Randall Wrisinger has always loved playing the piano.
“My grandmother bought me a cord organ when I was four and I really took to it,” Wrisinger recalled. “So when I was five my mom and dad bought me a Spinet piano for our home. I took to it to the point that by the time I was in the fifth grade my dad said ‘it goes in his bedroom’ because I wouldn’t stay off of it. It was a passion and a love from day one and continues to be to this day.”
Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Wrisinger was a minister of music for many years. He also played for various choruses and theater productions. He moved to Michigan 10 years ago with his husband, who works in finance at Ford Motor Company’s World Headquarters in Dearborn.
He had always wanted to create a chorus in Michigan but the timing wasn’t right. Until last year, that is, when PRISM, the gay men and allies chorus of Metro Detroit was formed.
“I had a group of friends who had been involved in other choruses,” said Wrisinger. “They came and chatted with me and said ‘if you had an opportunity to do it would you do it?’ I said I would ‘but you realize when you start a not-for-profit you’re starting with zero.'”
But Wrisinger knew what he was doing and he had things up and running in no time.
“I’ve done this all my life,” Wrisinger said. “So I know what it takes to purchase music and buy licenses and have this and have that to produce a quality program. You have to have a venue. You have to have a place to rehearse. It’s expensive. So I started with my credit card with zero and I ordered the music. I did it right. I was not going to copy music. I was not going to cheat the system. That’s not the way you do it. I wanted to do it right.”
After putting out the initial call last summer, Wrisinger started the fall semester last year with 40 members. Members pay dues of $75 per semester. There is no real audition, just a vocal placement.
Potential members need “to come and spend some time with me,” said Wrisinger. “It doesn’t take long. I just need to hear their vocal skills, whether they’re a baritone, bass or tenor 1 or 2. Highs and lows. Can they hear pitch? Can they match pitch? Can they match rhythm? You don’t have to be a sight reader. It’s easy to learn because we have people of various levels. We have people who don’t read and we have people who are trained with music degrees. So there’s the gamut. You would have to be literally tone death to not be accepted.”
Members of the chorus appear to enjoy not just the music but the fellowship and making of new friends within the group.
“We were babies in the fall,” said Don Gerstelr of Birmingham, who had worked with Wrisinger before on various theatrical productions and currently serves as PRISM’s board chair.
“It was a very pleasant experience. It’s been very drama free. It’s blended very quickly into a tight knit group, more like a family. And the rehearsals are structured in such a way where it’s social but we come to work hard because we only have two hours a week to work together. So it’s a good mix.”
James King of Hazel Park agreed.
“It’s been so much better and different than I thought it was going to be,” King said. “I expected it to be kind of just people coming together to sing but it’s so much more than that. It’s such a great group and everyone seems to get along.”
For Michael Champagne of Roseville, it’s the closeness he feels with his fellow chorus members that keeps him coming back.
“Everyone’s gotten super close,” said Champagne. “Everyone gets to know one another. It’s very emotional. I mean people cry during rehearsals. It’s very moving and uplifting and creates a sense of family. Plus Randy’s a great director so we’re very organizationally structured. We kind of hit every challenge that we need to.”
For his part, Wrisinger is proud of what he’s accomplished so far.
“My goal with PRISM was to create an environment where guys who really love to sing have a safe space to come and sing,” he said. “We have both gay guys and allies in our group.”
PRISM’s sophomore production, “A Salute To America,” is scheduled for the Baldwin Theater in Royal Oak on June 24. The production sold out in a mere 72 hours.
“What I’m doing is telling the story of America,” Wrisinger explained. “The first half of our concert goes through the Civil War. It starts at the Gettysburg address. Then it goes moves into World War 1 and 2. Arlington. We have salute to our armed forces for anyone current or retired or deceased that has served in all five branches. Then we have our intermission. Then we move to civil rights and from that we move into lgbt rights, where it started with Harvey Milk time and when the gay movement really started in the U.S. Then we take it through the AIDS crisis in the 80s through gay marriage up to where we currently are.”
Today, PRISM has 55 members, though Wrisinger says he’d love to see it grow to 150 someday.
“I hope that what we did at Christmas and what we’re going to do in the spring that it will just entice more men, both gay and straight, that would want to come to a welcoming environment for a very motivated group of people that all seek to do the same goal of presenting great music,” said Wrisinger. “It’s social time weekly. It’s fun time weekly. But we work hard. We work hard when we’re here and when we play we play harder.”