Jane Clementi’s son Tyler committed suicide at 18 after he was exposed as gay. In his memory, she is touring with a musical production the Seattle Men’s Chorus will present.
Nothing helped, at first.
Not the sympathetic media coverage. Not the murmured condolences. Not the boxes and boxes of letters from across the country and around the world, offering comfort to Jane Clementi and her family after her son Tyler killed himself.
In an act of utter and wrenching despair, Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off the George Washington Bridge in 2010 after his Rutgers University roommate secretly set up a webcam and invited people to watch while Tyler had a romantic encounter with an older man in their freshman dorm room.
Seattle Men’s Chorus’ ‘Legacy: Tyler’s Suite & I Am Harvey Milk’
8 p.m. Saturday, March 28, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$65 (206-388-1400 or seattlemenschorus.org).
The roommate, Dharun Ravi, was tried and convicted of invasion of privacy, among other charges, and sentenced to 30 days in jail, three years probation, community service and counseling.
Most Read Life Stories
- As we near 6 months in Washington’s stay-home order, mental health experts warn that things may get worse
- We scoured 4 Seattle-area neighborhood doughnut shops to find a great maple bar, a to-die-for chocolate glaze and more
- Reopening phases by county: What you can and can't do as Washington state reopens from coronavirus lockdown
- Get ready to devour these pillowy cinnamon rolls — before school or anytime | Cooking with Sadie
- The key to the best chicken soup from scratch? Ditch the old-world recipes
Almost five years later, Jane Clementi and her family have found a new solace: Music, accompanied by the voices of men not unlike her son. Men who struggled and suffered, as Tyler did, but who have survived and thrived.
On March 28 and 29, The Seattle Men’s Chorus will perform “Legacy,” which consists of two pieces: “Tyler’s Suite,” based on Tyler Clementi’s death; and “I Am Harvey Milk,” inspired by the gay politician who was assassinated in San Francisco in 1978.
Academy Award-winning composer Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin,” “Wicked”) composed one movement of “Tyler’s Suite,” and oversaw seven others, with lyrics written from the perspective of Tyler and his family members.
“I am still very numb,” Jane Clementi said the other day from her home in New Jersey. “I am still submerged, deep in the waters here. But this year and last have been a big growth time in my journey.
“I think it’s time that helps. It’s part of the process.”
It also helps to see “Legacy” performed. The Clementi family — Jane; her husband, Joseph; and their two surviving sons, James and Brian — all flew to San Francisco last March to see its premiere by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.
“The music is beautiful and it’s very moving,” Clementi, 56, said the other day. “It brings me to a sad place, usually. But it does have a message of hope in the words. A message that we all have to work together.”
That’s the message of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, established by the family, seeking to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces and faith communities.
“The hope is that young people won’t suffer the way Tyler did and that we can embrace each other from a gentler, kinder place,” Clementi said, “so that everyone can grow to their fullest capacity.”
Tyler’s brother, James, 29, serves as the foundation’s outreach coordinator, and will be coming to Seattle with his mother.
“The suite is very true to Tyler’s personality and character,” James Clementi said. “It feels like he is with us and speaking through the songs.”
The idea was to bring Tyler Clementi to life, his brother said, and to convey that his life wasn’t defined by his final three weeks.
“It’s a way of letting people see more of who he actually was than ‘Rutgers, student, gay, jumps from George Washington Bridge,’ ” he said. “He was more than that.”
James Clementi is also gay, and married his husband, Ramon Armenta, last Valentine’s Day.
James had always suspected Tyler was gay, but thought he was too young to broach the subject until he was about to leave for Rutgers. Then the two brothers came out to each other, with James telling Tyler to let him know if he ever needed to talk.
“He was leaving for school, and I wanted to give him his space,” James Clementi said. “I thought we would have the rest of our lives to talk about it.”
Despite the talent and meaning behind it, “Legacy” has been a tough sell for the Seattle Men’s Chorus. It’s not bright and catchy ABBA songs with Lilliputian actor Leslie Jordan wisecracking across the stage — closer to their typical fare.
And it’s been hard on the chorus members.
As rehearsals began for the Seattle performance, artistic director Dennis Coleman started to notice people dropping out. A dozen, total, before things got truly under way.
He understood why.
“It’s hard stuff to sing, and I don’t mean difficulty of music,” he said. “It is musically difficult in places, but it’s emotionally very difficult to sing.”
When the piece was performed in San Francisco last year, the choir called in therapists to talk the members through the feelings, flashbacks and fear that were stirred up.
So Coleman invited the participating members to get together one Saturday to talk things through, and the show will go on. It has to, he said.
“As long as I live, I think it’s important that we keep gay history alive, to teach it,” he said, and not just through chorus performances, but in schools. “We have to act these pieces in order to keep history alive.”
Tyler Clementi has become part of modern gay history — and “Tyler’s Suite” has turned the Clementi family’s grief into art.
In that spirit, Jane Clementi plans to attend every performance around the country.
“In some strange place in my head, it’s like going to a performance for Tyler,” she said. “I went to all of his recitals, all his performances. It was important to be there as a parent.”
Now, she said, she wants to show her appreciation to the choruses by being there.
“It’s my way of following the golden rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ ” she said. “That’s something Tyler didn’t experience.”