The Bittersweet Song of the Gay Men's Chorus : AIDS has taken its toll on the group and, ironically, given it new life

There is no performing group in town that has been more affected by the AIDS crisis than the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles.

No one here to guide you,

now you're on your own

On a recent Sunday the 120-member chorus stood on a makeshift stage in a West Hollywood disco, singing Stephen Sondheim's "No One Is Alone." The event was a short concert to raise funds for the chorus and to publicize its Christmas concerts next Saturday and Sunday.

The song was written for a Broadway musical about storybook characters and is not about acquired immune deficiency syndrome. But as the sound of the chorus swelled in volume and broke into two- and three-part harmonies, a few people in the crowd began to cry softly.

Only me beside you,

still you're not alone

The decade-old chorus cannot sing a sad or bittersweet song of any variety without the specter of AIDS hanging over the proceedings. Even a song that celebrates life, such as "I Sing the Body Electric" from the movie "Fame," can have a chilling and ultimately cathartic effect when sung by this group of men who have had so many peers die long before old age.

More than 20 men who were members of the ensemble have been struck down by the disease, as was the conductor who forged them into a serious musical unit.

No one is alone, truly,

no one is alone.

The deaths and suffering were horrible, but, for the chorus, not in vain. Two years ago the Gay Mens' Chorus was a foundering organization, in danger of extinction. It was half its current size, financially unstable and demoralized.

The terrible irony is that AIDS gave the chorus new life.

"This started out as a group that had 'Give us some men who are stouthearted men' as its theme song," said Craig Woodbury, 43, the current president of the group which was formed in 1978.

"Originally, we just wanted to have an organization where gay men could meet outside a bar situation and be in an atmosphere of mutual support," he said. "It was a social organization."

In those days, anyone who wanted to join the chorus could do so by signing up. There were no auditions.

"We had some unusual voices in the chorus," Woodbury said with a laugh, "but we got a huge response right from the beginning. We thought we really must be good, but we could have done anything up there and still have been a hit. Our audiences were almost totally gay, and they had never seen anything like us.

"It was like singing for your mother when you are in grade school. You can't go wrong."

In 1980, Jerry Carlson, who was to be the most important figure in the chorus' building years, joined the group. A co-founder of a gay chorus in Chicago, Carlson took over as conductor of the local group and steered it toward a more professional sound.

"There was a strain between those who wanted to just have a good time and those who wanted to get more serious," said chorus member Rich Newcome during the break at one of the group's weekly rehearsals at First United Methodist Church in Hollywood.

"We didn't want to give up being a social organization," Woodbury added, "but most of us realized the real reason we were getting together was to make music, and to do that in a serious way we had to make changes."

Auditions were inaugurated, and Carlson, while keeping pop music in the chorus' repertoire, also worked his singers to the point where they could tackle music as serious as Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms."

"Jerry was taking us further and further," Woodbury said. "We were thinking about playing the Music Center, having music commissioned just for us.

"It was an exciting time."

The first AIDS death of an active chorus member came at Christmastime, 1984.

"Ever since then, we've never been without at least one person in the group who had AIDS," Newcome said. The chorus sang at memorial services, when asked, and at AIDS masses at area churches.

The chorus continued to progress musically. One major triumph came in 1985 when the group won a "blind" audition--judged from tape recordings by a panel who knew nothing of the makeup of the chorus--held by the American Choral Directors Assn. With the victory was supposed to come an invitation to sing at the choral association's western division conference to be held in San Jose. But when the association found out just what kind of group had won, it tried to withdraw the invitation.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Gay Men's Chorus brought suit against the association and the association gave in, extending the invitation.

Jon Bailey, chairman of the music department at Pomona College and formerly head of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, was in the audience, hearing the chorus for the first time. "It was a powerful experience," he said. "They sang very well, with great confidence. There were standing ovations."

But the chorus was not in great shape; AIDS had taken its toll. As in the gay community in general, morale was down. Even healthy members of the group began to leave, and ticket sales to concerts fell off. The situation seemed to weigh heavily on Carlson, who had poured so much of his life into the chorus. On his doctor's advice, he planned a six-month leave.

Then, in July, 1986, at the time he was to begin his sabbatical, Carlson was found to have AIDS.

"I thought that this had the potential to destroy the chorus," Woodbury said. "A group of us decided to call a meeting right away to inform everyone and talk it through."

The meeting, which Carlson chose not to attend, was one that won't likely be forgotten by those who did.

"Jerry was very close to all of us," Woodbury said. "When we talked about him, we were talking about how all of us had the potential for coming down with the disease. Now, it was so close to home.

"We talked about how we felt about ourselves as gay men, about Jerry, about how much we needed to stick together. Several people got up that night and told us, for the first time, that they had been diagnosed."

It was not an easy story for Woodbury to tell. He stopped several times to regain his composure.

"It reminded us why the group was there. We weren't just getting together just to sing, or to see if we could perform at the Music Center or to be accepted by a straight audience. All that had to take second place.

