As the LGBTQ community is kicking off its annual pride celebrations in honor of June, a group in Lansing is starting a celebration of its own, and everyone is invited. The LanSINGout Gay Men’s Chorus is having its 30th anniversary, and is celebrating with a musical concert on June 7 and 8, “It Started with a Mouse! A concert of Beloved Disney Music.” And beyond celebrating more than 30 years of performance, the Chorus is also celebrating a history of community and creativity, for both young and old.
Tom Benner, 64, joined the chorus in the spring of 1991, and it was six months after he first came out. But the experience was fundamental for his entering the gay scene.
“It was a way to be out and make a contribution in an activist way,” he said. “Back in the ’90s [it was] was pre-internet. There was not a lot of opportunities to meet other gays, except at the bars. The chorus was a social avenue for getting to know people.”
He fondly remembers doing a show at the Riverwalk Theatre in June 1996.
“Having a crowd full of people was just so exciting. After the show, I remember we all said, ‘Wait, we only get to do this once?’”
After that, the group would start to do multiple shows a year, and currently, they do one in the winter and one in the summer.
The director of this year’s show, Peter Hobson-Morse, 62, lives in Kalamazoo, and he joined as a singing member in the fall of 2002. Like Benner, this was shortly after he had come out, and he had friends who sang in the chorus at the time. With his degree in music education, it was far from his first rodeo, and he loved singing with the group. Eventually, that part of his life became an important part of his living as a gay man in the early 2000s.
“There were some times,” he said, “when I hesitated to even use the word ‘gay’ to describe the chorus I directed. It took me a while to realize it’s okay to just be you. Over time, I developed a reputation, a rapport, a credibility with my co-workers, my friends and my family, and that helped a lot. What helped me most was the socialization for gay and gay-friendly men who were not just good guys but good musicians and good singers. It was more than just a place to hang out. For some, it’s like their first opportunity to be in a gay social activity. And for me, too, it was the music.”
And if there’s one thing the LanSINGout chorus prides itself on, it’s the ability to have fun. Hobson-Morse remembers a show the group did called “The Hidden Lights of Broadway,” which featured Broadway music that was lesser known.
“We had an exceptional chorus that year,” Hobson-Morse said. “We started out on stage, and four guys walked out, and they just started tap dancing.”
Another was “Music from the Other Side,” featuring songs that are typically known for having strictly women singers. “We had a whole heckuva lot of fun with that.”
In spring of 2004, Hobson-Morse was asked by the chorus to step in as acting director. Shortly after, he became the permanent director. It has always been his stance to not perform, especially as a soloist, while he is a director. For this year’s concert, Peter is breaking his usual tradition.
“I try to be as invisible when we perform,” he said.
He will be performing “When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio.” He said it’s a song that has always been close to his heart, and his performance of it is one that speaks to both older and younger members.
Two of the younger members of the chorus, Cuauhtemoc Vargas, 21, and Wyatt Richardson, 25, have only joined the chorus within the past year, and they identify as “true Michiganders.” They first heard about the group through online media and friends who were already in the chorus. For Richardson, the chorus was an opportunity “that was never really available to me,” since he grew up in a lot of small towns.
“It’s been a ride, being a part of a family that comes from different walks of life, but we all have love here,” he said. Vargas, on the other hand, has been pretty active in the gay community, being GSA president in high school and working with Delta Lambda Phi at Michigan State. But one thing Vargas has found uniquely and pleasantly surprising about LanSINGout has been talking with many of the older members.
“Performing with somebody who’s lived throughout the decades, there’s so much more to learn, so much history that can be brought to you.” Richardson added. “It’s kinda like standing alongside giants rather than just standing on their shoulders. My favorite part of being with this group is there was never a moment where I questioned if I wanted to do this. It’s been so welcoming and loving, and that’s refreshing.”
Both of them will be performing a solo this weekend. Vargas is singing, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” with the chorus as an a capella background.
“My family and I have worn out a ‘Lion King’ VHS tape,” he said. “The fact that I get to perform it in front of my family is going to be an awesome experience.”
Richardson will be singing ‘Hercules’’ “Go the Distance.”
“I chose this song because it’s an homage to my past self about chasing my dreams. They’re not that far away.”
The director decided this would be the best year to do Disney music, considering the 30th anniversary of the chorus. “Everybody likes Disney music. It’s a crowd-pleaser. You sing along to it whether you want to or not.”
But this will be far from the last big show LanSINGout does. The chorus is always growing, and the group is starting to get younger members. Hobson-Morse has goals for the chorus being more inclusive over the coming years, opening up for more transgender and gender non-conforming voices. With a look of determination, he said, “Let’s keep this chorus moving forward.”
Both of the performances are at the First Presbyterian Church (510 W. Ottawa St., Lansing) at 7:30 on June 7 and 8. Tickets at the door are $15 and free for children 12 and under. With special guest, Barrett Tryon, the LanSINGout Gay Men’s Chorus encourages you to come and “be our guest.”