You Live Long Enough, You See How Interconnected We All Are: Larry Kramer's Normal Heart Keeps Beating The Drum -- by Christine Lavin

Friday, May 23, 2014

You Live Long Enough, You See How Interconnected We All Are: Larry Kramer's Normal Heart Keeps Beating The Drum -- by Christine Lavin

Larry Kramer, author of "The Normal Heart" playing on HBO starting Sunday May 25th, with Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Julia Roberts, Taylor Kitsch, and Jim Parsons

On March 23rd a music review written by Stephen Holden in the New York Times caught my eye:  singer/songwriter Matt Alber at Lincoln Center. It was a glowing review and mentioned that his song, "The End Of The World," had by now achieved status as "an underground classic."

The review included a link to a video of that song.

What unfolded before my eyes was a beautifully languorous short film, beginning with a young man sitting down in a barber's chair to get a shave.

The music begins.  The young man in the barber chair looks into the camera and sings, "I don't want to ride this roller coaster/I think I want to get off/but they've buckled me down/like it's the end of the world . . . "

Matt's voice is powerful, with a soft, sweet edge.  Some hear a little Rufus Wainwright in him; others hear Robin Batteau.  "If you don't want to have this conversation/I think you better get off/'cause we're climbing to our death/at least that's what they want you to think . . . "

As he is singing another young man enters the barbershop; their eyes meet.  No need to describe what happens; you can watch the video yourself.  Let's just say it ends with a surprisingly romantic pas de deux unlike any I've ever seen in a pop music video til now.  

It's simple, heartfelt, universal, haunting, and I defy anyone of a certain age of any gender or sexual preference to say they haven't experienced the feelings this song is about.  It's the best kind of songwriting.  Somehow Matt Alber captured something so many of us have felt but had never put into words before.

So began my online quest for the sheet music, which happily I found rather quickly at a British website, where for $8 US I downloaded the sheet music and went about trying to learn it.

I can barely read music, but this was a combination of a simple lead line with chords that I can stumble my way through (using an online chord finder to help me find the non-folk chords in this tune).  But try as I might, and for as many times as I watched Matt's video, it dawned on me that I'm not that inept when it comes to deciphering lead sheets; this sheet music must be flawed.

I sent an mp3 file of the song to a music chart-writer I know, David Pearl, along with that sheet music, and asked if what is printed matches the song.

It didn't.  Not even close.  He emailed back, "Looks like something a computer spit out."  So I asked him to write up the real chord chart.  

While I was waiting for that chart I googled: The End Of The World Matt Alber to see what else is out there, and found a live performance of him backed by the 275 voice Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C.  Matt plays piano and sings and not only is he backed by this marvelous choir of voices, two male dancers perform a pas de deux inspired by the original video.

More often than not, live recordings of beloved songs (and by now that's how I thought of this one) don't measure up to the original.  Any solo artist who has ever worked with a chorus or choir can also tell you that suddenly having many more voices singing with you means you must lock in your phrasing and never vary from it, or follow the chorus' phrasing, even if it's not natural to you.  If you don't, you're in danger of having a dozen or 50  (or in the case 275) voices all sliding around, banging into each other in the air creating a kind of musical chaos. So oftentimes a big choral arrangement of a song can lose its individuality and take on a studied 'squareness.'

But not in this case.  Not only do all the voices perfectly underscore the emotion of the song, Matt Alber's voice has even more of an ache when he sings, "I don't want to fall/I don't want to fly/I don't want to be dangled over the edge/of a dying romance . . ."

I watched this video many times, engrossed by this arrangement and the beauty of it all.  I thought to myself, "How the world is changing.  Twenty-five years ago a public performance like this would be out of the question."  

Then I started to notice a fleeting image near the end of this video, while Matt is bowing -- two words projected on the screen behind the chorus:  eating sushi.  Hmmm.

Back in the late 1980s the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington D.C. had sung my song, "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind," and it has a verse that begins: "I am eating sushi/I do not like sushi/but he loves sushi/and I love him . . . "  Is it possible they are singing it again? And is it possible it followed my favorite new song, "The End Of The World" at this very same concert?  

