The Elephant on Broadway

Try as we might, we can’t get away from the elephant in our country.

You know what I mean.  Or whom.

Not only is it Trump this or Trump that, it’s how will we fight Trump, what will happen if we don’t defeat Trump or, my favorite at the moment – um please, we have a rule tonight, there is no talking about Trump.

On that latter point in my house:

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!

Of course, the latter is misguided for so many reasons.   But mostly because even when you don’t talk about IT, it’s there, lurking beneath the surface, ready to rear it’s ugly head just when you thought you’d put it to bed.

Not unlike the trauma you buried from your childhood or the pretending you do every time you toss off that rehearsed carefree smile at your ex.

Or the murderous rage you suppress whenever the driver in the car in front of you is going 3 mph because they’re texting.

Or the searing pit of bile bubbling up in your stomach when that person in the market, elevator or treadmill next to you speaks as loudly on their phone as NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio did on the stage at the first Democratic debate this past week.

Point being that totally ignoring a problem only makes IT bigger and you smaller.

Last week I snuck off to NYC for a few days to ostensibly forget the Trump of it all.  I did this by paying what would amount to the price of a small used car for orchestra tickets to three of the hottest shows on Broadway.

Think of this as the gay male equivalent of binge eating with a chaser of middle-aged entitlement because I deserved to see the original casts of this year’s big Tony Award winners since the world is shitty, I’m getting older and who knows how many years I or any of the rest of us have left.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject: HAPPY GAY PRIDE 50, everyone!!!!!!!

Cheers Queers!

In any event, and to be more specific, another way to put this is that I sat front and center for: 

Hadestown, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Oklahoma!

Yes, they were all truly brilliant, a word I hate to use but find that when it applies there is no other.

Yet what I found even more surprising is that while these three shows couldn’t be more different – certainly they were all written decades, even centuries apart – they all, in their very artistically eclectic ways, very much addressed exactly the same subject:

Trump/IT and Trump America.

Hadestown is about making a pact with the Devil for your soul in order to get what you want.  But in this case the Devil is a con man AND a BUILDER who seduces you into believing he will take care of you and, once he owns you, does anything but.

His suits fit a little better

Since it’s based on a Greek myth they call him Hades but when you watch it, well,  you will likely feel the urge to substitute….oh, some contemporary name of your choice.

Especially when during the first act curtain song entitled “Why We Build A Wall” at the Friday night performance you attend you realize Hillary Clinton is sitting directly in front of you three rows to your left. (Note: #Swear2God/Hillary).

Let’s just say I experienced a range of emotions

Then there’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a story about a 1930s southern white small town lawyer who deeply believes in justice and yet just as deeply sympathizes with the enraged, poor, white working class neighbors all around him who feel like they never get justice and have been left behind by the system for far too long.

A very different Atticus

So much so that he agrees to defend a young man of color for a crime he clearly didn’t commit knowing FULL WELL that said system and his neighbors could NEVER convict him, and certainly wouldn’t KILL (nee lynch) him, when all rational EVIDENCE points to the contrary.

This brings us to Oklahoma!, a show we mostly know as the vintage Technicolor movie musical of the same name about the infinite joys of the American heartland.  (Note:  Oh, come on – Surrey With The Fringe On Top??  Oh What A Beautiful Morning????).

Who knew all this time that what this story was really telling us was how quickly the people inhabiting our heartland would turn their backs, and very American guns, on the most unfortunate among them and literally erase them with their own bullets when they are unable to make lemonade out of the very real sour lemons life has handed them – AND jump for all the joy in America while doing it.

More like WOKE-lahoma!

If it seems all three of these are of a theme simply because my taste verges on the, well… angry, timely and political – not really. (Note:  Though, admittedly, yes they do).

I had to be dragged to Oklahoma!, a show I never liked or related to in the least, kicking and screaming.  Nor was I at all interested even a little in Greek mythology or up to revisiting the racism of the Depression era south by way of The West Wing.

At least initially.

Proving once again that every seemingly distant, dystopic time period produces valuable work that in some way (okay many ways) directly reflects what’s going in the streets and hearts of those inhabiting it… and well beyond.  Because if done particularly right a handful of these works will live on and the truth of their stories will get reimagined and reinterpreted in countless forms as both an artistic expression and, perish the thought, teaching tool and salve for future generations.

And they will seem as timely as hell while doing it even when, in the case of Oklahoma!, not one single word has been changed.

ummm.. what?

How can this be????

Because especially great art comes out of experience, passion, pain and point of view.  And paying attention.  Often it’s born from the ashes of despair or a twisted take about that which deep down sticks in our craws, inflames us and/or seeks to destroy us.

A very wise mentor once told me early on that there are only a handful of stories out there – it’s all in the way you tell them and just how much truth you are telling.

Amen!

As artists, and for that matter, citizens, we reconfigure our handful of stories with dark and light magic that not only reflects the contemporary world around us but is also informed by it.

