SONGS at 75: Tom Wilson Weinberg brings birthday cabaret to the William Way Community Center

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Tom Wilson Weinberg in 1979 (left) and in 2020 (right).

Tom Wilson Weinberg will celebrate his 75th birthday with a series of cabaret performances at the William Way LGBT Community Center this weekend. “SONGS at 75” is a celebration featuring music from the earliest days of gay liberation through the present day. Unlike the previous shows Weinberg has brought to the Center, “SONGS at 75”  will have a limited seating capacity to maintain and encourage proper social distancing. Only 25 people, including Weinberg, will be admitted for each performance.

“This is really a pilot for us,” said Chris Bartlett, executive director of William Way. Bartlett said that social distancing and masks will be strongly enforced. “We don’t have anything else scheduled in terms of events. We want to see what we learn from it, both the performance and bringing people back into the Center.” Proceeds from the performances will support William Way’s Arcila-Adams Trans Resource Center. 

The 20-song show was supposed to take place in April (Weinberg’s actual birthday month) but got postponed when the pandemic shut down live cultural events across the city. Now he’s doing it perhaps the way he loves best, in a cabaret-style performance. 

“In Philly there were professional cabaret venues,” Weinberg said. Historically the cabaret experience often featured crooners singing famed torch songs, numbers from musicals, and popular selections from the American songbook. “Now, they can happen anywhere — a bar, restaurants, or in the community center. New York has five or six dedicated cabarets. It’s a bigger deal there. It was mostly white faces but now it’s people of color. The definition has expanded.” 

Despite the evolution, the line made famous in 1972 by Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles still holds true for Weinberg: “I love a cabaret.” While this is a milestone birthday for Weinberg, the artist doesn’t necessarily have one “favorite,” or “greatest moment” in his long career, which is still growing.

“I have had what you call big moments,” he told PGN. “My show “10% Review” is something I’m most proud of. It had a terrific run off-Broadway, and a national tour. We had 30 or 40 performances around the country. That was a great time. Another very happy memory for me was when I was commissioned to write a 15-minute musical for the New York CIty Gay Men’s Chorus.” 

That show, called “60 Years With Bruhs & Jean,” portrays a real-life couple who met in 1929 and lived together for 66 years. Bruhs ultimately died in a nursing home, while Jean lived to be 97. Jean and Weinberg eventually struck up a friendship.

“They were pretty closeted,” Weinberg explained. “They stayed away from Stonewall. Then, later on they became sort of poster seniors for SAGE. Jean wrote the book on their lives as our friendship was growing. I decided to write the musical, which was sold out at Carnegie Hall.”

Weinberg, unlike Bruhs and Jean, came out in college at the University of Pennsylvania. He was not political early on, but became so when gay liberation blossomed. A few years after Stonewall, Weinberg was one of the founding members of the beloved Giovanni’s Room bookstore. He acknowledges that having access to LGBTQ writers in mainstream or chain bookstores is vital and validating, yet he won’t deny the unique place local gay bookstores still hold. 

“I think there is something special about going into a gay bookstore. Not just a couple of shelves — the whole store is for us — I do treasure that.” 

While having worked with performers such as Lea Delaria, taking productions around the country, imagining conversations between Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman, releasing early gay-affirming albums such as “Gay Name Game,” and even having a surprise commercial success when his 1979 song “Lesbian Seagull” was featured in “Beavis and Butthead Do America,” Weinberg is proud to remain a part Philadelphia culture. 

“Tom’s cabarets have been a huge part of the cultural experience at William Way,” Bartlett said. “His music energizes him and the audience.”

Understanding that everyone is in need of a little escapism, Weinberg will do some political songs, but will not mention President Trump specifically. Most of all, he is happy to be in front of local fans.

“I’m tired of screen time, even though what people are doing virtually is very creative and interesting. It’s all about communication between people and performers — you just can’t get that over the Internet.” Weinberg concluded both he and the Center were ready to host these live events, at least on a trial level. “However many people come, it will be me and real people. Songs from all throughout my career, and several I wrote for this show. I’m really excited about that.”

“SONGS at 75” runs at 8:00 PM on Friday, October 9th, 5:00 PM and 8:00 PM on Saturday, October 10th, and 3:00 PM on Sunday, October 11th. Due to social distancing guidelines, seating is limited. For ticket information, visit brownpapertickets.com.