The Queering of the Musical

For many years, LGBT people were kept in the shadows of musical theatre. Though many worked on the creative teams of popular musicals (and many more appeared onstage), there were few, if any, openly gay characters visible to the audience. If I had to identify a turning point when audiences began to embrace “the real gay people of musical theatre,” it would be Paul’s monologue from 1975’s groundbreaking musical, A Chorus Line.

Inspired by late night group talks with director-choreographer Michael Bennett in which Broadway dancers related some of their personal experiences, Paul’s monologue (originally performed by Sammy Williams) had an incredible impact on audiences for a variety of reasons. In the 2008 documentary entitled Every Little Step, Jason Tam’s audition for the role in the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line was beautifully captured on film.

Since A Chorus Line, LGBT characters have been featured in a variety of roles onstage. In 2001, The Producers featured a gaggle of flamboyant LGBT theatre people for purposes of comic relief. In shows like 1992’s Falsettos, 1996’s Rent, and 1998’s The Boy From Oz, the AIDS epidemic claimed the life of a major character.

Musicals like 1973’s The Rocky Horror Show and 1998’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch revolve around outrageous transsexuals. Shows like 1995’s Victor, Victoria and 2013’s Kinky Boots feature gay characters whose business savvy plays a key role in advancing the plot. Gay hairdressers played important roles in 1970’s Applause and 1992’s Kiss of the Spider Woman while, in 2003’s Avenue Q, puppets helped to explain why a friend’s sexual orientation should never diminish a relationship in “If You Were Gay.”

In 1983’s La Cage aux Folles, 2003’s Road Show, 2006’s Spring Awakening, and 2010’s Girlfriend, a loving gay relationship plays a key role in the narrative. In musicals like 1996’s When Pigs Fly, 2003’s Zanna, Don’t! and 2006’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the action is set in a predominantly LGBT environment. In 2005’s Yank! a gay love affair is depicted in an army barracks during World War II.

What about the growing number of musicals whose source material came from comic strips? Within 11 short years, audiences were introduced to 1956’s L’il Abner, 1966’s It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman! and The Mad Show as well as 1967’s You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Within an even shorter period, 1975’s Snoopy! The Musical, 1977’s Annie, and 1983’s Doonesbury had their world premieres. To date, the 21st century has witnessed the debuts of 2010’s Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark and The Addams Family, 2013’s Fun Home, and 2017’s The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga.

Needless to say, only one of these musicals focused on the life of a lesbian cartoonist whose graphic novels drew a loyal audience. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley recently presented Fun Home in a production that was beautifully staged by Robert Kelley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. As Kelley explained in his Director’s Notes:

Fun Home’s themes of sexual identity repressed and released are universal. Born in the 1930s, a gay father leads a closeted life, consumed by a debilitating fear that his secret will be discovered. His lesbian daughter, free in the 1970s and ’80s to be herself without shame or fear, pursues an artistic career chronicling her own coming out in print. The difference between these two generations is a stark but liberating lesson in the value of personal freedom and the devastating price of prejudice for individuals, for families — for all of us. But in 2013, when Alison Bechdel’s novel was included as a reading requirement for freshmen at the College of Charleston, the South Carolina House of Representatives cut the college’s funding in retribution. Author Bechdel pointed out that Fun Home ‘is, after all, about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives.’”
Medium Alison (Erin Kommor) in a scene
 from Fun Home (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With music by Jeanine Tesori and a book by Lisa Kron, Fun Home (inspired by Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir) was adapted for the stage and opened off-Broadway in September 2013. Its initial run at the Public Theatre earned the show eight Drama Desk Awards, two Obie Awards, and three of the nine Lucille Lortel Awards for which it had been nominated.

When Fun Home moved uptown to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, the production had to be reconfigured for performances in the round. Nevertheless, the show won five of the 12 Tony Awards for which it had been nominated (including the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical) and was nominated for the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album.

