Daniel Arredondo grew up in a Spanish-language Pentecostal church in Kyle — “when it had two gas stations and a Dairy Queen” — with a love of music and a secret.
Now director of Capital City Men’s Chorus, which celebrates its 30th anniversary with a groundbreaking concert about LGBTQ history this weekend, he could not tell his community back then that he was gay.
Because of that, Arredondo felt a kinship with a character in “Unbreakable: The Untold Stories of Our Community,” the musical/oratorio composed by Andrew Lippa that his choir and four soloists will perform. The 70-minute piece, co-commissioned by the Austin chorus for gay men and their allies, makes its Austin premiere May 18-19 at Bates Recital Hall on the University of Texas campus.
“My own life story resonates with a lot of the thoughts and feelings of these stories told from a first-person point of view,” Arredondo says. “One song, ‘Already Dead,’ tells of Cyril Wilcox. He confided in his brother about having sexual relations with another man. He was tried in the Secret Court of 1920 and was expelled from Harvard University. He ended up committing suicide. In ‘Unbreakable,’ the character is crying out to a higher power, while questioning himself. How is he supposed to live? How can he carry on? That’s how I felt growing up in a such a conservative — yet very loving — family whose theology disagrees with who I am as gay man.”
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Capital City Men’s Chorus was founded in 1989 in the teeth of the AIDS crisis. Similar choirs had provided comfort and inspiration to communities from San Francisco to New York, but Austin’s edition did not contain “gay” in its title as “a way to not out people,” Arredondo says.
The choir is best known in some circles for its staged versions of show tunes, standards and pop songs, but as a recent concert at the Millett Opera House proved, it has also conquered intricate choral arrangements of songs not originally intended for group treatment.
Lippa’s “Unbreakable,” written in 2017, represents an even bigger challenge. Already recorded by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, it was co-commissioned by 10 allied choirs after Lippa had completed “I Am Harvey Milk,” a large-scale choral project completed in 2013.
“Tim Seelig, the music director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, contacted me in 2011 and asked me to write a 5-minute piece about my thoughts/observations of Harvey Milk,” Lippa recently told Playbill magazine. “My answer to Tim was: ‘Can I write a 60-minute piece?’ And ‘I Am Harvey Milk’ was born.”
A few years later, Seelig came to Lippa to create a new full-length work.
“My thoughts turned to (playwright) August Wilson,” Lippa says. “Why? August Wilson wrote a 10-play cycle about the African American experience in the 20th century. I thought, ‘What if I wrote a series of songs/choral pieces that chronicled the LGBTQ experience of the American century leading up to today?’ Very quickly the word ‘Unbreakable’ sprang to mind. Why? This is a word that, for me, describes the LGBTQ community. When we hold hands, when we stay close together as a community, we are unbreakable. There have been challenges, yes. There have been diseases and distortions, yes. But, to paraphrase Mr. Sondheim, we’re still here.”
Lippa, once composer-in-residence at Texas State University, will appear in Austin as one of the soloists, alongside Austin favorite Nicholas Rodriguez, as well as Becky Knox and Texas State rising star Rachel Webb.
Kaitlin Hopkins, who runs Texas State’s musical theater training program, serves as stage director for “Unbreakable,” which runs without an intermission. She says that Lippa asked her to join the team after working together for years both at Texas State and in New York.
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Arredondo, Hopkins and Lippa all expressed strong personal connections to the stories in “Unbreakable.”
“In my professional career, I’ve never been so invested before,” says Arredondo, who's also music director at Metropolitan Community Church. “There are movements focused just on the chorus, then organic interweaving of chorus and soloists, then everyone together culminating in a roller coaster of movements. After the song ‘41’ — which refers to the first ‘41 cases of gay cancer,’ — we had to take a break. It was so emotional, especially to members who lived through that period and lost loved ones, partners and friends.”
“This piece is a beautiful and important piece, and it means a great deal to be part of telling the LBGTQ story,” Hopkins says. “When I read the libretto and listened to the score, I knew bringing this song cycle to our community in and around the Austin area was an opportunity I wanted to be part of. This show’s message of love and inclusion and resilience and hope and history is a story to be sung from the mountain tops. I’m honored to be of service to that message.”
“I’m gay. I’m out. I’m an artist,” Lippa says. “I want to support the LGBTQ community by telling our stories. I want to bring music and stories into the world that might help other people feel less alone, feel more connected, feel part of something bigger than their town or street or farm or high-rise. … It helps me feel like I’ve brought something good and real into the world. It makes me feel unbreakable myself, though I know the truth is much more nuanced and much more complex. Ultimately, it’s about doing the hard work of feeling less alone in the world."