New York Festival of Song’s Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life is a delightfully lighthearted, deeply personal, and colorful recital made of equal parts sex, camp, melancholy, and tenderness. Steven Blier‘s wide-ranging program consists of five sets of songs, each meant to evoke, as per his program notes, “a quintessential moment of a gay man’s experience (read: this gay man’s experience)”. The odd-numbered sets are comprised of cabaret and musical theater pieces and the even-numbered sets of art song.
Going into this concert, I was a bit apprehensive. In choosing to review this, I knew it would be somewhat of a challenge. After all, even though I am a gay man, I am too young to have experienced Gay Liberation, and have little familiarity with the formative gay cultural icons and iconic moments which are part of the Parterre vernacular, but have me rushing to Google.
That being said, I felt almost completely at home thanks to Mr. Blier’s amusing and informative remarks delivered from the stage before and sometimes during each set (did I hear him refer to Camille Saint-Saens as an outlandish queen?), which never overstayed their welcome. Of course a song recital needs singers, and NYFOS did not disappoint in providing four versatile artists who were equally comfortable in lofty art song and bawdy cabaret, all delivered with crisp diction. Whether or not these men are actually gay is of little consequence; they all portray the emotions and experiences unique to gay life with unforced sincerity as well as those which are universal. Mr. Blier has clearly spent much time coaching these young singers, doubtlessly imparting on them his deeply personal connection to these songs.
Particularly excellent was bass Matt Boehler, whose mischievous and flirtatious presence quickly established a rapport with the audience during the concert’s opening number, Marc Blitzstein‘s “Purest kind of a Guy”. In the same opening set, entitled “Man to Man”, we are treated to Steven Lutvak‘s “Exit Right”, about the disappointingly narcissistic experience of having sex with a Broadway actor, delivered with naiveté and natural comic timing by tenor Scott Murphee, who also proved his skill in French art song by delivering heartfelt accounts of Poulenc’s “Montparnasse” and Saint-Saens’s “Si vous n’avez rein a me dire”. Other highlights from the art song sets included baritone Jesse Blumberg‘s agitated yet ethereal rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “At the Ball” and baritone Matthew Worth‘s thundering “Polo” from De Falla’s “Siete canciones populares espanoles”.
I found the non-art song sections of the program to be the most resonant, perhaps because they required no speculation or deep reading to find their connection to gay life. Vocally, Matthew Worth was a standout. His young baritone is rich, velvety, and of a good size, yet he was able to scale it down to deliver an appropriately bleak interpretation of Chris De Blasio‘s “Walt Whitman in 1989”, a simple song about the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. Boehler stole the show in the “In Drag” section, which includes a scene from William Bolcom’s Casino Paradise with Mr. Boehler playing the sassy street-smart drag queen Sonny to Jesse Blumberg’s Stanley, the conflicted ex-con fixated on her.
Equally entertaining was Cy Coleman’s “Tennis Duet” between Murphee and Worth, full of suggestive double-entendres and innuendos about “stiff competition” and “rousing rallies”. More overt than suggestive was the final number, Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”, which featured all four men and had the audience in stitches. They were clearly enjoying themselves and each other, and gladly regaled the audience with a lone encore, Smokey Robinson’s “My Guy”. (I’ll admit I had to Google the lyrics on my iPhone afterwards to figure out what it was.)
This program gave me wonderful insights into the aspects of gay life and culture which I have always felt that my generation has been particularly disconnected from: The coded secrecy of forbidden desire, the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, and the celebration of Gay Liberation. The program featured many lesser-known composers and a few lesser works, yet the expert delivery and sincerity of the four singers ensured there were no dull moments in this touching, heartfelt, and above-all entertaining musical journey through the gay life of Steven Blier.