Pride Anthems Recalls the Music of a Movement - 27 East

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Pride Anthems Recalls the Music of a Movement

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Pride Anthems cast at a recent rehearsal, from left, Justin Elizabeth Saryre, Brian J. Nash, Natalie Joy Johnson, Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Jon-Michael Reese. TOBY TUMARKIN

Pride Anthems cast at a recent rehearsal, from left, Justin Elizabeth Saryre, Brian J. Nash, Natalie Joy Johnson, Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Jon-Michael Reese. TOBY TUMARKIN

Broadway performers Natalie Joy Johnson, Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Jon-Michael Reese performing

Broadway performers Natalie Joy Johnson, Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Jon-Michael Reese performing "Pride Anthems" in late May during the show's debut in New York City. COURTESY PRIDE LIVE

Broadway performers Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Natalie Joy Johnson performing

Broadway performers Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Natalie Joy Johnson performing "Pride Anthems" in late May during the show's debut in New York City. COURTESY PRIDE LIVE

Broadway performer Kevin Smith Kirkwood singing in

Broadway performer Kevin Smith Kirkwood singing in "Pride Anthems" during the show's recent debut in New York City. COURTESY PRIDE LIVE

Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Jon-Michael Reese on stage during the debut of “Pride Anthems” in New York City. COURTESY PRIDE LIVE

Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Jon-Michael Reese on stage during the debut of “Pride Anthems” in New York City. COURTESY PRIDE LIVE

Broadway performers Natalie Joy Johnson, Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Jon-Michael Reese performing

Broadway performers Natalie Joy Johnson, Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Jon-Michael Reese performing "Pride Anthems" in late May during the show's debut in New York City. COURTESY PRIDE LIVE

authorAnnette Hinkle on May 30, 2023

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, gave birth to a movement. It began when the New York City vice squad showed up to raid the bar and arrest its patrons. This was nothing new since homosexuality was illegal in those days and there had been many previous raids at the bar.

But this time, the crowd rose up and fought back.

It was the beginning of the Stonewall Uprising, a series of events over six days that pitted police against gay protesters. June 1969 was the dawning of the Pride Movement as we know it — an effort that came of age on June 24, 2016, when President Barack Obama designated Stonewall a National Monument. The official designation came days before the first anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision guaranteeing marriage equality in all 50 states. As the National Park Service’s Stonewall website points out, at the time of the uprising, there were just 50 to 60 gay groups in the country. A year later, there were 1,500.

The history of Stonewall and the subsequent blossoming of the LGBTQ+ movement will be shared through story and song in “Pride Anthems,” a new production coming to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Friday, June 2, at 8 p.m.

“Pride Anthems” is a musical experience that celebrates and commemorates the legacy of the Stonewall Uprising by taking audiences on a musical journey from disco to the present day. Produced by IMG Artists in partnership with Pride Live, a nonprofit social advocacy organization for the LGBTQ+ community, a portion of the proceeds from the show will benefit Pride Live and the Stonewall National Monument Visitors Center, which is scheduled to open in June 2024.

“Pride Anthems” debuted at Chelsea Table + Stage in New York City on May 24 — the June 2 show at WHBPAC will be its third performance — and it features legendary anthems by the likes of Donna Summer, Queen, George Michael, Lady Gaga and others. After the Westhampton Beach show, “Pride Anthems” will hit the road throughout June with performances in Washington, D.C., San Antonio, Miami, and smaller towns in Wisconsin and Illinois.

The nine-performance, eight-city series is written and directed by Justin Elizabeth Sayre with musical direction by Brian J. Nash, an award-winning pianist, singer, orchestrator and producer who has been the musical director for many off-Broadway and regional productions.

“This is our first year with it,” explained Nash in a phone interview a couple of weeks prior to the “Pride Anthems” debut. “Looking back on the last 54 years since Stonewall, there’s such a wide breadth, on my end as a music director, that has come from and influenced the gay, lesbian and queer community. Having all of that in a timeline in one evening felt like a historical document.”

Though Nash is too young to have been at Stonewall on that night in 1969 when the movement began, he’s quite familiar with the storied history of the bar, having performed there on multiple occasions and at one time also worked nearby at The Duplex, a gay piano bar just up the block at Christopher Street and 7th Avenue.

“It’s owned by the same guys who owned Stonewall,” Nash explained. “It’s so interesting, because for me, it was always like, ‘I know the history and the importance of Stonewall.’ But when it became a National Monument in 2016 toward the end of Obama’s term, the impact of that hit me.

“It lent such importance and it will now stand forever as a monument to the community,” he added. “I have so many friends around the world who make pilgrimages to the club. It heightens what happened in the room.”

And what happened in the room, literally, is a large part of what “Pride Anthems” is all about. While, as expected, there are songs and recording artists in the lineup that have traditionally been associated with the gay movement, including hits from the disco era of the 1970s, Nash notes that this show will be more expansive in that it will also include some specific historical elements, musically speaking.

“Stonewall has taken on its own legacy and importance, but it also becomes a distraction. You hear, ‘Oh yeah, it’s the place where the gay movement started,’ but the specificity goes away,” he said. “Part of what I want to do is immerse people in the sound of that night and the music that was playing and go forward from there.

“I’ve read what was on the jukebox — everything from Connie Francis to ‘Aquarius,’ which was huge that summer,” Nash added. “There’s that germ, what became the ’80s electro-pop, the evolution of the music from that night. Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that Judy Garland’s funeral was also that night.