I went to the chorus' website and on May 9th wrote them a letter, first complimenting them on their stellar performance of Matt Alber's song, and then asking if the words "eating sushi" projected on the screen were in any way connected to my song.  

My letter found its way to Jeff Buhrman, who wrote back that same day:

Dear Christine:

I am the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC (for the past 14 years) and your song is one of my absolute favorites that we have ever performed.  I joined the chorus in 1986 as a singer " our Music Director at the time arranged the song for men's chorus and I remember singing it and recording it back then.  

We performed the song in our recent February concert called MY BIG FAT GAY WEDDING in which we ended the concert with an onstage live wedding between two of our members.   I selected songs for the concert that touched on the honesty of relationships . . . from when we meet someone and realize he/she is not the one; to meeting someone and falling in love, thinking it's going to work but it doesn't; to the arc of a relationship when you meet and you know this is going to work all the way to growing old together. Your lyrics in READ MY MIND are so honest and truly represent what many of us go through.

It is so good to be able to communicate with you. Who would guess that those two words EATING SUSHI projected on the back of a screen would do the trick.

I was happy to hear that my song was back in their repertoire.  And I felt compelled to tell him the story of the man I wrote the song about.  Especially now, when the film version of The Normal Heart is about to start airing on HBO (May 25th).  

I wrote many songs about this man over the years, but he was never comfortable with people knowing that, so I'll call him Norman, his middle name.

The Normal Heart stars Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Julia Roberts, and Jim Parsons, and is written by AIDS activist Larry Kramer, based on his Tony-winning play of the same title.  It's about the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City, when gay men were suddenly getting sick and dying and no one at first could figure out what the cause was.

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Larry Kramer emerged as the most vocal, and to some the peskiest voice of the movement.  To this day he still is, and still living all these years later with the virus while watching dozens, and then scores of his friends and acquaintances die.  

Larry Kramer was determined to start an organization during this turbulent time to tackle this growing "gay plague." He knew he needed a large law firm that would put considerable heft behind the cause, but on a pro bono basis because they simply didn't have the funds otherwise.  Larry's brother was a partner in such a firm, but Larry and his brother never got along.  

Norman was also a partner in this same firm.

So when Larry asked his brother if his law firm could get behind the cause, his brother immediately said NO.  Anyone who knows Larry understands that the word "no" is nothing but a speed bump to him.  

All of this was in the play The Normal Heart, and a few years back Norman and I went to see a revival that was mounted at the Public Theater in Manhattan.  I had never seen it in its original run, and by now almost 20 years had passed, but I knew that Norman had known Larry Kramer and had always wanted to see this play, but had never gotten around to it.  

It was a terrific production, the kind where I always end up worrying about the actors with all the screaming and yelling and fighting and crying.  I couldn't imagine how they could put themselves through such passionate paces night after night.  

There was a scene where Larry ("Ned Weeks") begged his brother to bring his law firm on board to help, with his brother flatly refusing.  In the next scene Larry calls one of his brother's law partners on the phone and asks if he can get the firm to pledge support? Without hesitation or asking for a vote from the other partners, the voice on the phone said yes.  In the play the lawyer on the phone (you don't see him) is named Norman.

I quickly turned to him and whispered, "You're that Norman, aren't you?"  

He nodded.

It was a turning point in the play. And it also turned out to be a turning point in the movement.  It was also a very big deal for the law firm.  I know this because dear Norman died last year, and at his memorial service, one of his former law partners retold this story.

"At first," she said, "we were quite concerned, thinking aligning ourselves with such a controversial cause was going to cost us dearly.  That's always a worry, and remember, this was years ago when people aren't as enlightened as they are now."  

"But that never happened. In fact, we found more clients admired our taking such a stand and taking on what at first appeared to be an unpopular cause.  The funny thing was, almost all the calls started out the same way: " . . . We didn't know Norman was gay . . .'  He wasn't, and that made his saying yes to Larry Kramer all the more admirable for some, since he didn't have a personal stake in this fight."

