Like the subject of any great tragedy, Harvey Milk needed his chorus. He got it on Nov. 27, 1978, the day he was assassinated along with George Moscone, when 100 singers joined an impromptu memorial on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall and sang "Thou, Lord, Our Refuge."
Just months before the slayings, the singers had organized as the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus - the country's first choir to openly identify as homosexual. On Friday evening, the chorus returned to the City Hall steps, joining a vigil memorializing the assassinations, and commemorating its first public appearance.
On Monday, a more joyous note will be struck. The chorus is celebrating its 30th anniversary at Davies Symphony Hall in a show with full orchestra and a roster of guest stars.
"A lot of things were happening in 1978," says Teddy Witherington, the chorus' executive director. "It was the year that the rainbow flag first appeared during the pride parade. The Gay/Lesbian Freedom Band had formed. The chorus formed, Theatre Rhinoceros formed - lots of things were popping in the community."
Now, thanks to the battle over gay marriage, things are popping again, and the chorus is still around to fulfill its role. "When people think about all these events that have happened in recent history, the chorus has always been there to help people get through the times, whether it's celebration, protest, anguish or joy," Witherington says.
Each of those emotions is likely to be on display at the anniversary show, which is a joint project with three AIDS service organizations: the Positive Resource Center, Under One Roof and Meals of Marin. Adding glitter are three stars of stage and screen: Jennifer Holliday, Kim Kuzma and Piper Laurie. The centerpiece of the event will be the world premiere of a suite the chorus commissioned from Steve Schalchlin called "New World Waking - Songs on the Road to Peace." Strangely enough, it's a piece that developed thanks to a piano owned by John Lennon.
Specifically, it was the piano Lennon used to compose "Imagine." The upright Steinway, complete with the ex-Beatle's cigarette burns, is now owned by pop singer George Michael and his partner, Kenny Goss. For a photo project, the pair had been transporting the piano to places where acts of violence had occurred, Witherington says.
One of the places was the Olympia, Wash., home of Alec and Gabi Clayton, whose son, Bill, committed suicide after suffering a gay-bashing attack in 1995. Schalchlin wrote a song dedicated to Bill called "Will It Always Be Like This?," so he was invited by the Claytons to play the Lennon piano at their home. What came out that day were the beginnings of "New World Waking," which Monday will start with "Will It Always Be Like This?," then progress through three parts: "Violence at Home," "Violence in the World" and "Awakening Suite."
Guests at the concert
The Claytons will be in the audience for Monday's show, as will a couple whose story is told in another Schalchlin piece from "New World Waking" - "William's Song." William was getting beaten up at his school in Fayettville, Ark., and when his mother, Carolyn Wagner, could not get officials to act, she sued the school and won, leading to an adjustment to Title IX law that forbids harassment of gay and lesbian students.
"Carolyn and her husband, Bill, are flying in from Arkansas to be at the concert," Witherington says. "Chorus members have all thrown in to make their travel possible, donating air miles and money so they can be here and share that moment with everyone."
The chorus members are used to pitching in like that. It's a skill they tapped in the '80s and '90s to sustain each other while HIV was devastating their ranks. More than 250 chorus members died of AIDS. Yet the chorus stuck together, and even thrived. Hiring Kathleen McGuire, who had mounted productions at Lyric Theater Opera in Boulder, Colo., as artistic director in 2000 brought new credibility. Under the leadership of Witherington, who came aboard two years ago after running the Gay Pride Parade, the chorus has expanded its roster of commissioned pieces. Witherington says he got hooked on the chorus while witnessing a rehearsal the night Matthew Shepard was murdered in a hate crime attack in 1998.
"They sang, as they do on occasions, the Irish Blessing, and it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. Everything just came together and I said to myself, yes, this is why I do what I do."
At Monday's show - occurring on World AIDS Day - the Davies stage, plus the terrace behind it, will be filled with 170 choristers, backed by the 50-strong Community Women's Orchestra. McGuire will conduct both outfits in "New World Waking" plus several other commissioned songs the chorus has been performing during its 30th anniversary season. The chorus also will sing several of the holiday selections it will reprise during its annual Home for the Holidays concert at the Castro Theatre on Dec. 24.
The guest stars will be doing their part, too. Laurie, perhaps best known for playing the crazy mother in the 1976 film "Carrie," will deliver a tribute to World AIDS Day, and narrate sections of "New World Waking." Kuzma, the best-selling Canadian artist who's crooned with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus on a couple of occasions, will sing "Guardian Angels," a tune written by Harpo Marx and now dedicated to people living with HIV/AIDS.
Holliday, Grammy Award-winning star of "Dreamgirls" on Broadway, will sing her showstopper from that play, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," and will bring "New World Waking" to a rousing close, leading the chorus in the gospel-infused number "My Rising Up."
Friday night's commemoration at City Hall was a more somber affair, with a candlelight vigil and march up Market Street and through the Castro District to the location of Milk's old camera shop. Participants were reminded of the horrific circumstances that led to the chorus' first public appearance, but also of the hope and promise that allowed Milk to be elected and the chorus to form in the first place.
San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus:30th anniversary concert on World AIDS Day with Jennifer Holliday, Kim Kuzma and Piper Laurie. 7 p.m. Monday. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets $20-$100. Call (415) 865-2787 or go towww.sfgmc.org.
To hear samples of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, go towww.sfgmc.org.