Dallas — In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a promising violinist in his first year at Rutgers University, was cyber bullied. Using a webcam, his roommate caught Clementi in an intimate act with another guy and posted the video online. It went viral. Suddenly the safety of being away at college and having privacy in his own room vanished. Clementi, who came out to his parents before leaving for college, was ridiculed. He jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death.
The tragedy led to a foundation to fight cyber-bullying, and inspired Tyler’s Suite, a choral cycle of songs by a group of nine outstanding composers. It premiered in 2014 by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and has been performed by choruses in other cities.
This weekend it will be performed in the second half of the Turtle Creek Chorale’s “Heroes” concert at Dallas City Performance Hall. The first half of the concert honors some heroic organizations that are important to the LGBT community: Bruce Wood Dance Project (which will also perform), Cathedral of Hope, DFW Federal Club, Jonathan's Place, Resource Center and Susan G. Komen.
"Music meant so much to Tyler," Tyler’s mother Jane Clementi once said in a nationally published interview. Through this music, the audience "will get to love him. Each movement shows the multi-facetedness of him."
The project was headed up by Stephen Schwartz, the highly successful Broadway composer and lyricist of Godspell, Wicked, and many other musicals. He invited some distinguished composers and songwriters to each contribute one song/movement.: Ann Hampton Callaway, John Corigliano, Stephen Flaherty, Jake Heggie, Mark Adamo, Craig Carnelia, Nolan Gasser and Lance Horne.
“What interested me was how this event could have a profound impact on someone else,” Schwartz says, “in a way it’s a metaphor for the larger impact on how Tyler’s death had on many people.”
Schwartz himself wrote a piece, called “Brother, Because of You,” from the perspective of Tyler’s brother.
“Originally I wasn’t going to do a piece, I was just going to help curate it, if you will, or help to put together the group of composers,” Schwartz says, “but then ultimately as pieces started coming in and the scope expanded, I began to feel that I’d like to participate.”
Some of the composers were immediately on board, and for others, there were reservations.
“At first, I hesitated to be involved,” says Jake Heggie, who wrote the selection “The Narrow Bridge.” “I didn’t know how a piece that used multiple composers would work out, but I was impressed with the poetry and the unifying theme of Tyler’s life and struggle.”
Heggie heard the completed work for the first time in San Francisco—along with everyone else. Before the song cycle hit the road, the composers were given a chance to rewrite what they wanted to change. This often happens after a first performance when the composition is actually heard in its final form.
“Mostly, all of us tightened up our selections,” Heggie says. “We all overwrote. But I am very happy with the final product.”
Callaway, a respected vocalist with a number of albums under her belt, says this project became personal. Despite years of working in an industry with a high number of gay people and acceptance, it took her a while to come out publicly. She’s now married to Kari Strand.
"I felt that I was true to everyone who mattered to me," she says. "I am bisexual, I’m a little different from the average gay women, so I was avoiding the ambuiguity and the politics of that. But I would say to other people 'be who you are,' and I thought 'I’m not totally walking the walk.' "
Callaway’s piece in Tyler’s Suite is a beautifully emotional song called “I Love You More.”
“The song gets an extremely powerful reaction,” Callaway says. “Everyone tells me they cry, it’s hard for the chorus and the soloist, if you’re putting yourself in the moment of the song and you’re imagining what their relationship is. The bottom line is unconditional love.”
“In San Francisco when we premiered Tyler’s Suite, I felt like Tyler was there,” she adds.
No doubt, his spirit will be at Dallas City Performance Hall this weekend.
» Video: TheaterJones interviewed two members of Turtle Creek Chorale, Robert Preston and Terry Wolfe, about their own experiences of coming out, the impact of bullying and learning to overcome through the power of music and, as Callaway says, unconditional love.