By John Minagro
On March 1st I got my Affirmation Messenger email and looked at the opening article called “Singing in Church” by Rance Wright. I confess; sometimes I read the articles in Messenger, sometimes I don’t. But the word “singing” caught my attention. I’ve been a professional singer, mostly in classical opera, for several decades, and I’ve sung, performed, or written music in just about every genre you can think of really, even Rap, uh-huh.
My journey thru Mormonism has been an interesting one to say the least. I was a convert to the Church in my college days in New York, was baptized on April 6th, 1968 by the great great grandson of Hyrum Smith, transferred to BYU that year, served a mission in Italy, and married in the Oakland Temple: twice! (I learn slowly). Oh yeah, I forgot to mention; I’ve felt same-sex attracted since my earliest childhood days. But I fought that and tried to do “the right thing,” dated girls, denied my real inclinations, and tried otherwise to be a good person. When I got divorced in 1992 my ward was in shock. I had taught early morning seminary for many years, Gospel Doctrine in several wards, and was generally well known in my area for my musical abilities; I was in the Oakland Temple Pageant several times back in the 70s and rearranged the solo I sang as Joseph Smith Sr., and it’s still being done that way. When I auditioned for and got into the San Francisco Opera Chorus back in 1985, my Church friends were impressed, but “not surprised” they said. I even got many of my fellow ward members involved in SF Opera productions as supernumeraries (non-singing extras on stage) including a whole troop of young boys for Benjamin Britten’s opera “Billy Budd.”
But then when I got divorced in ’92 and stopped going to Church, I thought my days with the Mormons were over. However, only a year later, I auditioned for and got a role in the production of the San Francisco Broadway Tour of The Phantom of the Opera, and was invited by my ward to return and present a musical fireside on a Sunday evening. I put together a list of about 75 minutes worth of music, a little opera but most of it from Broadway shows, and contacted the woman in an adjacent ward who was the best accompanist I’d worked with. As I prepared the songs I realized there was one particular piece that stood out in my mind as being far more personal than I’d previously realized. The song is called “Unusual Way” from the musical “Nine” in which I had the opportunity of playing the lead in a local production just before my five year run with Phantom of the Opera.
The evening of the fireside found the rec hall behind the chapel filled to capacity and SRO, which was very gratifying of course. I had a lot of friends in the Church and even invited a few non-Church friends to the event. I opened the evening with one of my favorite songs from the show “The Fantasticks” called “Try to Remember.” After welcoming everyone and thanking them for coming, I told the audience about my experience auditioning for San Francisco Opera Chorus, and for Phantom and even sang for them the pieces that I auditioned with, which of course were operatic arias: Largo al factotum, from Barber of Seville for the opera, and for Phantom an excerpt from the opera Aïda which I’d done a few months before — I sang Aïda’s father Amonastro and at one point we get into quite the daddy-daughter argument.
The fireside continued on until I came to my closing number “Unusual Way.” This song is a very beautiful, even haunting number. If you haven’t heard it before, you can hear Nicole Kidman do a very touching rendition from the soundtrack of the movie “Nine” here:
and/or hear a male version by John Barrowman (who recently married his husband I note) here:
In the show “Nine” Guido is a movie director and married, yet has several mistresses. One of them, Claudia, tells him that she’s met someone special and wants to move on and end her relationship with Guido, and she sings the song “Unusual Way” to him in her explanation. While this song is sung by a woman, it could just as well be sung by a man. As I prepared this piece for the fireside I realized that I was like Claudia, giving an explanation to someone I loved deeply, the Church, but that it was time to end the relationship, yet at the same time being deeply grateful for everything that had happened between us.
Unusual Way — words and lyrics by Maury Yeston
In a very unusual way, one time I needed you.
In a very unusual way, you were my friend.
Maybe it lasted a day, maybe it lasted an hour,
But somehow it will never end.
In a very unusual way, I think I’m in love with you.
In a very unusual way, I want to cry.
Something inside me goes weak, something inside me surrenders,
And you’re the reason why, you’re the reason why!
You don’t know what you do to me, you don’t have a clue.
You can’t tell what it’s like to be me looking at you.
It scares me so that I can hardly speak.
In a very unusual way, I owe what I am to you.
Though at times it appears I won’t stay, I never go.
Special to me in my life, since the first day that I met you.
How could I ever forget you, once you had touched my soul?
In a very unusual way, you’ve made me whole.
I have no idea if anyone in that fireside audience had the remotest inkling that I was actually singing that song — to them. Every word and every line, every phrase seems to echo my exact emotion and feeling about my sojourn through and out of the portals of Mormonism.
And in the end, traumatic as it may have been for me, I feel I’m better because of it all. In a “very unusual way” the Church really made me whole.