Holidays with the Heartland Men’s Chorus: A Unique Blend of Reverence and Ribaldry

“You have a little Handel’s Messiah and some traditional carols. . . . then you also have an outrageous drag queen with candy cane earrings and who knows what.”
— Dustin Cates, artistic director, Heartland Men’s Chorus

Until the creation of the Heartland Men’s Chorus in 1986, reverence and ribaldry rarely if ever coalesced on a Kansas City concert stage during the holidays.

Then came the chorus and its distinctly odd-bedfellows tactic of imbuing the season with not only deep thoughts but also drag queens.

More than 30 years later, the self-proclaimed gay and gay-sensitive vocal group will again perform its highly anticipated holiday show promoting the values of peace on earth, good will toward men and being every bit as silly as they want to be.

“The holiday shows are kind of the best of everything,” says Dustin Cates, artistic director of the Heartland Men’s Chorus since 2014. “You have a little Handel’s Messiah and some traditional carols, but you also have holiday pop stuff. And then you also have an outrageous drag queen with candy cane earrings and who knows what.”

Call it frankincense meets folderol. But, as Cates explains, there is a method to the holiday gig’s successful merging of earnest and ridiculous.

“I solidified a formula for the concert that sometimes had been used in the past,” Cates says. “I dedicated the first act to a more traditional or sacred approach to the holiday season. That’s where we get to show our musical stripes and say, ‘We’re a viable choral music organization.’ Then we do our best to get a little schlocky.”

What would happen if the chorus kept it solemn for the show’s second half?

“People would revolt is what would happen,” Cates says. “Gay culture is showy. And those who join us understand what they’re getting. We say it’s a non-traditional holiday tradition, because there are folks who have been coming to Heartland Men’s Chorus holiday concerts for decades and it’s the way they kick off their holiday season. But it has a little bit of an edge to it, as well. It’s not just Christmas carols — it’s Christmas carols spiked.”

As Far Over the Top as Possible

The musical punch bowl this year includes an extra-spirited, 12-minute rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” executed in a comical variety of styles — barbershop, classical and funk, to name a few — with extensive use of sight-gag-friendly props.

“As you can imagine, we’ll probably do something fun with ‘eight maids a milking,’” Cates says. “We’ll try to take it as far over the top as possible.”

Hanukkah won’t be left out of the good-natured goofiness. A song-and-dance group dubbed the Burnt Ends will emerge from the ranks of the chorus to lasso a little ditty called “A Cowboy Kislev.”

“It’s basically a Jewish holiday country song,” Cates says. “There’ll be lots of costumes and camping and laughter. We’ll probably have belt buckles made of Stars of David. The menorah has to be included, and probably cowboy hats all in shades of blue — that’s a Hanukkah color. And there’ll definitely be line dancing.”

Some of the funny stuff at this year’s holiday show is also intended to be relatively thought provoking. Take “I Want To Stare at My Phone With You (A Millennial Holiday Song),” which includes the text-worthy lyrics: “Why would you go out and take a sleigh ride/The Wi-Fi here is strong/Let’s stay inside glassy-eyed” and “I’ll be all you need/We’ll cuddle up close as the candlelight glows/I’ll help you scroll through your feed.”

To fully embrace the phone-y romance, “we’ll probably have life-size dancing iPhones in that song,” Cates says. “And the guys will probably use their phones, too.”

And there’s “A PC Christmas,” a social-commentary choral theater piece satirizing the planning of a corporate holiday party that becomes so politically correct in the process that the event is cancelled in order to offend no one.

“The satire is maybe even funnier coming from us,” Cates says, “because we really do work hard to be sensitive to all different groups of people.”

Sensitivity Training

Such self-reflection — however lampoon-worthy — extends to how Cates is learning to appropriately address his own group of singers.

“The LGBT choral movement is ahead of the game on this,” he says. “Let’s consider the words that we say. Do I say ‘guys’ or ‘tenors and basses’? I should say ‘tenors and basses’ now, because I’ve got a female baritone — just one and she’s awesome. Or do I have a singer that might be transitioning from male to female? I have no idea. So, the responsible approach is to say, ‘Let me try to reframe my language.’”

One thing virtually everyone can agree on is the warm and fuzzy feeling generated by “Christmas in Kansas City,” a Heartland Men’s Chorus holiday favorite that will be back in the 2017 show.

“It’s a big ol’ ball of cheese, but it’s great, right?” Cates says of the song. “Because it’s the holidays, and cheeseballs are great at the holidays.”

