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Mascara, Eyeliner, and the Art of the Gay Male Musical

London production photo from EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE

I just finished watching a video of EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE, a new musical in London (and probably coming across the pond, if that hasnt been announced already) based on the true story of a sixteen year old drag queen who wanted to go to his prom in a dress. It’s a great show. Great score, amazing performances, especially by the actor who plays the title role. It’s one of those nights where you dont care that they telegraph the ending somewhere in the middle of act one. It’s just good, period.

It’s interesting as well to see the how the reviewers have been looking at it. They’re all delighted with it, praising it as a “queer theatre celebration of gender fluidity” — which is kind of taking the play’s message a bit too far beyond its intent, IMHO, but, you know, who really cares?

Now, having, I hope, established that I really did enjoy the show, it did leave me with one nagging feeling. It wasnt specific to JAMIE, but I think this just might have been the catalyst. There’s been a lot of talk about gender fluidity these days. Non binary people are coming out of the closet, and good on them for doing so. The world in general needs to know that there’s more to life than just men and women and the attendant implication there’s nothing inbetween.

But here’s the thing: gender fluidity in popular culture seems predicated in very large part on men exploring their femininity. While it does go well beyond that, the visual presentation of “redefining masculinity” appears to involve a great deal of eyeliner and mascara, and it makes one wonder if this “redefinition” is just as narrow as the binary, man/woman thing we were all trying to get away from. Consider that the big Broadway musicals about LGBTQ folk have almost all involved the stories of drag queens: PRISCILLA, KINKY BOOTS, BILLY ELLIOT, and LA CAGE AU FOLLES immediately leap to mind. Or a lot of sexual ambiguity, but all revolving around men acting more or less as women: HEDWIG’s transsexual cabaret performer and CABARET’s Master of Ceremonies. VICTOR/VICTORIA’s backstage world. All great shows. All wonderfully entertaining and heartfelt and sincere. And almost all with lots of drag queens. If there’s a guy in the mix who spends as much time at the gym as other characters do at the MAC make up counter, he’s reduced to a prop, without much in the way of character development, let alone storyline.

When you consider that this is just about all Broadway sees of the gay male experience in a musical environment, then it starts to feel like less an innovation and more a safe little box, something to make gay men in particular easy for the rest of society to accept. If indeed we’re all progressive enough to accept the concept of gender fluidity on the Great White Way, then where is the big splashy musical about the guy just looking for another guy? Where’s our AMERICAN IN PARIS, with Gene Kelly dancing his way into Yves Montand’s heart? Or, to push it even further to the far end of the gender-fluid spectrum, where’s the big musical about the gay male leather experience? We will applaud a film bio about Freddy Mercury and his gender-bending ways. Would we do the same about Leatherman Glenn from the Village People, who was as much a leatherman in real life as he was as a performer?

Or does it come down to an issue of “what wont frighten the horses”? Is the act of making a man into a woman easier to accept than a man exploring what it is for him to be a man… with another man? Is it perhaps because the sexual ante is raised to a now-uncomfortable level? We can deal with a drag queen and her boyfriend (JAMIE has a rather adorable scene with that hinted very strongly), but if it’s an adult male, one who’s been around the block long enough to know what he likes and doesnt get angsty about it, interested in another male of the same ilk… things get… awkward, because the threatened fantasy of these two men having sex is too much to bear. We know what Curly and Laurey have been doing upstairs in that last scene of OKLAHOMA. We know what’s going on during the “Tick Tock” scene in COMPANY. But if it were a show with even the slightest implication of two men hitting the sheets… even as part of their Happily Ever After… hmm, we’re not so sure here.

Side note: right now, in Portland, there’s a revival of OKLAHOMA, and a pretty audacious one, with two same-sex couples. Curly and Laurey are played by women. Will and “Ado Andy” are now both men. While I applaud this (the clips look amazing), I cant help but wonder if the choice to make the two romantic leads lesbians was predicated more on something easier to sell. Will and Andy are comic relief, but Curly and Laurey… that’s musical True Love. Would the threat of a romantic triangle involving Curly, “Larry”, and Jud Fry be more than audiences could handle?

Apparently so: when plans were announced for a gender-switched Daisy Gamble for the revival of ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, I wondered how committed the producers and director (and creative team) would be to what could have been a fascinating, if outrageous, concept: a musical about a straight doctor falling in love with a gay man’s previous carnation… as a woman.

As it turned out, not much at all. “Davey” disappeared halfway through Act Two so the doctor would have a happy ending… with his long-suffering female secretary. Here was an opportunity to explore the concept of love being more than gender-deep… and it was abandoned, reducing this revival into a one-trick-pony, something that became safe, so much so that Davey himself was reduced to a secondary role, quietly shoved offstage left when no longer needed. Apparently the producers felt audiences wouldnt respond well to giving the somewhat ordinary gay guy a happy ending… when it was he who set the entire story in motion in the first place.

Who knows, maybe someday we will see that Broadway hit based on the stories of Tom of Finland. Or maybe, even more simply, one in which boy meets boy, boy loses boy, and boy gets boy in the end…

… metaphorically, of course.

We dont want to scare any horses.

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Sean Martin is the creator of Doc and Raider, the longest continually published LGBTQ comic strip in history.