By Russ Weeks, Singing Member
When I found out the programming for our latest Turtle Creek Chorale concert, I have to admit, I was not exactly thrilled. Part of the show would consist of songs dedicated to local community “hero” organizations, which is lovely, songs including Katy Perry’s “Firework” and one of my personal favorites — “Beautiful City” — from Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell.
The second half of the concert would consist of Tyler’s Suite, a movement of music Turtle Creek Chorale co-commissioned with several other GALA choruses throughout the nation. Tyler’s Suite is an original group of songs honoring the life of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who lost his life to suicide in September of 2010. His is not my story to tell, but he was a wonderfully creative, talented gay man who was just starting to come out of the closet and to grow into an amazing, uniquely beautiful human being. His roommate secretly videoed him being intimate with another man and posted it online for the world to see. There is so much more to Tyler than this, and you can read more about Tyler’s life, wonders, and accomplishments at http://www.tylerclementi.org/tylers-story.
I was hesitant to embrace a group of challenging, unknown songs, that might take me to dark places. I was afraid it would remind me of loved ones I’d known who had lost the will to live and chosen to end it all. I was even more afraid to look in the mirror and see the little boy who could not reconcile who he was with a world and a God that didn’t fit and had those thoughts himself.
I was scared this music would break my heart.
And it has.
But this beautiful music has an important story to tell. Sometimes our hearts need to break a little bit to become stronger and share in the collected humanity of living. Acknowledging the darkness can even help us create and experience light, and that’s what we are doing by singing this music.
I love to read words that change me, that make me better, and add meaning to who I am. There are several texts in this program that have done that for me. If you haven’t discovered it by now, Sean Baugh, our artistic director, is a programming genius.
There is a line in Katy Perry’s “Firework” that is the bottom line for me. “You don’t have to feel like a wasted space. You’re original, cannot be replaced. If you only knew what the future holds: after a hurricane comes a rainbow.” It might seem simple, but there is beautiful truth in those words. I wish every child (or human being for that matter) who struggles alone in the dark could understand and believe that there is a sliver of rainbow light on the other side of the door waiting after the hurricane.
Another song not from Tyler’s Suite is Ragtime’s “Make them Hear You.” The song opens with, “Go out and tell our story, let it echo far and wide. Make them hear you, make them hear you. How justice was our battle and how justice was denied. Make them hear you, make them hear you.” That song resonates with me on many levels, but I feel like we are Tyler’s collective voice in this concert. He is no longer here, so we are singing for him, so he can be a hero, too. Tyler is our hero.
You need to come to the show to experience the magic of Tyler’s Suite, but there are a few lines that really strike me. The first time we sang “A Wish” it blew me away. It is a beautiful song about longing for the simplicity of childhood from Tyler’s perspective. When we finished singing through it the first time, I looked up and realized several of the guys in the chorus were weeping. “I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight, I wish I were a child again when everything was simple.” I had the opposite experience as Tyler. When I was a child, I suffered from depression and felt the weight of the world was too much. When I went off to college, I felt liberated and loved unconditionally by an amazing group of friends. I was able to grow into my true authentic self. Tyler never got that opportunity.
Suicide is, for me, the most unimaginable and devastating of human endings. I started having panic attacks my senior year of college when my cousin committed suicide. I was on my way to my aunt’s birthday just a few years ago when I heard of Robin William’s suicide. I had to turn around and go back home because I had a panic attack. I don’t know what the answer is to the epidemic of suicide. We cannot know what goes on in the minds and hearts of others, but I think that for those who choose to end it, there is a switch that is flipped, and they cannot get it to turn back on. Whether they have been bullied or just feel trapped in that darkness, none of us know. I do know that it’s an issue that never seems to go away, and we all need to do our part to help.
I want to emphasize that this is NOT going to be a depressing concert. It is a hopeful show celebrating heroes, one of which is Tyler Clementi.
My favorite line in Tyler’s Suite says, “Go back for those who trail behind, give a hand to those who fall. Stop to help the one out on the edge, carry those who can’t go on.” So this is our way of helping and celebrating Tyler. We go into the darkness and hold his hand, and we carry him in our voices, and we will share it with the world. If Tyler can’t, we will, so he becomes our hero, and maybe we get the chance to be heroes ourselves, singing the songs that Tyler never got to sing. “There are songs you haven’t heard and music yet to play. I have melodies to sing, and words I long to say. How I want to play my song where arms are open wide in a place where I belong, a world that’s large and kind…”
One of my favorite songs of all time is Godspell’s “Beautiful City” which we are singing in this concert. For me the song is about making the world better. There is a line about building a beautiful city: “We may not reach the ending, but we can start — slowly, but truly mending, brick by brick, heart by heart. Now, maybe now, we start learning how.”
Maybe we can all help build a more beautiful, heroic, “large and kind” world. I know that is certainly what we, the Turtle Creek Chorale, are trying to do with our Heroes show.
Ahrens, Lynn. “Make Them Hear You,” Ragtime: The Musical. BMG Entertainment, 1990.
Gasser, Nolan. “I Have Songs You Haven’t Heard,” from Tyler’s Suite. The Tyler Clementi
Perry, Katy. “Firework,” Teenage Dream. Capitol Records, 2010.
Schwartz, Stephen. “Beautiful City,” Godspell. Ghostlight Records, 2011.
Stewart, Pamela. “A Wish,” from Tyler’s Suite. The Tyler Clementi Foundation, 2013.
Stewart, Pamela, and Jake Heggie. “The Narrow Bridge,” from Tyler’s Suite. The Tyler Clemtnti
Foundation. BMI, 2014.