The London Gay Men’s Chorus, Europe’s biggest choir of its type, is marking its 21st anniversary with a celebratory concert at London’s Southbank Centre – and a mass kiss-in.
In a large room in Hampstead town hall, north London, almost 200 men are standing in rows, singing “miaow, miaow, miaow, miaow” in decending scales. Ranging in age from 21 to 75, this is the London Gay Men’s Chorus. The ranks are liberally sprinkled with beards, plaid shirts and piercings, but also suits, specs and one mobility scooter. The men are warming up for the first rehearsal with a band for their 21st-anniversary concert this Sunday at the Southbank Centre, which – alongside songs from their eclectic repertoire ranging from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way to the Pilgim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser – will see them perform their first specially commissioned work.
Shadow Time, by composer Conor Mitchell and playwright Mark Ravenhill, takes listeners through the history of the LGMC and the gay community itself. Like many songs the choir perform, it’s celebratory – not to say anthemic – but Ravenhill says: “I didn’t have it in me to write a contemporary I Am What I Am“, the stomper from La Cage Aux Folles.
Instead, Shadow Time starts in the era when being gay was akin to being in a secret society. “There was always the shadow of Aids in that time, so as well as a lot of fun there was a lot of fear,” says Ravenhill, who came to London around the same time that the LGMC started up. “Then there’s the present, which is more pleasant – if maybe a little dull.” He chuckles.
The song’s lyric ends by pointing out that despite huge shifts in mainstream acceptance, the number of public places where same-sex couples can confidently kiss or hold hands remains small. The finale of the song is a mass “kiss-in” among the choir – and, it is hoped, the audience. “Mark was vehement about it,” says Mitchell.
It’s the first avowedly gay work Ravenhill has made since claiming in the Guardian five years ago that he had run out of things to say about the gay community. “Really,” he admits, “Shadow Time is about developing my working relationship with Conor Mitchell.” In 2010, the pair staged a half-hour operatic monologue called Intolerance, and last year staged a work called Ten Plagues by Marc Almond. Now they have their sights on a grand opera, but to do that, says Ravenhill, “we [first] needed to learn how to write big choral pieces. It’s a way of developing our skills towards creating our Gesamtkunstwerk.”
The kiss-in will be only one of many theatrical elements of the concert. The choir has become renowned for its choreography – “clap on three, punch the air on five,” creative director Stuart Burrows instructs the choir – and during their rendition of Lily Allen’s Fuck You there will be projections of the choir’s “figures of hate”: protesters waving placards saying “God Hates Fags”, and the homophobic bus advert planned by a Christian group that caused outrage last month.
Their repertoire takes in pop songs, show tunes and classical pieces. Songs are suggested by the members of the choir, then chosen by a subcommittee. The three-strong music team then arranges them for the choir. Harmonies are usually four-part – two tenor and two bass, though more ambitious arrrangements have included a 16-part version of Björk’s Triumph of the Heart, complete with beatboxing.
The choir was begun in 1991 by a group of nine men – none of whom are in the choir any more – who used to meet at a social group called London Friend, where they would play their favourite CDs. “Someone said to them: ‘Why not start a choir if you’re so into music?’ so they rehearsed a few pieces to raise money for charity and put on their first gig at Angel tube,” says chorus chairman Alisdair Low. The gig, which featured nervous renditions of songs including Over the Rainbow, drew such crowds that the station had to be closed. Low joined two years later. “We used to rehearse under Finsbury library. We had a burly female stage manager on the door to bat away the council kids who would shout abuse through the door.”
Over the past 21 years, the LGMC has grown into Europe’s biggest gay choir. Anyone can join, although the waiting list can be six months long, with 70 or 80 people turning up at new members’ evenings. So does the choir include any terrible singers? “No,” says musical director Simon Sharp after a moment’s hesitation. Choir member Sacha Kester says that those who can’t keep up with the music soon fall by the wayside.
The LGMC perform two major concerts a year, tour the world, and have played venues ranging from London’s Palladium and Roundhouse to 10 Downing Street, where, at an event against homophobia in sport, they warmed up for David Cameron with a rendition of Make Your Own Kind of Music, from the film Beautiful Thing, and Labi Siffre’s (Something Inside) So Strong.
Choir member Christopher Calvert says that such concerts are an important part of the choir’s mission to reach out beyond the gay community and combat prejudice. “It reinforces that we’re positive role models in terms of being part of a musical organisation with credibility as opposed to the stereotypical camp, jolly choir,” adds Sharp, “though there is an element of that.” Quite a big element? “We try to put a lid on it,” concedes Sharp.
On Sunday, the LGMC will be joined by a 70-strong youth mixed choir taken from five schools where the group have sung. Being invited into schools, they say, wouldn’t have happened 21 years ago. Their presence puts combating homophobia on the schools’ agenda and shows, says choir member Paul Hawley, “that we’re not axe murderers”.
“When I go into a school it’s less about ‘Oh my God, you’re gay’ and more about ‘You’re quite nice people who sing,’” says Basi Akpabio, another member.
Mitchell says that the anniversary concert is “aimed as much at the heterosexual community – we’re actually together now. It’s not gay men talking to gay men, it’s gay men talking to the world.”
Will a time come when there is no need for a gay choir? Would straight men be welcome? “We couldn’t stop them,” says Kester – and the choir never enquire into the sexual identity of prospective members.
“If straight men want to join, as long as they realise that we identify ourselves as the London Gay Men’s Chorus and they don’t have a problem with that, then I don’t have a problem with it either,” says Hawley.
In the meantime, the LGMC’s members say it has an important role as a place beyond pubs, clubs or the internet where gay men of all ages can meet.
“There are so many stories here, so many interesting people,” says the youngest member, Alan Wright, who has also found inviting friends and family to concerts a handy way of coming out.
Inevitably, romance sometimes blooms – two members had a civil partnership two weeks ago. “When I first joined 18 years ago there were only about 20 people in it and you knew who was dating who,” says Hawley. “Then maybe after a couple of weeks someone would stop showing up and you knew that the relationship had broken down.”
“Maybe I’m not plugged into the gossip, but it doesn’t strike me that people come to pull,” says Akpabio. “It’s not a knocking shop.”
The choir is “a family. A band of brothers. That’s the name of our show on Sunday and that’s what it is,” says Kester.
The London Gay Men’s Chorus’s Top Five Anthems
Make Our Garden Grow from the musical Candide
Alan Wright: “That has a personal resonance for me and it’s the most beautiful piece of music.”
Let the River Run by Carly Simon, from the film Working Girl
Paul Hawley: “The words mean that you can bring whatever you want to the table in terms of your interpretation.”
You Are My Sister by Antony and the Johnsons
Basi Akpabio: “I don’t think of it as an anthem but it’s poignant, lyrical and beautiful.”
Love Don’t Need a Reason by Peter Allen
Stuart Sharp: “It was borne out of the initial Aids crisis in America in the early 80s. It’s quite a resonant tune”
Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz
Stuart Sharp: “It’s the quintessential gay song. We’ve created quite a lush arrangement which shows how the chorus has grown in size and complexity.”