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All the Colors of the Human Voice: This D.C. Conductor Rounded Up a Stellar Cast for PBS Pride Month Special

By Eric Althoff

The programmers and artists involved in the current PBS special, “True Colors: LGBTQ+ Our Stories, Our Songs,” had a novel idea: Music could be the ultimate leveler. Even though the culture has advanced in recent years to be more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, there remains a segment of the population that still isn’t ready to embrace them.

Luke Frazier, the founder and artistic director of the American Pops Orchestra, had worked with PBS on several other music specials before. For Pride Month, he saw a unique opportunity to not only bring to the fore some amazing musical artists from within the LGBTQ+ community, but also show audiences that gay artists aren’t so different from everyone else. For “True Colors,” Frazier not only acts as musical director, he’s also there on stage, leading the ensemble.

Maestro Luke Frazier conducts the American Pops Orchestra
Maestro Luke Frazier conducts the American Pops Orchestra – Intercontinental Hotel, Washington, DC – Photo by Kevin Parisi

“I think audiences are changing, and the expectations are changing, and quite frankly, I think it makes for a more holistic [experience] for players and viewers if a conductor is thinking on both sides of the podium,” Frazier, a native of West Virginia, said from his home near the nation’s capital. “It’s charting a different course as to what a conductor is, and that’s something that I’m very, very committed to evolving.”

The concert portion of “True Colors” was recorded in February, hosted by recent “Jeopardy!” super-champion Amy Schneider, a trans woman who won 40 consecutive games, the highest of all time behind just three others—including the show’s current alternating host, Ken Jennings. 

“Amy was the perfect fit because of how many Americans watch ‘Jeopardy!’ every night,” Frazier said. “This is a familiar face, someone they can relate to immediately. I want entry points for everyone. And I thought Amy was a perfect bridge to an entire audience that may not be prone to watch this special. It’s another point of access, and she was perfect for that.”

Morgxn peforms "Wonder"
Morgxn peforms “Wonder” – Intercontinental Hotel, Washington, DC – Photo by Kevin Parisi

“True Colors” features candid interviews with “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon and former NBA player Jason Collins, who came out as gay in 2013. Such pointed talks alternate with concert footage of Frazier leading the American Pops Orchestra, backing up such performers as Morgxn, the Indigo Girls, and Bill Gilman. Frazier personally recruited artists such as Grammy winner André De Shields, a Broadway veteran who recently concluded a run as Hermes in the runaway hit “Hadestown.” 

“Luke and I did not know one another originally, but he was obviously aware of my activism as an Afro-queer performer,” De Shields said from his home in New York. The actor and singer elected to sing “The Colors of My Life” from the musical “Barnum” in support of “True Colors” for a host of reasons. 

“‘The Colors of My Life’ brought up the image of what we now associate with the LGBTQ+ community: the rainbow,” De Shields said. “All the colors [are a] bright light…that is going to pierce the hearts of everyone else who holds biases against us.” During his performance, De Shields, with his rich voice, holds the final vocal note of “The Colors of My Life” for what seems an eternity, drawing cheers from the audience. 

“In order to have life, in order to have liberty, in order to pursue happiness,” De Shields said of the magnificent fortitude he exhibits on the song, “one has to be hardy, one has to be self-determined, one has to be strong, one has to have sustenance, one has to persevere, one has to sustain his note through as long as it takes to achieve the desired goal.”

André de Shields performs "The Colors of My Life" from Barnum
André de Shields performs “The Colors of My Life” from Barnum – Intercontinental Hotel, Washington, DC – Photo by Kevin Parisi

Also performing in “True Colors” is the Black trans operatic vocalist Breanna Sinclairé, who positively runs away with the song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” 

“I think, especially being a minority, the words ‘somewhere there’s a place for us, peace and quiet and open air,’ kind of resonant with the LGBTQ community, because we want that sense of peace and joy and not feeling judged by the world,” Sinclairé said of the tune’s lyrics. “I really think that’s really why Luke picked that song.”

Many versions of “Somewhere” have been recorded, including the one performed by Rachel Zegler in last year’s film version of “West Side Story” directed by Steven Spielberg. Sinclairé said her vocal coach told her to avoid any of those earlier recordings so that she could interpret the song the way she wanted for “True Colors.” “You start to lose its authenticity” that way, she said.

A native of Baltimore, Sinclairé now lives in the Bay Area and holds a master’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She was the only trans woman in her program, which she said not only fortified her resolve as someone representing the LGBTQ community but also as a performer. 

