BOSTON, Mass. — As the organization’s music director, Rueben M. Reynolds, III, has been leading The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC) in beautiful song since 1997. He also served as music director for the Heartland Men’s Chorus, a gay men’s chorus in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1989 to 1998. Over the course of nearly 25 years working within the LGBT community, Reynolds has witnessed our tremendous evolution from oppressed outsiders fighting for recognition, respect and survival during the worst of the AIDS epidemic to a community that enjoys unprecedented social acceptance and legal recognition. “The LGBT community has always created family in many different ways,” says Reynolds. “But if you had told me 20 years ago that I’d see chorus members slipping out of rehearsal to rush home to tuck their three-year-olds into bed, I never would have believed it.”
Inspired by the 10-year anniversary of the legal marriages of same-sex couples in Massachusetts, Reynolds has created Sons & Daughters, a celebration of families and all their complexity, joy, heartbreak, and triumph. Highlights of the performance will include the New England premiere of the one-act musical “Alexander’s House,” the story of a gay man whose untimely death brings together friends, family, and a long-lost son, and an adaptation of “Beneath the African Sky,” a work inspired by sisters who shuttled for six years among African refugee camps searching for their parents. In an interview, Reynolds discussed the inspiration behind Sons & Daughters.
Q: Can you tell us more about the genesis of Sons & Daughters and its family theme?
A: My partner Bill and I came to Boston from Kansas City, Missouri, in the late 1990s, when I auditioned for the music director position with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. We fell in love with the city. It was just the perfect place for us. So we started with the chorus and I remember about three years in we had a real novel experience. There was a guy in the chorus, Jim, who along with his partner Phil, decided to have a child with a single lesbian woman. And they had decided to co-parent this child, all three of them. And she now has a partner and it’s an incredible family. The boys live downstairs and the girls live upstairs and they co-parent three children between them. We had come through all those years of AIDS and all of a sudden I was in a place where gay people were having children. And I thought, this is just incredibly phenomenal. And now it’s routine. Last September we had auditions and a new member joined. He came in and he said, “I just want you to know I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old.” I said, “Why do you want to join the chorus?” And he said, “I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old. I need one night away. The husband can take care of them.” I never would have believed we would have been in this place when I started 20 years ago with a gay men’s chorus.
Q: While LGBT families are now much more visible thanks to legal and social advances, this is not a new phenomenon. LGBT people have been parenting children forever, be they from previous heterosexual unions, or kids they intentionally had with same-sex partners. What new ground do you cover with Sons & Daughters?
A: I wanted to look at the various permutations of family and what it all means: what it means to have children and what it means to parent. Several years ago, we founded an outreach program to form partnerships with Gay / Straight Alliances (GSA) after much of the funding for these school programs were cut. We would come in and do a concert and usually we got a chorus from the school to sing with us. The GSA would sell tickets and would keep all the money to fund their programs. Last year we had a high school that came and sang with us onstage at Jordan Hall. It was a phenomenal experience to see all of those high school students singing a song about how we all must parent people. It takes a whole village to raise a child, basically. And it hit me at that point that I wanted to do a whole year about families.
Q: How does The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus spring concert fit with this theme?
A: Sons & Daughters is about the permutations of families. “Alexander’s House” was written by Michael Shaieb, who is a musical theater writer in New York City. It’s the story basically of how a death creates a whole new family. It’s the story of a man, Alexander, who got married and had a son, Sam, and then discovered he was gay. He divorced his wife; moved east and bought a home where he wanted to create a new family group. He has a lover and he creates this incredible family of friends and they spend their summers together in Provincetown. Every year on his child’s birthday Alexander sends his son a present and his ex-wife sends it back unopened. So all of these presents are stored at the Provincetown home.
Unfortunately, in the prime of his life Alexander has a heart attack and dies. He leaves the beach house to Sam, whom he’s never met. The action takes place at the moment when Alexander’s lover and his friends are all there cleaning up the beach house so that Sam can come and sell the place. They’re reminiscing about the great family that they created there, their experiences together, and Sam shows up. The really wonderful part about it is he learns for the first time about his father, and how he had this chosen family, and then he sees these presents and just can’t believe that this man that he’s never met has loved him this whole time. It ends with the son and the guy’s partner becoming great friends, and you see the genesis of a new family unit forming.
Q: Can you talk about the back story of “Beneath the African Sky,” which was originally commissioned for a children’s chorus?
A: This song was inspired by the true story of a young girl, Clemantine Wamariya, and her sister, who were separated from their parents in Africa because of the Rwandan genocide. They spent six years searching refugee camps looking for their parents and their other siblings, and looking for someone to take care of them. The song is a lullaby with a solo oboe and the oboe melody is the tune Clemantine and her sister used to sing as they walked from camp to camp looking for someone to take care of them. An aid agency finally sent them to the United States where a family took them in. Clemantine, who is a remarkable young woman, eventually attended Yale University. Oprah Winfrey learned about Clemantine and actually reunited Clemantine and her sister with her parents, which brought international attention to the story. I called the composer Paul Caldwell and told him that we wanted to do the song. He’s gay and he understood immediately and rewrote it for The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.
Q: You also address how families change, specifically how the parent-child dynamic changes as we all grow older. That seems particularly relevant with our burgeoning senior population.
A: What happens when you’ve got your perfect little family and the kids grow up? How do you deal with that? We include a wonderful song called “Fathers of Fathers” by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. It has three different soloists and you don’t know if they have to be three individual men or one man at three points in his life. The first soloist is seeing his son for the first time and in the hospital. He’s like, ‘Oh my God. I’m a family man now.’ In the second solo the son has grown up and is leaving home. He sings about what it’s like now that he’s sent his son out into the world and wonders if his job as a father is over. And in the third solo—and this is the part that really gets to me—he just becomes the son and his son is now the father figure who is taking care of him at the end of his life.
Q: So you’re dealing with some pretty weighty aspects of family here. This isn’t the “We Are Family” disco version of life is it?
A: No, it isn’t! As we move on to the end of the concert—and this is a little bit musical-theatery—but we use a bit of “Soliloquy” from Carousel, where the character Billy Bigelow imagines what his boy will grow up to be and then that realizes, oh my God, what if my boy is a girl? And he sings about how he’ll love her. We’ll also perform “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which is the end of Carousel. The song is about how even if your parent is not physically there with you, they’re still with you. When you have family, whether biological, or chosen, or some combination, you are never alone.
Q: What else can concert-goers expect?
A: They can also expect to have fun! We do address some serious themes, but this is going to be an amazing concert. We’ve hired Larry Sousa, a nationally known and recognized choreographer, to stage the show. Sons & Daughters will deliver the best of classical music mixed with musical theatre, and we’ll take you on a journey that you cannot find on any other stage in Boston!
The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus will perform Sons & Daughters Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 3 p.m. at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough St., Boston. Tickets $20–$60. Tickets available at www.bgmc.org or 617-542-SING (7464). Group rates are available.