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By Bridgette M. Redman
When Todd Murray takes the stage at The Berman Center for the Performing Arts Nov. 1, he’ll be helping to raise money for a cause his family cares about: the Send a Kid to Camp Fund.
Why is a crooner who grew up in a conservative Christian home singing at a fundraiser to help send Jewish kids to day camp? For the same reason his partner, a Jewish man from Detroit, sang “O Holy Night” on Christmas Eve to a small Baptist congregation: It’s what you do for family.
Murray first met his partner of 19 years, Doug Sills, on the first national tour of “The Secret Garden.” They spent more than a year together on the tour before it ended and Sills went to L.A. and Murray returned to New York.
“Like all touring companies, you are placed in a situation where you are traveling with the same group of people for over a year,” Murray says. “You travel with them, eat with them and perform with them, which is actually pretty glorious and fun and rewarding. We had the opportunity to really get to know each other and become friends before we went to the romantic side of things.”
After the tour ended, they stayed in touch and traveled back and forth across the country to be together. When Murray decided to move to L.A., they continued dating and the rest, as Murray describes it, “is history.”
At a time when there were far fewer gay role models for relationships – or for the parents of gay children – they found themselves forging new ground, a process that was made easier by having families that were very accepting from the beginning. Like many couples who come from different faith backgrounds, they each had their moments of culture shock.
“It started out as new territory for both of us,” Murray says. “My mother’s first Christmas gift was a book that said Christians are Jewish too. The first time I went to Douglas’ home, his dad would call me Murray, which we decided he liked because it sounded more Jewish than Todd.”
Family meals also provided a bit of their own discomfort, with Sills’ family having loud, talkative experiences and Murray’s family dinners being a quieter affair.
“The first time I sat down at their dinner table, there were four different entrees and everyone was talking and discussing the politics of the day,” Murray says. “It was just a very active and vocal experience versus when we came to my house and Douglas was crawling out of his skin because no one really talked that much during a meal – and we certainly didn’t talk politics. At his house, Douglas was nudging me, ‘Say something, say something.’ When we went to my house, I was like, ‘Relax, relax, relax.'”
Since those early days, both have adjusted.
“Now we’re both assimilated into each other’s cultures. I am completely comfortable and look forward to being with his family, and I would say the same for him,” Murray says. “Very early on, our families were very accepting. We take this for granted now, but even just 20 years ago, we didn’t have a lot of role models on how to do it, and parents didn’t have role models of how they do it or what special needs a gay child might have. Luckily, we come from very loving families that accepted us and continue to accept us. The fact that we are a gay union or gay men at all is somewhat a side note.”
While they both began as Broadway actors, Murray soon split away from that aspect of the performing arts business, largely because of his deep voice, the same deep voice that has let him succeed as a crooner performing an independent show singing American standards and some of his own music.
“There was a time when Broadway wrote leading male roles for (the lower, bass baritone voice): ‘South Pacific,’ ‘Guys and Dolls’ or ‘Oklahoma.’ But today, male leads are written for higher baritones or tenors,” Murray says. “I sort of saw the writing on the wall there if I wanted success in a big way. I looked to my other love in music, which was American standards – popular American songs which basically started in the ’20s with Irving Berlin.”
He created a solo show 15 years ago. It’s a show that focuses on crooning, the style that began with the advent of the microphone. The microphone let a singer become more intimate with the audience, singing in a low conversational voice.
“In reality, that intimate singing, which requires a microphone, is the basis for all popular song today,” Murray says.
Unlike a Broadway musical where the audience comes to see a character and a story, Murray’s show is about him, his music and his direct focus on the audience.
“In this genre, it’s really a one-on-one connection,” Murray says. “With my style of singing, I want you to feel that you’re in my living room and that I’m singing to you and only you.”
When he performs his show “Croon” at The Berman, a portion of the proceeds will go to the Send a Kid to Camp Fund, a charity which the Sills family supports and contributes to. The fund provides scholarships for children throughout the greater Detroit area to attend the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit’s Center Day Camps in West Bloomfield and Camp Discovery in Oak Park.
Murray describes it as coming full circle, recalling the first time he asked Sills to sing “O Holy Night” at his Baptist Church on Christmas Eve.
“It was a very small congregation in Pennsylvania – probably 100 people there,” Murray says. “I think Douglas would have much rather sung the national anthem to 50,000 people than stand in that little church.”
Nearly two decades later, they’ve adopted much of each other’s cultures and celebrate both traditions eagerly.
“Having two cultures come together has its advantages,” Murray says. “Now I’m singing at the JCC and couldn’t be happier about it.”
7:30 p.m. Nov. 1.
The Berman Center for the Performing Arts
6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield
$46 general public, $36 for JCC members