“We’re still editing the set list as we speak. It was 19 hours long when we assembled it,” he laughed. “So right now, we’re voting who is off the island.”

From a historic perspective, there’s a lot of territory to cover in “Pride Anthems,” especially since the set list will also include songs from the pre-Stonewall era that represent musicians and composers who were known to be gay, but were not able to be publicly open about it in the time in which they lived and worked.

“It’s music written by queer artists who were not necessarily out at the time, but you can feel the longing, like ‘Somewhere’ from ‘West Side Story,’” said Nash, referring to Leonard Bernstein’s song from his hit Broadway musical. “Bernstein and [Stephen] Sondheim collaborated — they were two queer artists who were not out, and it aligns with ‘Over the Rainbow.’ You can’t do a show about the community without ‘Over the Rainbow.’”

The performers who star in “Pride Anthems” all come from the Broadway world and include Natalie Joy Johnson (“Kinky Boots,” “Legally Blonde: The Musical”), Jon-Michael Reese (“Marry Me a Little”) and Kevin Smith Kirkwood (“Kinky Boots,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) who Nash promises, will offer an uncanny and brilliant impression of Whitney Houston in the show.

“We have a four-piece band, all queer musicians from New York. We thought it was important that all the performers on stage were from the community,” said Nash, who will be the pianist for evening.

He admitted that while his initial impulse was to present the music chronologically, from oldest to newest, that idea was ultimately rejected.

“It felt travelogue-y,” he said. “Now, it will go thematically, with material that says similar things from different eras. For me, there are a lot of songs that talk to each other in a way. For example, a song like ‘Freedom! ’90’ by George Michael, feels to me like ‘Take Your Mama’ by the Scissor Sisters, so we combined them. Same with ‘Born This Way’ and ‘Express Yourself.’ Lady Gaga and Madonna seem similar.

“It made sense for those moments to be combined and they say similar things,” he added. “I love mashing themes up and medleys and how songs speak when they’re combined.”

As the writer and director of “Pride Anthems,” performer Justin Elizabeth Sayre is well-accustomed to working in front of live audiences. While Nash is overseeing the musical aspects related to the show, it’s Sayre’s job to work with him to sculpt what the evening will be from the perspective of the narrative.

“I’m a writer foremost and a comedian second,” explained Sayre, who goes by gender-neutral pronouns. “Brian and I have known each other a long time. I had a longstanding show at The Public Theater called ‘The Meeting,’ and he played as a guest a couple times. Brian is an incredible musician. His client list is long and famous and impressive.”

Sayre describes “Pride Anthems” as an emotional journey through an amazing selection of music.

“We’re connecting it to an overall theme about this new site at Stonewall, which will open next year,” they explained. “We’re doing that history and taking people through the journey that queer people have been on since Stonewall. We’re also trying to sculpt it in an emotional way as a continuity between the early part of the movement leading into where we are now, not as a museum piece, but a look at it as it’s continuing.”

While “Pride Anthems” may have been inspired by a distinct moment in time, Sayre noted that this is not a show that will be set in stone, but will continue to evolve as it is performed in the years to come.

“It will always change,” Sayre said. “There are ever-evolving parts of ourselves. We were not talking about nonbinary five years ago. There are moments we’ll carve out that will stay, and some that will change and grow and hopefully reflect the journey that is the spirit of Stonewall, which is always evolving.”

With a half century behind us since Stonewall, while it would be nice to think that hate and prejudice directed toward the gay community is a thing of the past, it would also be naive. Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is on the rise and making a comeback both in this country and abroad.

“It hearkens back to those early years, the fear that we’ll be influencing children, having all this terrible effect on people,” they said of the vitriol directed against the community. “What scares people is a loss of power, and it’s a way to keep people down. So many young people right now are saying they’re fluid, expressing themselves and they are free — but that freedom scares a lot of people.

“Last year, I wrote a book, ‘From Gay to Z,’ a history of gay/queer culture, and it does weigh on me,” Sayre said. “It makes me think of contextualizing the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community — that we’ve been here before. We’ve often been the outliers, blamed for hurricanes and the downfall of public education.

“What’s different now is there is a visibility and for every step forward, so many want us to take them back,” they added. “We have to stay diligent, it means opening doors and hearts and finding allies in the straight community. We just want to be able to be, and we continually get threatened by it. It’s very much on my mind, not that the show is overly politically, we’re writing more about an emotional journey. But in some ways you can’t sanitize it.”

Which leads to the very pressing question of the reception Nash, Sayre and their cast and crew might receive when they take their show on the road, particularly to parts of the heartland where anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is real and often hostile. Is there fear in going to these places?

“There’s a great challenge. What we’re continually seeing is this is a period of minority rule. What I’ve found in those places, there’s a community there starving for it, a community wanting to be seen, celebrated and heard,” Sayre said. “It’s actually very moving to me to be able to take a show like this and go to those places where they don’t get to see this or be celebrated this way.

“In New York, there’s a pride flag in every window, but when you go to some of these places, that’s not the case,” they added. “I think what we’re hoping and will embrace is we’ll be there for the people who want us to be there. We’ve assembled an amazing cast of folks, all Broadway veterans, I think it’s really going to be an amazing moment.”

“Pride Anthems” will be performed on Friday, June 2, at 8 p.m. at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. Tickets are $56 to $76 at whbpac.org.

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