Unbreakable – The Untold Stories Of Our Community
History must be documented – to remember where we’ve come from, the challenges we’ve faced, the progress and mistakes we’ve made, the lessons we’ve learned – and to suggest how we proceed. Unbreakable – The Untold Stories of our Community, a poignant yet upbeat world premiere musical, accomplishes all these goals as it celebrates the LGBTQ community and the history of its movement. The heartwarming piece was commissioned as a love letter by Eddie Reynolds to honor and remember his late partner Edwin (Ed) Brent Jones.
With words and music in a dozen original songs by Tony and Grammy nominee, Andrew Lippa, Unbreakable recounts select events and remarkable, unheralded gay people who pioneered and sacrificed for civil rights and humanism over the last century and more. Presented by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the contemporary portion of this narrative has been 40 years in the making, since the chorus first appeared on the steps of City Hall at the candlelight vigil following the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. The 275 vocalists conducted by Tim Seelig sing beautifully in unison and harmony, and their synchronized movements of body turns, hand jives, and more, add humor, verve, and occasional pathos to the words and music. In addition to Lippa himself, the story lines and solo singing performances are delivered by Principal Guest Soloists, Britney Coleman, Lisa Vroman, and Marcus J. Paige, each of whom bring powerful voices and passion to the music.
Pop songs from the Broadway musical idiom dominate the score, but stories of extraordinary bravery and perseverance are related through musical numbers that span emotions and genres. This rollercoaster production eloquently crescendos with joy, humor, and power and also descends into the somber and touching.
Vignettes highlighting activism that brought about change in United States society begin with Jane Addams, who in the late 19th century birthed the social work movement and founded the American Civil Liberties Union. The first American granted the Nobel Peace Prize, she was also a lesbian. This important beginning is set in contrast to the example of the foreboding pigeonholing and prejudice that young gay men at Harvard felt, wondering how they could possibly belong and asking, “Why am I here?”
Governmental discrimination is also highlighted during the bleak cold war period when excuses were found to blackball and fire people such as those thought to be gay, communist, Jewish, or union supporters, all of whom were believed to threaten middle class puritanical values. Accordingly, President Eisenhower signed a decree through which 5,000 suspected gays – “men with long hair, women with short” – were fired from federal jobs with the justification that these “sexual perverts” could be blackmailed and thereby undermine American security. This episode is beautifully scored with rumbling low tonal instrumentation.
Other sobering moments concern the devastation caused by the death sentence of AIDS at its inception in the 1980s. The hope but uncertainty of treatments in following decades is given by the song “Survivors,” offering the pleas of “Hear me, save me,” and “Is anyone listening?” One by one, the choristers turn their backs to the audience in honor of the 275 of their past members whose lives were tragically stolen by the disease. The final numbers reprise the theme of bending not breaking, looking optimistically to an ever better future in which any LGBTQ can say “I’m not afraid of what’s to come,” while acknowledging that “Good things take time.”
In addition to Lippa’s creative contributions, great credit goes to Robert Kelley, Artistic Director of TheatreWorks, who effectively pulls together all of the creative elements to a significant work that was scheduled for only three performances.
Unbreakable – The Untold Stories of our Community, a musical with words and music by Andrew Lippa played three performances on June 22 and 23, 2018, at the Nourse Theatre, 275 Hayes St., San Francisco, CA.