Prizm News / May 14, 2019 / By David-Elijah Nahmod
An epic queer historical choral work is now available on CD and streaming formats
By David-Elijah Nahmod
What do the life of legendary activist Sylvia Rivera, the Lavender Scare firings of the 1950s, and the words of social work legend Jane Addams have in common? If you answered, “They’re all represented in songs on a new album of choral work,” you are not only a savant guesser, but you are also correct!
Unbreakable, an epic choral work performed by San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus last summer, is now available on CD and streaming platforms and it promises to be an unforgettable listen. The piece features music and lyrics by Columbus resident Andrew Lippa, the Tony-nominated composer and lyricist of Broadway’s The Addams Family and the groundbreaking oratorio I Am Harvey Milk.
Unbreakable is described as “a musical chronology of the gay experience in America,” one that recounts little known chapters in LGBTQ history from 1900 to the present day. Among the stories sung are the tales of Bayard Rustin, a frequently overlooked gay African American man who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, and the devastation of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 90s.
The idea for such an ambitious production surfaced when Dr. Timothy Seelig, artistic director of San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, approached Lippa and asked him to create a new work that would be as grand as the Chorus’ upcoming fortieth anniversary. For his part, Lippa was given complete carte blanche. He immediately knew that he wanted to write a piece about LGBTQ history—stories both well known and some not often told—that would give audiences a taste of the variety of experiences our community has weathered throughout the decades.
“I thought of August Wilson, who wrote his cycle of ten plays about the twentieth century African American experience,” says Lippa. “I thought that this has never been done with LGBTQ life, and that gave me the idea for Unbreakable.”
In addition to the soaring vocals of the Gay Men’s Chorus, Unbreakable features solo performances by Broadway’s Britney Coleman, tenor Marcus J. Paige, soprano Lisa Vroman, and, yes, even Lippa himself.
One of the lesser-known figures that Unbreakable brings 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 that provided educational and social opportunities to the working class and poor residents of the Near West Side of Chicago.
“<Addams> couldn’t be out as a lesbian in the early 1900s,” Lippa said. “And yet she did all this incredible social activism work helping so many people.”
Lippa noted that of the many stories told in Unbreakable, his favorite is “Already Dead,” the fourth track on the album. The song tells the tale of a young man who was grilled by Harvard’s “Secret Court” of 1920, the disciplinary tribunal convened to investigate charges of homosexual conduct in the school’s student population. As the chorus repeatedly sings “guilty of homosexual practices,” the boy responds, “I’m not alone, I know I’m OK.”
“This boy asks the question why does it feel like I’m already dead?” says Lippa. “What does that mean? Are you dead emotionally and spiritually? Are you in hell right now?”
Although Unbreakable is Lippa’s 11th CD, he distinctly recalls the moment when his father purchased his first CD in 1996 and recognized that his son’s musical career was real and not just a hobby. That validating moment continues to inspire Lippa to create work that moves audiences in a personal and memorable way. With Unbreakable, Lippa hopes the music will open minds and give listeners a sense of personal responsibility and community engagement.
“The whole point of gay and lesbian choruses across the country is to present excellent music, but also to create community,” says Lippa.
Unbreakable comes to a fitting conclusion with the song “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.
“Education, relationships, progressiveness and democracy take time,” observes Lippa. “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.”
Unbreakable is now available at Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify and iTunes.
David-Elijah Nahmod is a San Francisco-based writer whose career includes work for LGBTQ and Jewish publications as well as monster magazines. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidElijahN.