A Lavender Christmas

The Gay Menís Chorus of Houston sings out for Santa Claus and the baby Jesus

"Go for the hands," James screams. "Hands!"

Despite numerous warnings not to wear cologne because it irritates asthmatic singers, the rehearsal room smells like a men's magazine. The air is thick with the scent of expensive aftershave. "Everyone wants to smell pretty for all the girls at practice," Rex says.

They meet Monday evenings in the heart of Montrose at the Bering Memorial United Methodist Church on the corner of Mulberry and Dunlavy. Yellow police tape declaring a "hate-free zone" is coiled around the church's mammoth white pillars.

James wants their performances to be fabulous.
Deron Neblett
James wants their performances to be fabulous.
These three say they aren't kings -- they're queens.
Deron Neblett
These three say they aren't kings -- they're queens.

At first everyone didn't take to James's enthusiastic, den-mother style of directing. He selects soloists for certain songs based on their life experiences, not just vocal skills. He personalizes practices by discussing what's happening in world news and the gay community. The night Proposition 2, an antigay referendum, was passed prohibiting benefits to same-sex partners, James said he was outraged and wanted to channel that anger into the music.

He won't just let people stand still and sing, reciting the words. He wants them to sing the lyrics with feeling. He diligently drills the choir on enunciation, technique and musicality. He demands that they "be more Broadway," belt out the songs and seduce the audience.

A month before the concert, they begin rehearsing a Christmas cheer.

Who needs Thanksgiving, or Independence Day? the choir gruffly sings. Take a hike, Saint Valentine!

James shouts, "Indignant, guys."

Our voices, we live for December 25. It's the best time of the year, they sing. We're gonna fight, fight, fight for the holy night! Rah, rah, it's our Christmas cheer.

Half the choir chants, We've got spirit, yes we do, Christmas spirit, how about you?

The other side counters, We've got more.

James sadly shakes his head. "No," he says. "You don't got more."

He tries to get them to sound more manly and forceful. Like in La Cage, he wants them to be more John Wayne and less Brigitte Bardot.

"These are the quarterbacks, the defensive ends," James says.

A guy squeals, "Ooh, tight ends!"

The choir collectively answers, "Yeeeeaaaaah!"

Another asks, "Where are the wide receivers?" And everyone snickers.

"Did you ever go to a basketball game in high school?" James asks.

A hundred horrified voices echo: "No!"

"We go to the theater, James," one says. "We understand the theater."

James mutters that he went to basketball games.

"Sing it like you'd sing at the Harvard-Yale game," James instructs, then pauses. "Do they even play each other?"

Tom, the court clerk who joined after his lover died, walks to the front of the room. A musical theater veteran, Tom choreographed "Jingle Bells." "Tom worked really hard on this," James says.

As the choir sings about dashing through the snow, Tom stands by the piano with his arms casually crossed over his chest. He kicks a foot out, then switches feet.

"Tom," James prompts. "Go ahead."

Tom looks at him blankly. "I am," Tom says. That's the choreography. Which leads to arguments about the choreography, or lack thereof. James says there is one choreographer and this choreographer wants I Dream of Jeannie arms and baby Rockette kicks. "Shoulder to shoulder like Russian cossacks," James orders, arms crossed over his chest.

As they sing, James sighs.

"It's not even Mexican vanilla," he laments. "It's just vanilla."

Hands on his knees and butt bobbing, James stands in front of the choir demonstrating a new dance move. Guys grumble that they don't want to bend over. Others joke that this is better than a bathhouse. A muscular man raises his hand and says the men behind him are complaining about the view.

"I doubt that," James says.

It's Sunday afternoon, a week before the performance. Their voices have gotten stronger and their timing is gelling, but they still can't do the simple "Jingle Bells" choreography in sync. In the Christmas cheer, the men are supposed to lift their pom-poms up and down like drum majors in The Music Man, but the choir members keep swishing their wrists. "You look like windshield wipers," James says. "Nice and straight."

"Straight?" Dewayne cries in mock horror.

"Extended," James says, correcting himself.

From the back row, Mike whines, "I'm sore."

He's serious. Every part of his body aches, and his chest is tight. Yesterday they spent four hours choreographing one movement in one song. This morning they sang at two church services to promote ticket sales, they're rehearsing all afternoon, and have another promotional performance scheduled this evening.

The next night, two of the three kings are sick. Pom-poms are passed out, and one guy swallows a couple of strands and starts choking. In the corner, the Christmas cheerleading squad is practicing jumps and pyramids. Dewayne keeps kicking Mike in the head, and whenever Dewayne runs toward Mike to leap into his arms, Mike backs up.

"What part of 'Spot me' did you not understand?" Dewayne screams.

Still arguing over choreography, several suggest moves that would "feel more natural" to them. Some guys think that a real, professional choir should stand completely still, singing without interpretive hula dancer hand motions. Others want to live out Fred Astaire fantasies, with pirouettes, leaps and high kicks down the stairs.

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