Although the impulse that drives Songs of Resilience is celebratory, the stories behind its featured songs are not always happy. Consider the case of Lorenz Hart, who crafted the lyrics for many of Richard Rodgers’s early musical masterpieces, including “Blue Moon”, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”, and “My Funny Valentine”. Hart had a rare gift for detailing the bittersweet nature of romance, but in his own life honeyed moments were rare.
“By all accounts he was a difficult and not very happy person, and a lot of that stemmed from him being a closeted guy in the 1930s,” explains Queer Songbook Orchestra bandleader and trumpet player Shaun Brodie, checking in with the Straight from Los Angeles. “He was surrounded by beautiful people, people who were really able to enjoy themselves, but he couldn’t. He just couldn’t be open about who he was. He wrote all these beautiful, potent love songs, but he didn’t experience those things himself. Nobody really loved him except for his mother, and he died only months after she did. He basically drank himself to death.”
Who knows what further gems Hart might have contributed to the canon had he been able to live as openly as his fellow songwriters k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, and Elton John? Highlighting his story, says Brodie, is a way of pointing out the perils of the closet. But a bigger part of Songs of Resilience is that the evening-length program features not just inventive chamber-pop reworkings of songs by LGBT artists, but stories from members of the queer community about how music strengthened their resolve to be themselves.
“We’re telling these historical stories, but we’re also using personal stories,” Brodie explains. “So we’re coming at it from a personal and a historic perspective, and those personal stories—the ones we’ll be doing on this tour, anyway—are much more tender. There’s humour to them: they’re about people’s experiences as a teenager with their sexuality and stuff, and there’s a lot of room for humour in that.”
Helping to bring those stories to life during the Toronto-based Queer Songbook Orchestra’s two Lower Mainland performances will be broadcaster and author Bill Richardson and singer-songwriter Veda Hille. “We work with straight people as well as queer people,” Brodie points out, stressing that while all of the full-time members of his 10-piece ensemble are queer, many of their collaborators are not. For instance, the former Vancouverite has tapped a number of local luminaries—including guitarist and composer Ford Pier, Vancouver New Music artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi, and improvising great Gordon Grdina—to write arrangements for Songs of Resilience. None of those three identify as gay; all support a more inclusive musical community.
“People who are queer can come together to hear these stories, and people from outside the community will get a chance to broaden their own perspective on music that’s probably in their record collection,” Brodie says. “My hope is that this can help foster more understanding of each other, and of the differences in people. It’s a bit of a lofty goal, but one can dream!”
The Queer Songbook Orchestra plays New Westminster’s Anvil Centre Theatre on Thursday (January 28) and a PuSh International Performing Arts Festival show at the Fox Cabaret on Friday (January 29).