Checking in With ... Bob Gunn of MenAlive chorus

MenAlive, the Orange County gay men's chorus, has a new man in charge of making it come alive.

The chorus announced this month that Bob Gunn, a founding member and assistant artistic director since 2002, has taken the helm as artistic director. He replaces Rich Cook, who formed the group in 2001 and oversaw it for 13 years.

MenAlive has three concerts scheduled for the 2014-15 season, all three of them at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, which has served as the group's longtime home. On Dec. 5 and 6, the chorus will present "Jolly Holly Follies," a 1950s-style holiday show; March 27 and 28 will bring "She Got the Beat," a tribute to Lady Gaga, Cher, Beyonce and other female performers; and the season will close with "The One," an Elton John tribute, on June 26 and 27.

Gunn, an Aliso Viejo resident, spoke last week about his history with MenAlive and hopes for the upcoming season. The following are excerpts from the conversation:


It looks here from the press release like your slogan for 2014-15 is "We've got a new attitude." I guess the first question is, tell me what the new attitude is.

[laughs] Well, that primarily comes from the fact that we are going through a transition right now. Our founding director just retired this year, and so I'm taking over the chorus starting in September. So we're taking the new idea that we're kind of changing up the guard and going with that for our slogan this year.

Our founding director, Rich Cook, started the chorus 14 years ago, and he just retired — June was his last concert. And [we] went through an extensive search process to find somebody to fill his shoes, because he's got big shoes to fill. But I have been a part of the chorus from the beginning as well, and I have been the assistant director for quite some time, and they decided that I was the best candidate for the job to go forward.

So, long story short, that's our new attitude. We're going to try to shake things up a bit, maybe go after a younger, a bit younger, audience — I want to be careful about saying something like that — and continue to be a dynamic arts organization in Orange County and to continue to be a bridge to the greater community at large, the greater Orange County community.

You mentioned appealing to a younger audience. I noticed in your "She Got the Beat" concert that you have coming up later on, you have some younger people in there that you're going to be paying tribute to, like Lady Gaga. Is that part of the push to appeal to a younger crowd?

Well, certainly. I mean, I enjoy that music as well, but yes, I think the music that we do will attract some younger guys to come sing in the chorus, perhaps, and then we can kind of channel that energy to try to attract a younger audience as well.

It's interesting, looking over the list of people that you're paying tribute to this year — Lady Gaga, of course; you have Elton John, Aretha Franklin and a few others. Are there any particular qualities that make a singer or make a performer a gay icon? Have we ever figured out exactly how that comes about?

[laughs] That's a great question. You know, I imagine that it's different for different periods of time. Years ago, before people were out in their lives, it was a different time. So you kind of, I guess, you noticed the attitudes, and for gay men, maybe the flamboyance of an artist, or sassiness, things that all of us can identify with. I don't want to generalize gay men at all, because we're all very different. But nowadays, it's a much different game.

Artists, a lot of them, are free to be out, like Adam Lambert, and even some of the newer kids who seem to have no hang-ups at all about sexuality issues that, definitely, my generation didn't grow up with. I think, getting back to your question, just great music is certainly attractive, and something that projects confidence and strength and a little in-your-face maybe — well, that's not the right phrase, but just confidence, I guess.

It's certainly been a big era in the last few years in terms of gay rights, with all the breakthroughs they've been having in terms of same-sex marriage, certainly, nationwide. Do you ever see your group as political at all, whether it's in terms of your message or just the fact that you are a gay men's chorus at this point in time?

We are not a political group, but at the same time, we can't help but be, just by being who we are. Because we identify ourselves proudly as being gay men, we're obviously going to be looked at or approached in a certain way. For people that are friendly to a gay group, they're going to see it one way. People that are not friendly are going to see it another way. In that sense, it's not so much political as social, I imagine. We don't attempt to be a political organization. We certainly — as an organization, we encourage our guys to be involved and active in our community in things that concern us, but we're not a political group.

Have you ever had straight people wanting to sing with your group?

We do have a couple of guys that have sung with us in the past, yeah.

Did they just like your musical style?

You know, you'd have to ask them. But there aren't too many men's choruses around anymore. Most of them seem to be gay men's choruses. But we have one guy now who just loves to sing and isn't threatened by being in a room full of gay guys. He's great.

I've noticed you always specifically bill yourself as a gay men's chorus. Is there anything musically, you think, that sets a gay men's chorus apart from just a typical chorus?

Not musically, I wouldn't think. There are as many different kinds of gay men's choruses as there are kinds of music, I would think. You can't really pigeonhole them. Each chorus kind of develops its own brand, and we, MenAlive, have kind of developed our brand over the last 14 years. We've done a certain style of music that comes from the leadership, really, from the director we've had to this point, and he did a fantastic job of branding us.

We kind of did a mix of pop and gospel and contemporary and some sacred classics thrown in for good measure. It's a good variety of music. But no, I don't think there's a certain specific sound or genre that gay choruses kind of adhere to. It more depends on the artistic leadership, kind of what they want to do.

For me, I'm very interested in broadening our musical tastes and seeing if we can't do a little more — I wouldn't call it serious music, but a little deeper kind of music, not necessarily classical, but a little more challenging.

You performed with Liza Minnelli about a year and a half ago. Are there any other artists that you'd really like to perform with in concert?

Mmm, good question. You know, I haven't really thought about that, but just off the top of my head, I just saw Queen with Adam Lambert, and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing if we could convince him to come do a show with us.

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