Dreamy Convergence: Ann Hampton Callaway and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus

topentertainmentWhoever paired multiplatinum-selling singer and composer Ann Hampton Callaway with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) gets our heartfelt gratitude. Swoon! To set the mood for what’s ahead, do yourself a favor by putting on a Callaway song now. We’re playing “Blues in the Night” from the Broadway musical Swing! starring the fierce and fabulous Callaway. Her intelligence, radiant stage presence and command of the material are so evident.

She will be performing with the always superb SFGMC in the program “LUSTER–An American Songbook” at Davies Symphony Hall on Tuesday, March 25 and Wednesday, March 26. They will be presenting timeless classics from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin. The performance will also include the world premiere of Tyler’s Suite, a multi-movement work created by top American composers of this century and presented in collaboration with the Tyler Clementi Foundation.

Callaway is a master at performing works from The Great American Songbook, in part, because she is such a gifted writer herself. Her music and lyrics have been performed and recorded by Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Patti LuPone, Michael Feinstein, Blossom Dearie, Peter Nero, Karrin Allyson, Donna McKechnie, Harvey Fierstein, Lillias White, Barbara Carrol, Amanda McBroom, Liz Callaway and Carole King. She composed “At the Same Time” for Barbra Streisand and that recording, Higher Ground, debuted nationally at #1, giving Callaway her first of three platinum records.

We could continue raving about her (not to mention the SFGMC), but it’s time that you get to know Callaway in her own words. We were thrilled to interview her for the
Bay Times.

Bay Times: When you write songs, do you sometimes have a particular singer in mind and, if so, how does that affect your process? Conversely, when you sing songs associated with certain artists, such as Ella and Streisand, do those pre-existing associations influence your own approach to the material?

Ann Hampton Callaway: Most of the songs I write come from my heart and are pieces that reflect where I am in my life, what I am feeling and what interests me. Sometimes I finish a song and think, this would be perfect for so and so. I might fine tune it for them if I want to pitch it. When you are writing something for a particular singer like Barbra Streisand, it is so important to know their range, their stylistic preferences and, most importantly, their personality and what their views are about love and life. When I am singing songs associated with Ella and Streisand, I try to do two things- reflect what they taught me and put my own stamp on the song. My arrangements are a big part of singing for me. They reflect my point of view about the lyrics and help me tell the story in an engaging and fresh way that shares something personal and conveys something universal.

BT: How do you characterize The Great American Songbook, and what distinguishes it from other forms of popular music? Why do you think it’s important to keep such material alive and thriving?

AHC: I have dedicated much of my life to The Great American Songbook because it is our nation’s legacy and contains timeless masterpieces that express and illuminate the most profound experiences of our lives. Europe has given the world the enduring beauty of classical music, and they have done so well to keep their legacy alive. We are in danger of losing our identity if we forget the best of our artistry. Writers like Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers and Arlen have given all of us songs that say, “I love you,” better than we can. They are poetic and yet conversational. They plumb the depths of the soul in unique and powerful ways that anyone can relate to and be uplifted by. I sing all over the world and the response to the quality of this music is always extraordinary.

BT: Please tell us a bit about your formative years, growing up with so much talent in your family. Was there a particular moment when you knew that you wanted to be a performer and songwriter?

AHC: When I was born, the doctor didn’t say, “It’s a girl.” He said, “It’s a baby diva!” Growing up with such a talented mom who sang gorgeously, played everything on the piano, and taught voice was the perfect inspiration for me and my sister Liz. The funny thing is that I didn’t know I had talent until 3rd grade when Miss Lawrence told me I had a pretty voice. I thought everyone sang and that music was just a part of life. Our dad was a famous journalist in Chicago and gave me my love for writing. He gave me his old rhyming dictionary when I was ten, and I immediately started writing poems and songs. When I played Mame junior year at New Trier East High School that pretty much sealed the deal. It was a thrilling experience that I was not expecting. I had thought I might become an opera singer, but that role and what I learned about myself started me on my way and opened “a new window.”

BT: From among your many experiences in live performances on Broadway and in other settings, do you have any particular moments or special memories you would like to tell us about? Favorite occasions or programs or projects?

AHC: When I moved from Chicago to NY, I dreamed of being on Broadway. I had no idea it would take 21 years to become an overnight sensation! Starring in Swing! was an incredible experience. I got to create my role, select my songs, arrange them, and work with a wonderful family of talented and interesting people. Singing in Carnegie Hall tributes is always a thrill. Working with stars I admire like Liza Minnelli, who was my guest on my TV pilot Singer’s Spotlight, was amazing. And any time I get to sing with my dazzling sister, Liz Callaway, it is a joy because of the love and history we share. And I am so happy to be working with The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. My work with gay choruses through the years has been inspiring, because music is the most powerful way of celebrating our identity and journey and knocking down barriers in society to get to the real ways we humans are all connected.