Bruce Bechdel (James Lloyd Reynolds) finds his
 children playing in a coffin in a scene from Fun Home
 (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

I first saw Fun Home in January 2017 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, where the auditorium’s size and the touring production’s sound design made it a bit challenging to catch every word. As the musical’s original director Sam Gold, explained:

“The show is very dependent on its intimacy, but it also has this kind of ambition to the storytelling in using multiple perspectives, multiple timelines, and simultaneity while also maintaining a very real sense of vulnerability and fragility. A proscenium changes adult Alison’s relationship to the show. In the round, she participates with the audience in a certain way because they’re always given these multiple perspectives. With the proscenium, I think the character experiences her memories very differently.The really fun thing about doing the tour was that it felt like I was always making the show better. I knew everything I needed to know to make the design really work for the show.”
Erin Kommor, Ruth Keith, and Moira Stone portray
 Alison Bechdel in Fun Home (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Changing the scale of the experience from a 1,667-seat venue like the Curran to the intimacy of the 600-seat auditorium at the MVCPA makes one helluva difference in the level of intimacy one feels while experiencing a show like Fun Home. I found it much easier to appreciate Kron’s lyrics to songs like “Party Dress,” “Changing My Major,” “Maps,” and “Bruce at the Piano” as well as the energy of Tesori’s music. Andrea Bechert’s simple unit set was highly effective, and always brought the humanity of the piece close to the audience. With costumes by B. Modern, lighting design by Steven B. Mannshardt, and sound design by Cliff Caruthers, the intimacy of the production made Alison’s quest to understand herself (as well as her father’s perfectionism and ultimate suicide) a more introspective journey that was reflected in her evolution as an artist.

Alison (Moira Stone) goes for a drive with her father
 (James Lloyd Reynolds) in a scene from Fun Home
 (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Moira Stone anchored the performance as the adult Alison, with Erin Kommor as the medium Alison during her coming out phase in college, and Ruth Keith as an ebullient small Alison. I was touched by how James Lloyd Reynolds portrayed Alison’s closeted father, Bruce, and very much enjoyed Ayelet Firstenberg’s portrayal of Alison’s first girlfriend, Joan. Others in the cast included Crissy Guerrero as Alison’s mother and Michael Doppe as a series of men who attract Bruce’s attention.

The Bechdel children (Dylan Kento Curtis, Oliver Copaken 
 Yellin, and Ruth Keith) in a scene from Fun Home
 (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Kelley first met Fun Home’s composer, Jeanine Tesori, in 1989 when she was in the pit band for a production of Chess. At that time, he wanted to convince Tesori to let TWSV produce her musical about the famous Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei (the musical had its West Coast premiere at TWSV the following summer). Over the years, the two theatre artists have teamed up for productions of Tesori’s Violet in 1999 and Caroline, or Change in 2008 at TWSV.

When Kelley saw Fun Home at its final preview before the show’s premiere at the Public Theater in New York City, he immediately knew that he wanted to bring her new musical to TWSV. When he announced his impending retirement after 50 years at the helm of TWSV, Tesori told the San Francisco Chronicle that:

“The support of Kelley early on in my career made it just that: a career. Until then, I was really a music director and arranger who was composing on the side. Kelley’s willingness to take a chance on an unknown writer changed the way I saw myself. A writer who conducted, as opposed to the other way around.”

* * * * * * * * *

From 1968 to 2013, the American Legend Cooperative held the public’s attention with a 45-year-long branding campaign entitled “What Becomes A Legend Most?” During that time, nearly 70 celebrity spokesmodels could be seen in posters advertising Blackglama furs. Because those furs were primarily marketed to women, most of the campaign’s models were female stars of stage and screen. Only four (Rudolf Nureyev, Luciano Pavarotti, Ray Charles, and Tommy Tune) were men.