During intermission of that Public Theater revival of The Normal Heart we went out to the lobby.  I got in line to buy a cup of coffee as he sat reading the program.  There were four or five other people in line for coffee, and I couldn't help myself.  I said to them, "See that man sitting over there?  That's Norman.  The lawyer who said yes to Larry."

One man got off the line, went over to him, stuck out his hand to shake it and said to him, "Are YOU Norman?" My friend looked over at me, rolled his eyes and smiled.  "Yes, I am."

So the guy crosses the lobby where his friends were standing, and brought them over to meet him.  "THIS," he said, "is Norman.  The lawyer.  The good one."  

More hand shakes, more people crowding around him.  He stood up and got hugs, and even some kisses.  He looked a bit overwhelmed by it all, then the lights blinked and we all returned to our seats to watch the rest of the play.

Before the lights in the theater went down I could see a few people below us pointing at him and whispering to their seat-mates.  I leaned over and asked him why he never told me what he did was in this play?  He shrugged and said, "It wasn't a big deal what I did. It was the right thing to do."  

When the play ended we slowly made our way through the lobby feeling emotionally drained by what we just saw.  But then more strangers came up to Norman to shake his hand, hug him, thank him.  Spontaneous lawyer hugging doesn't happen all that often.  I couldn't believe after all this time I was just finding this out about him and that he never talked about it.  Whenever I brought it up afterwards he'd just say, "It was the right thing to do.  It was not a hard decision to make."

A few months after his memorial service I bumped into one of his former partners, who told me that The Normal Heart was going to be an HBO film, and there's a rumor circulating that Norman is going to be played by an actor, won't just be a voice on a phone.

Recently Frank Bruni wrote a column in the New York Times about this film:

I emailed him, asking if he remembered that part,  is it still in the story?  Larry asking his brother for his law firm's help and his brother's partner saying yes after he had said no?

Forgive brevity: hard to answer all the emails in the inbox. I saw the film but don't recall such a character, but said character could indeed be in there fleetingly and because it was fleeting I didn't register or remember it. So sorry I can't be of more help! F

On May 10th I wrote back to Jeff Buhrman, of the Gay Men's Chorus, telling him  how the man who inspired "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind," the man they've been singing about all these years, played a small but pivotal role at the beginning of the AIDS crisis during the establishment of the Gay Men's Health Crisis I figured it would mean more to them when they sing that song again.  

He replied:

Thank you for sharing the story of our your dear friend Norman. It is people like him who had the courage to step forward when others were paralyzed with fear and ignorance.  I look forward to the new movie version of The Normal Heart.  I had the opportunity to see a production of the recent revival in Washington, DC. One of the most fascinating and important things about directing a 275 voice gay men's chorus is that we have 20 and 30-somethings who do not know our history.  I joined the chorus at that age and for the last 10 years I've felt the responsibility to share our history with the young men who become part of our chorus family. I love to share stories with them - like the one you shared with me " perhaps more of them will watch the new production.

When my obsession with Matt Alber's song "The End Of The World" led me to finding out through that "eating sushi" projection at the end of his song that it was back-to-back with my song sung by the same Gay Men's Chorus, and finding out just a few weeks before the premiere of the HBO film The Normal Heart, it reminded me that if you live long enough you see how often our lives are interconnected, whether we know it or not.

The corrected sheet music for "The End Of The World" arrived from David Pearl.  He sent it to me in D, the original key, and also a version in G, a better key for a woman's voice.  

If you are a singer and would like the music for "The End Of The World," drop me a line.  Don't waste your money on that computer generated nonsense.

And when The Normal Heart starts airing on Sunday May 25th on HBO, I hope you'll watch.  Whether Norman is in it or on the cutting room floor, it's  another opportunity for Larry Kramer to shake things up.  And that's always a good thing.  
NEWFLASH:  Review of "The Normal Heart" by Neil Genzlinger at the NYTimes:

p.s. If you haven't seen the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington D.C. sing "Good Thing," here it is. I wish Norman could see this -- it would make him smile, and maybe blush.

updated 2 months ago