Photo Credit: Alice Romonov Photography
After a more than two-year hiatus from the stage due to COVID-19, the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC) joined forces with Disney Concerts for Disney PRIDE in Concert, a first-of-its-kind concert celebrating LGBTQ+ pride. The concert not only marked BGMC’s return to in-person performances but was also their biggest show to date. The premiere took place at Boston’s Symphony Hall on June 25-26, 2022, during LGBTQ+ Pride Month.
Chorus America connected with BGMC’s executive director Craig Coogan to learn about the project’s conception, returning to the stage, working with Disney, and more.
Can you tell us about BGMC’s feelings on returning to the stage, and doing so with a partner like Disney and a project celebrating LGBTQ+ pride?
BGMC returned to the stage after 941 days. It was a long time to be apart. Our music director Reuben Reynolds always says, “Music needs two things to work – performers to create it, and audiences to experience it.” This was especially true with these performances. Boston Symphony Hall was full and before a note could be played or sung the audience roared and cheered for nearly five minutes on opening night. The pent-up desire in our community for music that makes a difference was palpable and immensely moving.
No matter our age, we all grew up with the music and storytelling of Disney. The Disney catalog deeply resonates in the LGBTQ+ community. Characters are often struggling to fit in and to accept themselves, they long for a love that feels unattainable, they’ve lost their family of origin and had to create a new one, yet they persevere and find joy in life. They express their alienation, desire, and determination in beautiful songs that have given solace and empowerment to generations of LGBTQ+ people. We were overjoyed at the chance to make the thematic connections between the Disney canon and the LGBTQ+ experience explicit by infusing the music with the stories of our lives.
The LGBTQ+ choral movement began in 1979 in San Francisco. Virtually from the outset LGBTQ+ choruses have wanted to have a full concert of Disney music. We’ve been able to license songs here and there, but to collaborate with the world’s largest entertainment company – and one that has made an indelible impression on all of us – is a dream come true. For Disney, it was surprising that in its 99-year history, a full-length choral concert hadn’t been done before. We arrived at the concept of celebrating LGBTQ+ pride because it’s a universal theme and one that is threaded through so much of Disney lore.
What was the process of developing a project like Disney PRIDE In Concert through a pandemic?
Like all other choruses, we are our people. It was unimaginable to furlough the people who make us who we are at a time when we couldn’t gather. With a forced shut-down, our team took on the question of how we wanted to re-emerge. It took a whole lot longer than any of us considered, but we knew we wanted to come back with a bang. And what’s a bigger bang than 250 singers, a 25-piece orchestra singing the iconic music of Disney at Boston Symphony Hall?
We are a small organization with a handful of staff. Disney is the world’s largest entertainment company with a substantial bureaucracy. (It’s true that opposites attract!) Despite these operational differences, we had a shared passion for using the music of Disney to tell the story of loving and accepting yourself for who you are. The contributions that the Disney team made to the development of the show were amazing. Our arranger/orchestrator Chad Weirick wrote a show that uses 42 songs across the spectrum of Disney – parks, movies, animation, Broadway. Our director of video Michael Willer created a visual narrative that supported the musical storytelling with a lot of guidance from the team at Disney and Pixar. In the end, it’s a better, more inclusive and impactful show because of the contributions of so many.
This collaboration tells stories about LGBTQ+ love, the Black Lives Matter movement, AIDS, and other personal stories. Can you discuss the process of selecting the themes and why BGMC felt the need to share those stories?
In December 2020, six months before we had a signed contract, Chad was well on his way to writing the show. We knew we needed to put some structure around it. We went to our strength: our members. Without disclosing we were negotiating with Disney, we asked members to fill out a Google form about what music means to them and what BGMC means to them. We got nearly 50 responses. We curated the stories to find common themes to weave through the music.
“Go the Distance” is a wonderful song from Hercules that tells the story of a Greek boy becoming a hero. We had three speakers talk about their own journeys – one who came out to his family as loving older men and then immigrated to the U.S.; another about discovering the impact of his voice and impact during BGMC’s South Africa tour; and another who was adopted from Korea into an Italian American family and found his calling to protest through BGMC’s community and music. This story telling puts “Go the Distance” into a different context. The magical thing about the structure is another chorus may have a different journey story to tell, and the music continues to work to support that.
What is one message that you hope every audience member receives from this project?
Wishes can come true when you’re true to yourself.
Do you have any advice for choruses that take on this project to share their stories with their communities?
Tell your unique story authentically. We made the choice to go big – with an expensive hall, lights, video, huge orchestra, etc. We also knew we wanted these stories to be available to other choruses. So, it’s designed for both the big splash, and it works for a smaller chorus that doesn’t have video projection, has a piano, and a smaller ensemble. The narrative we created is about Pride and celebrating unique LGBTQ+ experiences, but it works for all types of choruses from all types of backgrounds.
We’re delighted that a number of other choruses have already licensed the show. They did so without knowing the repertoire or seeing the show! As we share content from the show, I look forward to many types of choruses performing the incredible arrangements of Chad Weirick from the Disney songbook.