Breanna Sinclairé performs "Somewhere" from West Side Story
Breanna Sinclairé performs “Somewhere” from West Side Story – Intercontinental Hotel, Washington, DC – Photo by Kevin Parisi

Sinclairé was also shaped by an even more difficult experience of being homeless on the streets of New York a few years ago. She came to the city to study and try out for jobs, temporarily crashing on a friend’s couch. The friend’s roommate, uncomfortable that Sinclairé was in the process of her gender transition, one day threw all of her items in the trash.  Sinclairé’s friend, while sympathetic, told Sinclairé she had to leave. 

Sinclairé found herself stealing food from a local convenience store just to survive when a man came over upon hearing her sing to herself. Incredibly, the stranger offered Sinclairé money to return to California to finish up her bachelor’s degree at Cal Arts—so long as she promised to send him a photo of her degree.

“There was no exchange, no type of sex work or anything,” Sinclairé insists of the Samaritan, adding that she indeed sent her angelic benefactor a picture of her bachelor’s when she completed the degree in 2015.

Although her career is now going swimmingly, Sinclairé says she was for years estranged from her Southern Baptist family. She hasn’t seen her father in 25 years, although the two are now in infrequent communication. Sinclairé is in more regular contact with her mother, and the two have bonded over the finer points of beauty.

“I help her with some tips and tricks on hair and makeup. We’re starting to create a bond,” Sinclairé said. “My mother is a minister, so I was surprised [she] was really accepting of having these types of conversation.”

Peppermint, Jujubee, and Alexis Michelle perform "(A Little More) Masacara" from La Cage Aux Folles
Peppermint, Jujubee, and Alexis Michelle perform “(A Little More) Masacara” from La Cage Aux Folles – Intercontinental Hotel, Washington, DC – Photo by Kevin Parisi

This summer, Sinclairé is participating in a residency with Berlin Opera Academy, an extremely selective program that rarely accepts anyone on their second try—let alone the first, as happened for her. 

Frazier, the orchestra leader, said that not only does he hope that people who watch “True Colors” might be changed in some small way, but that those in the LGBTQ+ community can ponder how they can use their gifts, their stories, and their talents to help that evolution along. 

“What I try to do every day is carry that compassion,” Frazier said, adding that shame isn’t particularly useful as a “change agent.” “It’s a goal to negate frustration with compassion, and so for me, I hope this is a little tiny tick in that column. While I may not change your mind or change your perspective, at least we can see each other as two human beings.”

“Trust me, being a homeless trans woman in New York for four months really taught me a lesson about how the world treats people like us,” added Sinclairé, who pointed to the terrifying statistics about Black trans women who are murdered. “Just because you don’t agree with who we are as trans folks or gender-nonconforming folks does not give you the right to hurt or harm a human being. Because we are human beings.”

De Shields emphasized the importance of a program such as “True Colors” to fashion empathy and understanding via the appreciation of music and showing that people in the LGBTQ+ community have hopes, dreams, and so much in common with everyone else. And though the culture has indeed come far on LGBTQ+ issues, much work remains to be done.

Billy Gilman performs "For Our World"
Billy Gilman performs “For Our World” – Intercontinental Hotel, Washington, DC – Photo by Kevin Parisi

“There was a time when we could have become extinct. And I don’t say that only as a queer person, I say that as a queer Black man,” De Shields said. “I’ve taken myself off the endangered ‘list’ now because not only am I thriving, the community that used to be just about White homosexual men is [showing] what it is the entire world needs. 

“It’s no longer just about sexual orientation; it’s about how are we as a collective of humanity going to stop being nostalgic to what we call ‘normal’ and [instead] cultivate a nostalgia for the future?”

“For me the most important thing about this special is that people across the country—no matter the size of the city, no matter their income, no matter their beliefs, no matter their background—I wanted relatability,” Frazier said. “And so, the most critical component of this is to break down this wall of an ‘us and them’ mentality that the LGBTQ+ community is not ‘part of all of our lives.’” And one way to do that, invariably, is through music.

“Because that is the common ground,” said De Shields. “If everyone can find some meaning in that idea, in the language of music, maybe [some] of the differences that keep us at polar opposite ends of the human perspective will ultimately atrophy and decay.

“And the one thing that’s missing from any particular struggle for diversity, equity, and inclusion is the simple but misunderstood concept that we are all one,” he said. “I still believe that the most powerful force in the universe is love—agape, not affection, not lust, but agape love. And that’s what I wanted to bring to this statement that Luke was putting together.

“If everyone made it part of their daily schedule to do something beautiful, to make something beautiful, to say something beautiful, we’d be all right.” 

“True Colors: LGBTQ+ Our Stories, Our Songs” is playing on PBS this month and at PBS.org. 

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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