Gays and Stages

by Michael Abernethy

14 December 2010


“I thought when I came to Broadway that it was going to be so glamorous. I used to imagine myself going out of the theater at night, leaving the stage door, and finding stage door persons waiting… Last night when I left the theater: ‘I don’t want no fucking autograph. What the hell is wrong with you? Who are you anyway? I didn’t come in this alley for no autograph. I came in here to pee.’”
—Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin, Appearing Nightly

“There’s No Business Like Show Business”. “Give My Regards to Broadway”. Listen to the “Lullaby of Old Broadway”. “God, What a Bitch!” One of these things is not like the others. Clearly, that would be the last on the list, which is featured in John Paul Sharp’s 2009 stage production, My Big Phat Gay Musical, not to be confused with Casper Andreas and Fred M. Caruso’s 2009 film Big Gay Musical, which features a large group of gay Broadway performers, along with the song “I Wanna Be a Slut”. As these two numbers evidence, gay musicals usually don’t feature the type of songs with which Ethel Merman used to deafen the back row of the balcony. Still, it’s easy to imagine that one or two of the queens appearing in gay musicals have a picture of Ethel taped to the make-up mirror. Right beside Liza.

Lily and Jane’s observation about the theater life is correct: it isn’t the glamorous life people may imagine it to be while fantasizing themselves taking bows during their fifth curtain-call. It’s tough to get a show noticed, and tougher still if the production prominently features an LGBT storyline. Granted, LGBT characters and themes in theater are more prevalent than can be found in film and on TV, unless you’re watching Bravo, which is a gay man’s paradise, with more bitchy queens than a Miss Continental pageant.

Even so, the past couple of years have seen LGBT theater flourish. For many, that will seem to be an oxymoron. After all, aren’t “gay” and “theater” synonymous? We write many of theater’s hit productions; perform many of theater’s greatest roles; construct more than our fair share of the sets, costumes, and lighting designs; and god knows we fill a high percentage of the good seats in any theatrical production’s audience. By God, We Are Theatre! Regardless, most of the productions that we have helped create and have supported are about straight people and are designed for a straight audience. Despite our proclivity to play it straight, literally and figuratively, both The New York Times and The New York Post featured articles this past year on the depth of gay-themed productions coming to the city this year. Unfortunately, references to LGBT theater usually emphasize the “gay”, with less reference to “transgender” and even fewer references to “lesbian” and “bisexual”.

On Broadway, Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall, a poignant story of gay love and its relationship to religion and life or death decisions, was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award this past year (it lost to John Logan’s Red). Bisexual actor Patrick Breen, who you’ve seen on a bazillion episodes of Law and Order, and straight Patrick Heusinger, who you know as Lord Beaton on Gossip Girl, play an atheist and devout Christian who fall in love:

Meanwhile, Off-Broadway has been buzzing about My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, the one-man show from Leslie Jordan, aka Brother Boy and Beverly Leslie. In the show, produced by the aforementioned Lily and Jane, Jordan recalls what it was like to arrive in Hollywood in the ‘80s as a gay man. The show’s site quotes The New York Times, which praised it for its “self-deprecation and spotlight-seeking shamelessness”.

Also playing somewhere in New York recently have been It Must Be Him, a comedy about being gay and aging; My Big Gay Italian Wedding about, not surprisingly, a big gay Italian wedding; A Night in the Tombs, in which transgendered Bianca Liegh describes her night in jail; Ryan O’Connor Eats His Feelings, and some of the scenery;Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party, the tale of an elementary school teacher put on trial for suggesting during the annual Christmas pageant that the 16th president was gay; and Bash’d, the world’s first gay rap opera, at least that I am aware of.

Perhaps the gay-themed production that has received the most press this year is the revival of La Cage Aux Folles, starring Kelsey Grammar and Tony winner Douglas Hodge. In his analysis of the LGBT-friendly musical, Norman Hart argues that the mass acceptance of La Cage was due to the juxtaposition of “almost Victorian application of neo-traditional American family values to the gay lifestyle”. Hart goes on to argue that the song adopted as a gay anthem, “I Am What I Am”, is a generic song that could serve as a battle-cry for any muted group in society. (“The Selling of La Cage aux Folles: How Audiences Were Helped to Read Broadway’s First Gay Musical”, Theatre History News, 2003) Still, regardless of how we may view them in retrospect, the old faves still can draw in the crowds. Angels in America is also enjoying a fairly well-received revival, off-Broadway, with Star Trek‘s Zachary Quinto playing Louis.

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