The sentimental number is particularly notable to Matthew Schulte, marketing coordinator for the Kansas City Royals and a member of the Heartland Men’s Chorus board of directors. He donated $1,000 at a chorus fundraising dinner to become last year’s guest-conductor of “Christmas in Kansas City.”

“It really brought my family together,” Schulte recalls. “My dad and my mom, who are divorced, were both in the audience. My grandma was there. I had never conducted before and I was really nervous, and they were nervous for me. But I had practiced a lot and it was a thrill leading the chorus in a song. The best part for me at the end was getting to keep the baton.”

Beyonce, monks and ‘Silent Night’

Holiday concert memories make some of the best souvenirs for chorus members.

“We’ve had so many funny things,” says Randy Hite, an original member of the chorus who figures he’s performed in at least 25 holiday concerts through the years. “One year, we had a telling of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and we had a guy come on as Marley — and he was Bob Marley. So, he did a little Jamaican thing and it was just hysterical.

“Another time, we all dressed up in Santa Claus suits and we did a parody of Beyonce’s song ‘All the Single Ladies.’ And it was ‘All the Santa Clauses.’ We did the motion that Beyonce does, and the crowd just loved that — silliness, silliness, silliness, silliness.”

Hite has also portrayed a dancing “garden fairy” in a wide-brimmed hat on the holiday stage — “You couldn’t be more gay than that,” he says — and been part of a group of “monks” who had taken a vow of silence, which didn’t stop them from stealing the show in a wacky version of “The Hallelujah Chorus.”

Fellow “monk” Steve Dodge, a chorus member since 1995, remembers: “We each had a sign that was a syllable of ‘The Hallelujah Chorus.’ And as the chorus sang it, we had to show the right syllable — and it went faster and faster. We kept right up with them, and we got a standing ovation for it.

“But I also love it when we do some really beautiful, traditional music,” Dodge says. “The fun stuff’s great, but when we’re showing the power of our voices, the power of choral singing, that strikes home.”

It absolutely did for Zaid Askins-Kohler, who came to Kansas City from Mexico and whose husband, Bob Kohler, sings with the chorus. Askins-Kohler pitched in as a stagehand at last year’s holiday concert.

“I don’t have any family here,” Askins-Kohler says. “It’s just me and my husband. And being part of the holiday concert makes everything more beautiful. I kind of cried at some of the beautiful songs while I was backstage.”

For all of the holiday show’s popular shenanigans, the poignant side of the season returns in full strength near the end with an Ad Astra (“To the Stars”) memorial selection. It’s dedicated to chorus members and other loved ones who have passed away, including many voices silenced by AIDS during the chorus’s early years.

The 2017 “Ad Astra” number will be one that the chorus has done before, the Mannheim Steamroller version of “Silent Night.” Because the arrangement is largely instrumental, it also gives the singers time to reflect.

As Hite recalls: “We were able to listen to the instruments playing, and I actually could get into the remembering. My mother had recently passed. And just to have that moment for me as a performer, to know what the audience was feeling, too, was very meaningful to me. I’m glad we’re doing it again, because I think it’s perfect.”

‘Put a Little Love in Your Heart’

Certainly, the Heartland Men’s Chorus holiday concert is a mixed bag meant to be enjoyed in different ways. But the show’s final song is always intended to unify its audience, to “enlighten, inspire, heal and empower,” says artistic director Cates.

Last year’s finale was a moving interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s hymn-like “Hallelujah.” This year’s closer may well rival it in the goose bump department: Jackie DeShannon’s joyfully optimistic 1969 top-10 hit, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

“It’s a Christmas song, because it’s in the Bill Murray movie, ‘Scrooged,’” Cates says. “The words are the message that we try to send at the end of our holiday concert: ‘Think of your fellow man, lend him a helping hand, put a little love in your heart … and the world will be a better place, for you and me, you just wait and see.’”

“I like the idea that the world can be a better place. That’s the hook for me. That’s why we do this concert or any other concert we ever do. We want to try to make the world better with the music that we make.”

The Heartland Men’s Chorus 2017 holiday concert, “Packages with Beaus,” with guest singing string quartet Well-Strung, will be performed at 8 p.m. Dec. 2 and 4 p.m. Dec. 3 at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St., Kansas City; and with guest Broadway singer/actor Claybourne Elder at 4 p.m. Dec. 10 at Yardley Hall, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kansas. Tickets may be purchased at hmckc.org.

Photos by Susan McSpadden

About The Author: Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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