by David-Elijah Nahmod
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus pays homage to the distinguished gay author Armistead Maupin in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first installment of Maupin’s serialized novel Tales of the City appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle. Maupin’s stories might have been the first to include the entire LGBTQ spectrum as he acknowledged the mecca and safe haven that San Francisco has become. The author captured the imaginations of millions as his Tales became a series of bestselling books and three television miniseries.
Maupin will appear as guest artist when the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus performs Tales of Our City: Our Lives, Our Heroes at Davies Symphony Hall on April 14 and 15. The program will include “Michael’s Letters to Mama.” The piece’s title refers to Tales of the City ‘s Michael Tolliver, one of literature’s great gay characters.
“It’s always a thrill when the Gay Men’s Chorus performs that piece,” Maupin told the Bay Area Reporter . “That letter was my coming out to my parents. It’s a lovely thing to hear it set to music.”
Maupin said that he initially had no idea that Tales of the City would become a full-time career. “Not in my wildest dreams,” he said. “At first I hoped I would have a popular newspaper column. I’m very grateful, it’s been nothing but a joyride.”
One of the recurring themes in the Tales stories is the creation of LGBT families among people who’ve been rejected by their birth families because of who they are. “The family you create for yourself as opposed to your biological family,” Maupin said. “It’s not enough to merely be tolerated, it creates a real gulf between you and the people you love.”
Dr. Tim Seelig, conductor and artistic director of SFGMC, spoke of the significance of Maupin’s work. “The series of Tales books gave the entire world a window into life in San Francisco,” Seelig said. “More than just giving people a peek into the colorful lives of Barbary Lane, it allowed the world to follow the journey of the entire LGBT community through the triumphs and tragedies, joys and sorrows.”
The concert, Seelig promises, is going to be a huge and emotional spectacle. “Actually, our largest yet,” he said. “We will have 300 singers on stage, along with the 60-piece Bay Area Rainbow Symphony. I would describe it as monumental.”
In addition to Maupin’s iconic creation, the evening will pay tribute to SFGMC members who lived through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, and to the late Harvey Milk (1930-78). When Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors a year before he was assassinated at City Hall, he became the first out gay man in US history to hold elective office.
“The addition of parts of James Lippa’s I Am Harvey Milk were obvious in that we are celebrating the first article that was written in 1976 just as Harvey Milk was campaigning for city supervisor,” Seelig said. “Honoring heroes such as Harvey and Armistead just felt so right.” He noted that the Chorus would be taking I Am Harvey Milk on the road. “We are also performing I Am Harvey Milk this July at the Gay and Lesbian Choruses Festival in Denver with 1,000 singers from all over the US,” Seelig added. “Yes, that was 1,000 singers.”
The tragic horrors of the AIDS years are recalled in NakedMan. This was the first piece that was inspired by the lives of actual Chorus members, initially performed in 1996. “The tales of our lives could not be represented better than with the 20th Anniversary of NakedMan,” Seelig said. “It was literally our lives, our stories set to music. The music is just glorious and covers the wide array of emotions and experiences still poignant and relevant today.”
The concert will open with a new piece from Dr. James Eakin, Composer-in-Residence for SFGMC. “Dr. Eakin and I have collaborated for over 15 years,” Seelig said. “This new piece, ‘Open the Gate,’ is at first glance a reference to our city and the Golden Gate. But it is so much more. It is a reminder to live our lives with open hearts, and a reminder that, regardless of how tempting it might be to close those gates and/or borders, it is only in remaining open as a society that we will ultimately fulfill our destiny.”
Though the concert’s underlying themes are quite serious, Seelig promises that the evening will include humor, and even a little choreography. The concert will serve as a reminder of how much San Francisco means to LGBT people.
“I was raised as a conservative and a segregationist,” recalls Maupin. “This is about climbing out of that pit and into the light. I did it with the help of San Francisco.” Maupin also shared part of a letter that he wrote to his parents many years ago: “If you, Papa, are responsible for the way I am, then I thank you with all my heart.”
Tales of Our City: Our Lives, Our Heroes, Thurs. & Fri., April 14 & 15, 8 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., SF. Tickets ($25-$75): sfgmc.org.