Tyler Clementi was eighteen years old when he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. His roommate had videotaped him having sexual relations with another man and broadcast the video on the Internet. Clementi became a symbol of the perils of online bullying – and an inspiration behind Tyler’s Suite, a nine-piece choral movement that will be performed by Harmony: A Colorado Chorale, an LGBTQ choir, on Friday, May 5, in Broomfield, and on Saturday, May 6, in Denver.
The score was written by multiple composers, each telling a different part of Clementi’s story. At the helm was Stephen Schwartz, best known for writing the music and lyrics for the musicals Wicked and Pippin. He was roped into the project by his friend Tim Seelig, artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Schwartz had written a piece for the choir based on testimony from It Gets Better, Dan Savage's LGBTQ youth empowerment project. Seelig told Schwartz that the chorus had been commissioned to write a piece about Clementi by the Tyler Clementi Foundation, an anti-bullying initiative the young man’s mother formed after his death.
At first Schwartz just agreed to help find a composer to write the piece. “He asked if I had any thoughts about a writer, and as we talked about it, it seemed as if it might be interesting to do a suite with different writers contributing different pieces to it. I had some names of people, of composers that I knew and who I felt would do a good job,” Schwartz recalls. “I was seeing all these other people doing pieces for it, and it seemed cool to do a piece, so I ended up doing one and then two.”
Each composition was based on interviews with family and friends of Clementi. Schwartz wanted his own work to be lighter than the other composers' pieces. “Some of the things the brothers said were touching, but also kind of funny,” Schwartz says. And so he wrote his songs accordingly.
Schwartz was never bullied as a kid, but he knew others who were. And he sees the same problem as a parent. “My kids were pretty fortunate in that they didn’t experience that themselves, but it’s something I’m very aware of and feel strongly needs to be addressed," he says. “It’s always good with a piece like this that it gets out there where it can be heard by kids. I know from anecdotal reports that it has been very effective when it has been performed in high schools.”
Bill Looper, artistic director of the Colorado-based Harmony: A Chorale, was asked to bring his choir to New York City to perform the piece, and he agreed. But he also wanted to present it at home, in Colorado.
“Performing Tyler’s Suite has been a very emotional journey,” Loper says. “I can’t imagine the horror he went through.”
The piece gives the chorus a chance to be “a voice for the voiceless” and to take action against bullying, Loper says, adding that people witnessing bullying need to shift from being passive bystanders to become "upstanders," people actively trying to stop it. Without action, “the only thing that’s guaranteed is that bullying will continue,” he says.
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The performance is all the more pressing, he adds, in the wake of the United States’ electoral college “electing a bully into office.” Loper hopes the production will move people to be more compassionate – not just when it comes to LGBTQ issues, but for everyone.
“If we can help one kid from feeling that desperation,” the performance will be worthwhile, Loper concludes.
Harmony presents Tyler’s Suite at 5:30 p.m. May 5 at the Broomfield Auditorium, and at 7:30 p.m. May 6 at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver. A panel discussion on diversity and inclusiveness will take place at 6:30 p.m. ahead of the Denver performance; tickets are $20. For more information and to buy tickets, go to Harmony's website.