BT: You have a long track record of volunteerism and philanthropy. Please tell us a bit about these efforts and why and how you have participated in them.

AHC: Being the daughter of a journalist shaped who I am and my sense of responsibility for the many challenges we have in our lives. When I learn of a crisis or a tragedy, I write a song. It’s too hard to sit and be sad and do nothing. Music calls to me and I respond. I’ve written songs about AIDS, gay pride, 9/11, the Tsunami, Katrina, world peace and now bullying. I used to think I was just an idealist and that writing these songs wouldn’t make a difference. But when President Gorbachev wept at my song “At the Same Time,” and Governor Mario Cuomo woke me up at 8 in the morning to thank me for writing it, I got that people do listen and can be touched in their hearts when it comes from yours.

BT: We are really looking forward to your upcoming performance here in San Francisco with the SF Gay Men’s Chorus. How did you become connected with the Chorus, and what are your thoughts about the upcoming concert here with them?  

AHC: I was excited when Tim Seelig shared the news about Tyler’s Suite and that I had been selected by the great Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz to compose music to honor the young gay man who took his life after being bullied on the Internet. I loved the lyric that Pamela Stewart wrote after interviewing Tyler’s mother, Jane. The song “I Love You More” is such a personal and tender way to celebrate what can never be taken: the love between a mother and her son. When I was rehearsing the song with Tim and the extraordinary Chorus, it felt so healing and uplifting, as did the entire work. Tim is a great conductor and has led choruses like this one to great things. I know that our celebration of The Great American Songbook in Act One and Tyler’s Suite in Act Two will be unforgettable. The talent and heart that these 300 men makes for a giant love fest.

BT: What are some of your favorite places to visit, and things to do, in San Francisco? Have any of them inspired your work?  

AHC: My first out of town job as a singer in my early 20’s was a month at the top of The Hyatt where I met my first female partner, so this city will always remind me of that special time. I love singing for Marilyn Levinson’s cabaret series and at Yoshi’s. And years ago, I had a wonderful time at The Fairmont. I think Northern California has some of the most inspiring beauty, perfect for a songwriter, and anytime by the ocean there has given me the peace to connect to my creative spirit. And, as a lover of wine, I love getting away to Napa and Sonoma for vineyard splendor. Wherever grapes are happy, I’m happy!

BT: So much of The Great American Songbook and related works are connected to the LGBT community. Even Neil Patrick Harris, when hosting the Tony’s, sang “50 Shades of Gay.” Why do you think this affinity might exist, and what role might groups like the SF Gay Men’s Chorus play in preserving such acclaimed songs?  

AHC: Well, some of its greatest creators were gay, like Cole Porter and Lawrence Hart, and expressed not only the poignant side of it all, but also the colorful and wry sensibility that has kept people smiling through the challenges. Show tunes tend to be larger than life and entice people to come out of their cocoons and closets and shine their own light. When groups as talented and charming as the SFGMC sing these classics, they bring a context that gives fresh meaning to the lyrics. Who can’t fall in love all over with these songs with all these handsome men in tuxedos wooing you with that full, virile sound?

BT: What are your thoughts about the changes in the LGBT community over the past year or so? How have you and Kari (Callaway’s partner) chosen to celebrate your relationship of many years? And please tell us about Muffin Louise Callaway (cat) too!  

AHC: It is, as Dickens wrote, “The best of times and the worst of times.” The huge strides made nationally for gay marriage is progress that I never would have dreamed possible in our lifetime. Kari and I are planning on getting married this year and are overjoyed to get to be part of history, legalizing our devotion to one another. At the same time, it is heart wrenching to know that laws are being passed and enforced that say that homosexuality is a crime punishable by life imprisonment or even the death penalty in many nations. The recent legislation passed in Uganda was much inspired by American fundamentalist Christians. Our community has made great progress, but there still is so much work to be done for equality and justice. As for Muffin Louise Callaway, since becoming an angel a year ago, she has me channeling her and helping her write a book called The Power of Paw-sitive Thinking. We miss her always, but are happy to have two new babies: our rescue cat Schubert and his sister Sophia, who wish us all a purr-fect show in San Francisco.

If you are a Callaway virgin, feel free to go my website, www.annhamptoncallaway.com, and check out song and video links. And please don’t miss this historic concert at Davies Hall! It’s going to be a night to remember!