Following its successful world premiere in 1998 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney (and a subsequent tour to major Australian cities), when The Boy From Oz opened on at New York’s Imperial Theatre on October 16, 2003, it presented a stunning challenge to anyone who wanted to produce the show following its original Broadway production. With a story line that revolved around the popular Australian singer-songwriter, Peter Allen (who toured with Judy Garland, married Liza Minnelli, and was portrayed on Broadway by Hugh Jackman), any regional producer would have to ask “What becomes not one, not two, not three, but FOUR legends most?”

For John Fisher, the indefatigable artistic director of Theatre Rhinoceros (the longest surviving LGBT theatre company in the world), the answer was simple. Considering the Rhino’s loyal subscribers, limited financial resources, and tiny performance venue, strip a musical initially filled with lots of razzle dazzle down to its barest essentials and focus instead on the story of a young gay man from a small Australian town who made it big in show business, but eventually followed his lover to the grave after both men died of AIDS. As Fisher explains:

“He truly was a boy from Oz: eternally young and from a magical place of his own creation. That he was a true friend to Judy Garland only gives him greater Godhead (a playful Dionysus to her thundering Zeus). Carole Bayer Sager’s recent autobiography becomes an hysterical page turner whenever she talks about Peter — her fondness, her love, her admiration spilling off the page in one silly anecdote after another. So his story becomes legend, enshrined in this musical with all its good will, unending energy, spirit and hope — all testament to the man who might have called Australia home but brought Hawaiian shirts, high-kicking energy, and that glorious smile to America. His life reflects the queer movement, from coming out to finding acceptance to struggling with a horrifying disease, but his memory is only joyful.”
Cameron Zener (Young Peter) and Justin Genna
 (Peter Allen) in a scene from The Boy From Oz
 (Photo by: David Wilson)

Anyone attempting to produce The Boy From Oz can only move forward with a highly energetic triple threat (actor-singer-dancer) on board. I’m happy to report that Fisher lucked out with the casting of Justin Genna (a former dancer with the Milwaukee Ballet who graduated from American Conservatory Theater’s MFA program) as Peter Allen along with Leandra Ramm as Judy Garland. With a skeletal set designed by Bert van Aalsburg, costumes by David F. Draper, choreography by Kevin Hammond, and musical direction by Sheela Ramesh, Fisher keeps the show moving at a fairly frantic pace.

John Charles Quimpo (Chris Bell) and Justin Genna
 (Peter Allen) in a scene from The Boy from Oz
 (Photo by: David Wilson)

His efforts pay off in the strong performances by Cameron Zener as Young Peter, Larissa Kelloway as Peter’s mother (Marion Woolnough), and Carol Ann Walker as Liza Minnelli. John Charles Quimpo delivers a sympathetic portrayal of Peter Allen’s Australian song and dance partner (Chris Bell) with Justin Lopez appearing as Greg Connell (the male fashion model from Texas who became the true love of Peter Allen’s life).

Justin Genna (Peter Allen) with Justin Lopez
 (Greg Connell) in a scene from The Boy From Oz
 (Photo by: David Wilson)

With most of the songs in The Boy From Oz having been composed by Peter Allen, it’s easy to call the show a jukebox musical. From lesser known numbers such as “”When I Get My Name in Lights,” “All I Wanted Was The Dream,” and “Once Before I Go,” to show stoppers like “Not The Boy Next Door,” “I Still Call Australia Home,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” and “I Go To Rio,” the show has an appealing score that triggers a series of (in this case extremely scaled down) production numbers.

The original book for The Boy From Oz was written by Nick Enright and revised by Martin Sherman for the American production, leaving lots of bitchy repartee for the actors portraying Peter Allen and Judy Garland. With the legendary status of these two performers having grown since their deaths, these barbs brighten the show immeasurably.

Justin Genna (Peter Allen) with Leandra Ramm 
 (Judy Garland) in a scene from The Boy From Oz
 (Photo by: David Wilson)

Performances of The Boy From Oz continue through November 17 at the Gateway Theatre (click here for tickets).


Originally published at myculturallandscape.blogspot.com on November 3, 2018.