The Chicago Gay Men's Chorus (CGMC) is marking its 40th-anniversary season this year, and will start this milestone on Sept. 15-16 with "Sporty Forty," an event that is layered in meanings involving stereotypes and the group's own history of having sung for almost every local professional sports team.
During these four decades of existence, CGMC's performances have included original musical revues; five popular productions celebrating the Sidetrack showtune experience; full-length book musicals; and much more. The chorus has also traveled across the United States and Canada, and has brought choruses from across the United States and Europe to sing with the group in Chicago as well.
Recently, CGMC Executive Director Kevin Corbett talked with Windy City Times about a variety of topics, including the group's increasing diversity, the chorus' purpose and, of course, this upcoming, historic season.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: I wanted to discuss your background first. You joined the chorus in 2015 and I saw you lived in Maine. So you moved here directly from there?
Kevin Corbett: So I actually moved to Chicago from West Virginia, where I'm originally from. But I had been in London previously. I [received] my master's degree there and I did some work for a theater company afterward. Once my visa ran out, they were, like, "See ya!"
I started working for the chorus as an intern in 2015.
WCT: What would you say are a couple of the biggest changes you've seen in the chorus over the years?
KC: Over the years, I've seen a growth in the number of members. Also, the makeup of the chorus has greatly changed since 2020; it's almost like there's been a turnover with our membership. And our members are skewing younger and more diverse regarding gender and sexuality. The chorus is also nice for people who are new to the city, as there's a social element. But the chorus growing is the biggest change I think I've seen so farand we're excited.
It's great to see the organization change and take shape, as it's 40 years old. The chorus was established in 1983, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Gay choruses started to pop up all over the United States and the world because they were bringing attention to something no one was paying attention to. That's what we're here to do: Stand up and sing out.
And it's exciting to see people be excited to join the organization and form a family. It really is about community.
WCT: You've touched upon this, but [queer] choruses have provided inclusion and reflected the politics of the times. So it seems you feel this mission is largely the same.
KC: I do, but I think it changes a little bit as we take on different issues and make sure that voices in other groups are heard. We're here to inspire change and build community but we're also entertaining and enlightening our audiences.
So when you come to a CGMC show, you're going to see some campy, fun stuffdon't get me wrong. But we're also going to talk about the various issues we face as a community. Now, we're seeing more trans members join and we want to discuss issues affecting them as well as how we come together as the LGBTQIA+ community.
WCT: I found it intriguing that CGMC's website actually shows the demographics of its members regarding a variety of factors. And, as you've pointed out, the largest contingent seems to be people ages 20-29, which surprised me.
KC: Isn't that crazy? But that's the growth, right? That's what we're seeing a lot more of. I think our artistic director, Jimmy [Morehead], has done a really good job; he's such a great musical force, especially with the programming. When you come to the organization to sing, you don't necessarily need to know how to read music; you just need to be able to carry a tune and he will guide you along.
There are a lot of things about the chorus that I think are attractive to a younger audienceand I think the musical styles and selections are also part of it. We will sing choral pieces but we also do musical theater and a lot of different genres. It's not just one thing that makes it attractive to younger people.
WCT: So who comes up with the themes of the shows? "Sporty Forty" marks the chorus' anniversarybut it might be considered a wink to defying the stereotype that LGBTQ+ people don't like sports.
KC: That's Jimmy who does that. He comes up with the whole picture for the season and then he comes up with each of the shows. So this season is a celebration of CGMC.
It's really interesting. This chorus has been hired this past summer by several of the sports teams for their Pride nightsthe Chicago Fire, the Chicago Bulls, the Chicago Sky and the Chicago Blackhawks (back in March). And a lot of our members are on sports teams. I think "Sporty Forty" is a little tongue-in-cheek but there's something for everyone.
We're also very excited about the upcoming holiday show, "The big 4-0, ho, ho!" I love that title! We're going to be at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday, Dec. 8; it's a huge milestone and we really want to throw a big celebration. And what I'm working toward is providing some free tickets to the LGBTQ+ community, whether it's through organizations or youth groups.
And next year we have "Lipstick & Lyrics: Forty and Foxy." That's our live-singing drag show and that will happen in February and March. At the last L&L, we sold out all six performances, so we're moving to a larger venue: the Center on Halsted space.
And we're wrapping it up with "Party Like It's 1983" in May 2024. We're going to actually be at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building, and it's a gorgeous space. So we're moving around and trying different venues. We're always searching for new audiences and that's something the choir wants to work on: the diversification of our audience.
WCT: You mentioned reaching out to different audiences, so you've performed in the South and West sides of the city?
KC: Yes. We've performed at the Beverly Arts Center; we have been since I've joined and we've forged a relationship with the audience down there, especially for our holiday shows. But I would love to reach into communities we don't [traditionally] have a reach into, and that includes more South and West Side venues. I would love to do some sort of free, introductory event. We need to have diversity out there.
WCT: This is a question I've asked several people this year. What is it like, for you, to be part of the LGBTQ+ community in today's America?
KC: Wowthat's a big question.
So I grew up in rural West Virginia and it was very religious, very Appalachian. For someone who was gay, it was a stifling environmentand I went to a Baptist church. It was tough to have the realization [about being gay], and not be able to talk about it and explore it. It took me a while to be okay with the fact that I'm gay, and it took a while to get over the trauma of people telling you that you're not supposed to be something.
So what's great about this question, Andrew, is that when I joined the chorus in 2015, I had no sense of communityuntil I started working for CGMC. Then, I understood what it was like to be part of a community that stands together against adversity and hatred. And it does it in such a nonviolent, fun way.
LGBTQ+ people are still under attack. We're seeing rights being stripped away and laws being rolled back. It feels like we're going back to witch hunts; it's terrifying. So I think an organization like CGMC is needed now more than ever.
And we need to tell other stories in our community. We're not just gay men. We have straight women, lesbians and transgender peopleand they're all facing their own issues. So I'm happy that CGMC is here to tell their stories. We're better together, as cheesy as that sounds.
The Chicago Gay Men's Chorus' "Sporty Forty" will run Sept. 15-16 at Mayslake Peabody Estate, in Oak Brook; and at the Center on Halsted, in Chicago. Tickets and more information are available at cgmc.org/cabaret. To subscribe for the whole season, visit cgmc.org/subscribe.