To watch these events then play out on a stage after they’ve played out in life, or even in the political arena, at a time when all we want to do is to turn away, is one way to know that —

1. We are not alone

and

2.  The recipe for catharsis is never to live in a pretend world.

Rather it is to face our demons (aka reality) en masse through another set of eyes able to express it differently.  It’s through that very kind of  group camaraderie that we can  go from desperately hopeless to happily hopeful in the space of just a few hours.

2019 Mashup from Oklahoma 

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A Helluva Town

The Chair is currently spending the weekend in NYC — with an itinerary chock full of Broadway shows (of course). He’s going to have a lot to report on…. stay tuned.

Till then, enjoy this song from Hadestown — which has taken on extra meaning since the Chair first heard this song while he sat just a few rows behind 2016’s Popular Vote President. Take a moment to soak that in.

“Why We Build The Wall” – the cast of Hadestown

LGBTay-Tay

When Taylor Swift gave a surprise performance of her new anti-hate song, You Need to Calm Down, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the modern LGTBTQ movement at the very place where it started – NYC’s Stonewall Inn – it made an impact.

After all, the 29 year-old singer/songwriter is one of the best-selling recording artists of all-time with over 50 million album sales and 150 million in single digital downloads.  She’s won 10 Grammys, was included in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters back in 2015 and has appeared three times in Time’s 100 most influential people, including 2019.

She’s a goddamn icon

Whether you are fan, frenemy, enemy or simply indifferent, it is undeniable that once Tay-Tay sets her sights on, or music to, a subject she carries an indefinable weight towards changing hearts and, more importantly, minds on said subject.

As a gay man of a certain age I do not take any support for granted, especially hers, and finally understand that each small and large gesture are essential building blocks forward.

A TS lyric like, shade never made anybody less gay in a song heard internationally more times than any of us likely ever will be, can’t move the needle alone.  Still, it can certainly be the single straw that breaks the back of hate in all sorts of different people for all sorts of different reasons.

YAY TAY TAY

At this point it might be worth remembering that it was on the day Judy Garland died that a group of trans people, gay men and drag queens stood up to police harassment en masse at the Stonewall Inn and birthed the modern gay liberation movement.

The fact that they rioted in the streets of Greenwich Village for several days, refusing to be targeted where they lived, did not happen just because a gay icon was gone, as the history books like to simplify.

However, it would not be overreach to write that when that final straw dropped on that specific day, a bunch of us were extremely pissed off, much more so than usual.  Just like you don’t throw a lit match onto a gas station or sass your Mom and Dad just after they’ve gotten home from a double shift at work. There are limits to what any of us will tolerate on a very bad day.

Even Joan has limits #nowirehangers

You can’t blame it on the sass or the match or the day or the shift.   It takes the combination of some or all of those elements (and more) to fuel the uncontrollable fire that was sure to come once all the kindling fell into place in exactly the right (or wrong) way.

It was in thinking about all of the above that it became undeniable that a week had just passed where all three of the new mainstream films and TV series I had just consumed for the first time centered specifically on members of the LGBTQ community.  This would have been unthinkable just two or three decades ago not because my tastes had changed but due to the fact that no one was making this much openly gay content back then for mass consumption.

Not even Charles Nelson Reilly was technically “out”

There was Halston, a feature length documentary on the gay designer of Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, Liza Minnelli’s sparkly stage outfits and just about some part of every trendy female fashionista’s wardrobe back in the 1970s.

Then scrolling on Netflix was Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story.  This was a hard look at the celebratory life and tragic death of young gay man credited as the greatest makeup artist who ever lived.  A guy who worked with every female supermodel of his era, including Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, and then segued to work with the likes of Cher, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, Gwyneth Paltrow and Andie McDowell.

The master at work

This was all before branching out to create best-selling books and makeup lines and

dedicating his own time and money to mentor other young, forgotten gay kids, many of whom came from the same small homophobic home towns he himself had grown up in.

Watching his adopted father’s account of how the young Kevin had to drop out of high school at the age of 15 after several of the school bullies tried to run him down with their truck was enough to make any viewer question if anything has really changed at all.

Of course, this would be foolish thinking since his very own path to international fame as a proudly out gay man occurred years after the Stonewall Riots and the rise of a very un-publicly gay designer like Halston.

and certainly after Keith Haring’s “Heritage of Pride” Logo from the 80s

It is on the wings of countless real life people that Kevin was able to rise just a little bit more and the memorable gay characters of contemporary fiction emerge.  That is why watching Netflix’s just released 10-part limited streaming series, Tales of the City, based on Armistead Maupin’s best-selling books of 1970s, 80s and beyond San Francisco, seems a perfect cultural bridge to a 2019 public, yet now somehow almost routine, LGBTQ ally like Taylor Swift.I can recall devouring those Tales novels when I first came out because it was the first time I saw the gay and straight worlds melded together into the one more integrated, albeit messier, world that I lived in.

BONUS Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis together again!

Sure, it was a somewhat idealized world but it spoke to my reality closer than anything I had come across up to that point, straight or gay.  Good as the early PBS miniseries (based on the first two books) was back in the early 1990s I can recall how disappointing it felt to have it viewed as both exotic and controversial when it was first broadcast during the AIDS era.   So much so that the PBS network declined to do any more movies/shows based on the next books, which were finally produced by Showtime but gained far less attention.

