSO: What was HMC’s role in the commissioning process for I Am Harvey Milk? How did the partnership with the Gateway Men’s Chorus for these performances come about?

RF: The commissioning project was launched by Dr. Tim Seelig, artistic director of San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, who conducted the world premiere last June and will be our guest conductor for the KC performances. He invited other gay men’s choruses to join in the project, and HMC enthusiastically signed on, along with four other groups in North America. [A conductor, singer, teacher, and author, Seelig] was previously on the faculty of Southern Methodist University and is Conductor Emeritus of the Turtle Creek Chorale, Dallas, Texas, which he conducted for 20 years. HMC last collaborated with Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis in 1997. Former HMC artistic director Dr. Joe Nadeau and GMC artistic director Al Fischer had discussed collaboration for several years, and this program emerged as the perfect opportunity. Recently, a joint rehearsal of the two choruses allowed for an out-of-town preview performance in Columbia, Missouri. So, the choruses literally are sharing this music and its important message across the state of Missouri.

KSO: What can audiences expect at your I Am Harvey Milk performances? I love the publicity artwork, by the way—will we see more of Bill Nelson’s art in the Folly? Will there be props, costumes, and acting as we usually enjoy at HMC shows (like For a Look or a Touch, for example)? How are two large choirs (!) going to fit on the Folly stage? Will your orchestra be expanded as well? Do you have any special guest artists for I Am Harvey Milk?

RF: I Am Harvey Milk will be performed with about 180 singers on stage, three marvelous soloists in the lead roles, and a 17-piece orchestra. The musical will be enhanced by projected visuals that have become a distinctive and distinguishing feature of HMC performances. The lead soloists will be in period appropriate dress; Young Harvey, played by Cam Burns, will appear as a boy in the 1940s; Harvey Milk, played by Tom Lancaster, will look very 1970s. Sylvia Stoner plays the role of Soprano, representing various female characters in our lives such as mother, teacher, etc.

TL: It’s a very collaborative concert. Dustin Cates will conduct HMC in the first act, and Dr. Seelig will conduct I Am Harvey Milk, which makes up the second act of the program. Gateway Men’s Chorus will perform a solo set in the first act and join HMC for I Am Harvey Milk. And we’ll have two guest performers: soprano Sylvia Stoner and 13-year-old Cam Burns. Sylvia’s “character” does not have a name; she serves as a female voice throughout the piece—Harvey’s mother, his teacher, his own conscience. Cam plays young Harvey Milk. He first joined HMC at a preview performance of the work in Columbia, and he was phenomenal—many members of the chorus and the audience could identify with his character. He begins the piece singing “I want my life to be just like an opera at the MET. Three hours in the dark where love is found in one duet.” People wept when they heard him sing those lines, partly because of the tragic end Harvey Milk met, but also because it is so easy to identify with being that child searching for love and escaping into a world of music.

KSO: Tom, as the work’s titular character, what about Harvey is guiding your portrayal of him?

TL: I’ve sung with HMC since August of 2000. I joined the chorus three weeks after moving to Kansas City from Houston, Texas. I’ve sung as a soloist with the chorus before, and I’ve worked professionally as an actor in and around Kansas City. I prepared by doing a lot of research: reading the Randy Shilts’ biography of Harvey Milk (The Mayor of Castro Street), watching the documentary and the feature film, and re-reading the play Execution of Justice about Dan White’s trial for the murders of Milk and George Moscone. The research was very helpful but the thing I try to keep in mind is that Harvey was an ordinary man who fought to get a platform for his voice. In archival footage, his contemporaries often describe him as an “unremarkable” man—but he saw injustice and ran for office to change his community.

KSO: No doubt the title alone points to how we may all be like Harvey. What would you like concert-goers to take away from the show?

TL: My hope is that this piece stirs a passion in every member of the audience. It certainly did for me. I wouldn’t call myself an activist, but experiencing this story has made me more vocal. It sparked a fire in me to speak out—to realize the tremendous power in coming out and living life authentically. One of Harvey’s biggest objectives was to convince the gay men and women who heard his voice to come out to their friends, neighbors, and coworkers. It’s hard to fight against equal rights when you can put a face on those being denied equality.

The Heartland Men’s Chorus will present I Am Harvey Milk on Saturday, March 29 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, March 30 at 4:00 p.m. at the Folly Theater, 300 West 12th Street, Kansas City, Mo. For more information about HMC or to purchase tickets, visit http://hmckc.org.