"We were singing to affirm who we are and to support each other. And that didn't just mean having someone over to dinner or going out for the weekend. We were there to take care of each other."

As more chorus members became sick and had difficulty moving around, their fellow singers took pains to keep them performing as long as possible. Movements were choreographed to get sick members on and off the stage with a minimum of fuss. Carlson returned after his leave, but contingency plans were made.

The chorus asked Bailey if he would take over permanently when Carlson became too sick to continue.

"When I was coming out, someone said to me, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could someday be conductor of one of the gay choruses?' " said Bailey, 49, who was once married and didn't begin living openly as a gay man until he was in his early 40s. "And I just shuddered at the thought."

For Bailey, AIDS was the deciding factor. "When you work with the chorus you see these people with AIDS and with AIDS Related Complex, and you see how music sustains them in a time of crisis. You sing at memorial services and you see what this chorus means to the gay community at a time when we are being heavily assaulted from a variety of viewpoints. I felt a need to be part of that."

The chorus still had major obstacles to overcome if it was to land on its feet. A costly April, 1987, production of an original operetta, complete with stage sets, costumes and dancing, was a box-office disaster and put a serious strain on the always tenuous financial state of the group. But if evidence was needed that the chorus now had the spirit to outlast the bad times, it came with an invitation to sing the text of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony in concert with the Long Beach Symphony.

Conductor Murry Sidlin hired them on the recommendation of composer Ned Rorem and on the basis of a tape he heard of the chorus in concert. "I was just knocked out," said Sidlin, who is currently conducting a series of concerts with the San Diego Symphony. "The sound was so powerful. They had wonderful musicianship."

The chorus learned the Russian text and was coached by Carlson until he grew too weak to conduct rehearsals. Choral conductor Beverly Patton stepped in to help ready them for the November, 1987, performance.

Did the chorus' immersion in the AIDS crisis have an effect on its work?

"No question about it," Sidlin said. "The Shostakovich work talks about death, about discrimination, about the tremendously fragile state of life. At one point, when I wanted one passage to be more mournful and weighty, I turned to them and said: 'This passage is about hatred and discrimination. Do you have any idea of what that is about?' And of course they did.

"The poetry and drama in their performance was certainly related to their circumstance in life."

Just before the Long Beach concert, Bailey carried Carlson into the last rehearsal the ailing conductor would attend. "He sat in a wheelchair and spoke to the group," Bailey said. "He was very weak and covered with lesions. I didn't want to see this; none of us did. But it was important for him to know we were still with him, and he was with us."

Two weeks later Carlson died.

"Jerry had taken a bunch of guys and made them into a musical instrument, and now they sang for him, at his memorial service," Bailey said. "And they sang very well."

On a cool evening a few weeks ago, the chorus met for one of its weekly rehearsals for the upcoming Christmas concerts. The sound it produced was rich and full as the members went through pop songs, a Christmas cantata by Daniel Pinkham and an adaptation of the Oscar Wilde story "The Happy Prince."

Spirits ran high during rehearsal, as Bailey prodded the group with gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, admonishments. But even when correcting them he told jokes and kept the atmosphere light. When he was particularly pleased, he would smile and tell them to "give each other a hug."

Halfway through the three-hour rehearsal, Jim Stenstrom, 33, quietly left the hall. He is one of two chorus members who have AIDS--the other is so sick that he can no longer come to rehearsals. Although Stenstrom, who has short blond hair, a boyish face and a slight build, showed no outward signs of the disease, he tired easily. He said that he suffers from night sweats and chronic diarrhea.

When he first joined the chorus, he had been found to have AIDS-Related Complex. "I couldn't work anymore and so I was just sitting around the apartment, taking my pills and getting depressed," he said, taking a seat on the patio outside the rehearsal hall.

His brother persuaded him to try out for the gay chorus. "He said, 'Why don't you do something with yourself?' He got me to realize: so what if I might be near the end of my life? I also might make it to when there is a cure. And in the meantime, I had to do something with myself."

Stenstrom passed the audition and joined the chorus in January. But 10 months later he came down with a strain of tuberculosis and he was found to have full-blown AIDS.

Hard to see the light now,

just don't let it go

As if on cue, while Stenstrom was talking about his disease, the chorus began rehearsing the last part of "No One Is Alone."

Things will be all right now,

we can make it so

Stenstrom buttoned up his jacket against the cold and talked about how much it meant to him to have the chorus in his life, how Bailey was the first one to see him at the hospital and how other chorus members followed in a steady stream.

It was time for him to go home and rest, but he was willing to answer one more question.

How did he feel singing "No One Is Alone"? How can he make it through a song that brings tears to the eyes of perfectly healthy people?

"That's not so hard," Stenstrom said with a smile, leaning back in his chair as the sound of the chorus drifted out from the rehearsal hall.

Someone is on your side

No one is alone.

"I just pretend they are all singing it to me."

The "Christmas Is" concerts by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles will be at the Embassy Theater, 851 S. Grand, Saturday at 8 p.m. and next Sunday, Dec. 18, at 4 p.m. For ticket information call 213-462-5284.

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