Dennis Coleman: Concerts need 'a laugh, a tear and a chill'
Nicole Brodeur interviews Dennis Coleman, director of Seattle Men's Chorus, about music, marriage and memories.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Seattle Men's ChorusThe group's annual Christmas show, "Baby It's Cold Outside," runs Nov. 30, Dec. 1, 9, 16, 20, 21 and 22 at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $27-$77 (206-388-1400 or www.flyinghouse.org).
You're off to meet Dennis Coleman when an editor makes a suggestion:
"Ask him why he's so happy all the time."
Coleman arrives for lunch — smiling. And you just can't blame him.
This year marks his 31st as musical director of Seattle Men's Chorus.
His preparation for the holiday season is, for all intents and purposes, finished. Rehearsals for the chorus' holiday shows, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," are all but over, and his planning of the music at the annual tree-lighting ceremony at Seattle's Westlake Center is, by now, a memory.
And then there's this: Earlier this month, Washington state approved same-sex marriage.
For Coleman, it was the happy capper to a career spent as the musical accompanist to Seattle's gay-rights movement.
"I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to have lived in this period," Coleman said the other day, "and to have headed up an organization that has tried to have an influence."
These days, Coleman is focused on the chorus' holiday shows, which begin on Nov. 30 at Benaroya Hall, and run through Dec. 22. The first show and the Dec. 1 matinee will feature "Saturday Night Live" and "Suburgatory" star Ana Gasteyer.
The Dec. 9 show falls on the first day that gay couples will be able to marry in Washington state, so there will be two weddings on stage: one for a chorus member and his partner, and another for longtime partners Pete-E Peterson and Jane Lighty, together for 35 years.
Coleman is thinking about music to fit the moment.
"Wedding Bell Blues?" I ask. You know, "Marry me, Bill," and all that?
Nah, he said. Maybe "One Hand, One Heart" from "West Side Story."
"That's a tear-jerker," Coleman said. "Every concert has to have a laugh, a tear and a chill."
The 150 members of the chorus have shared all those over the years.
When Coleman first became musical director in 1981, "It was, 'We're here, we're queer, let's party!' " he said. "We weren't pushing hard for legislation. We were just happy that we could be out, have a chorus and a softball league."
But that fun didn't last long.
Coleman remembers the chorus flying to a convention in New York City, and how, before serving them, the flight attendants donned rubber gloves.
He remembers putting asterisks in the program to represent the members whose names couldn't be published, lest they lose their jobs or loved ones.
And he remembers singers falling sick and dying.
"Up to the mid-'90s, we were really dealing with loss," Coleman said, adding that the chorus has lost 150 members since 1981, "primarily" from AIDS.
Amid all the grief, the chorus found new purpose.
"I started to think of us as the mental health of the gay and lesbian community," Coleman said. "It was the one place they could come together and mourn and celebrate and cry.
"We sang about it all and tried to entertain and uplift the audience."
In 1995, the chorus became more political, standing up for various measures, attending political functions and inviting the larger community to its performances — especially in more conservative Eastern Washington.
"The best thing we could do for gay rights was to come out," Coleman said. "At that time, a gay man or a lesbian woman was an idea for most people. They couldn't put a face to it.
"But when you see 150 gay men in tuxedos on stage," he said, then paused. "The way we use music and words to try to change people's hearts and minds has more impact than a political onslaught."
The chorus has also drawn in audiences by featuring special guests. Rosemary Clooney. Harvey Fierstein. Kristin Chenoweth. Bobby McFerrin.
Maya Angelou requested whiskey and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"Debbie Reynolds was a blast," he said. "All she would drink was Beringer white zinfandel."
It sounds utterly decadent, compared to the life Coleman knew as a kid.
He grew up in Klamath Falls, Ore., in a Southern Baptist home and was playing the piano in church by the time he was in eighth grade.
He did the same for the high-school choir and then moved to Seattle at 18.
Along with directing the chorus, he taught musical theater at Roosevelt High School for 12 years.
He lives in a condo complex that a group of friends purchased, one condo each. They all closed on the same day, and share meals and holidays together.
Coleman's favorite Christmas song is "White Christmas," mostly because it was his mother's. She worked as an ironworker ("a Rosie the Riveter") during World War II, "and every time it came on, she would tear up," Coleman said.
He smiled at the memory. Music has such an impact.
"The Christmas season is difficult," he said. "The stress, the traffic. I guarantee you're going to come out of (Seattle Men's Chorus concert) with Christmas spirit.
"It touches all those parts of us as human beings. The past, those we love, and the traditions of Christmas. It's very human."