For those of us still around, and for so many others, it is therefore a partial triumph of both endurance and history that the gay-themed issues tackled in the latest Tales on Netflix are today barely controversial – only merely reflective of where the world is now.  Far more potent is how the middle-aged (Note: ahem) characters of my generation co-exist with the younger out(er) and proud(er) generation after them and how they all grapple with the full history of those left from the still older generation that came before either of them saw the light of day.

Kinda like the feeling I get when I see this guy out on the trail with his husband #PeteforAmerica

It is in this more full depiction of the many inroads and detours taken in the full path to get here that these newest Tales really soars.  This is done through expert performances from the likes of Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney and Ellen Page as trans, straight and gay/bisexual characters, respectively, of different ages whose many stylized stories not only naturally but casually intersect with a core truth of not only how it was but how we would want it to be.  Perhaps, in some ways, how it now is for all of us.  Or, well, more of us.

This new Tales miniseries is memory piece of today that is built on the past but exists clearly in the present as it consistently looks towards the future.  It is not unlike what Taylor Swift does when she comes fully out as a straight LGBTQ ally in 2019 and uses her celebrity and talents to boldly admonish all current and future homophobes in a fun but clearly commercial pop song pointedly entitled You Better Calm Down.

Taylor Swift – “You Need to Calm Down”

Back to the Future?

There’s a lot of talk about the past these days and it’s reflected in our art, in our politics and all through our everyday lives.

For instance, at the movies I found great solace in reliving Elton John’s life in Rocketman.  This was not only because I got to hear all those great songs performed by the pop star’s virtual movie doppelganger, Taron Egerton, who even captured the way Elton magically played the piano with his feet back when I first saw him perform live at Carnegie Hall in 1972.

He really knew how to put on a show

Instead, what made Rocketman soar for me was how it captured the sad isolation young movie Elton feels when, after his breakthrough performance at L.A.’s Troubadour, he wanders aimlessly at the celebrity after party he should be the star of unable to be his true self.

You don’t have to be gay (or a pop star) to understand what it’s like to not fit in anywhere deep down inside and to know for certain that you are likely the only one who feels this way.

By reliving those feelings and owning them, en masse, it helps us all to feel less alone in the present and to enjoy how far we’ve come in what, in the scheme of things, is a relatively short time.

Baby steps are OK #respectmyjourney

This same form of nostalgia operates in current political movements spearheaded by sizzlingly resonant catchphrases like Make America Great Again. 

More nimbly than a film and certainly more simplistic than ANY streaming show, that clarion call to the past asks the public to go back in time and remember that decade and those years when, overall, things really were GREAT compared to what they are NOW.

There might be some disagreement as to where and when but all the slogan asks of us is to agree that the PRESENT is relatively CRAPPY and that it DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY ANYMORE.

You sure about that Chairy?

You want to go back to the economic boom of the eighties, the pre 9/11 days of the 90s, the gauzy nostalgia of the 50s when everyone wasn’t so sensitive and America just was what it was, united under ONE flag?  It IS possible.  There IS hope.  Follow this logo and those promoting it and WE will take you there.

Just as the ascendance of a Make America Great Again candidate to the Oval Office in 2016 is a call to the past so, in its way, is the indisputable rise of former Vice-President Joe Biden to the very top of the Democratic field of POTUS contenders for 2020.

And here is the Joe Biden of the past… can you even?

In his very first announcement message (Note: Way back in…April) he asked us to recall what America IS, by reminding us of what it WAS.  He did this by citing the very words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

and holding them in sharp contrast to our MAGA president insisting there were very good people on BOTH SIDES when neo-Nazis marched openly in Charlottesville against local residents who supported the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue.

The fact that Jefferson, author of the very manifesto that created the principles on which our country was founded on, lived most of his life right outside Charlottesville was a more than apt metaphor to make the same point of how America’s once GREAT status has gone astray and whom we need to now follow in order to get it back.

This is the only modern Jefferson reference I can get behind #forreal

Biden’s words can’t be emblazoned on a MAGA-like hat but the fiery images of Tiki-torches and swastikas that were employed in present day Charlottesville quickly lit up his candidacy like no other in the 2020 field.  It was a clarion call to reclaim a different part of our pasts and has helped keep the Biden candidacy in a first place runaway lead since its inception almost two months ago.

There is, of course, no going back for any one of us.  We can’t literally enter a time machine and even if we could, memory is select and the exact past is not, to put it mildly, exactly what we are remembering.

This does not interest me. #AmericaSoWhite

As the filmmaking style of Rocketman so effectively demonstrates, our memories are mere impressionistic representations from years gone by intermingled with perceptions and images from other years, decades and time zones in between.  They are an imaginative evocation of our history but not literal.  They are what we recall happened but not entirely accurate.  Yet neither are they fictional.

We can’t literally believe that a young Elton John sang “Daniel and “Crocodile Rock” decades before they were written just as we may never ignore that our Founding Fathers once owned slaves and literally trafficked and tortured other human beings out of their homeland in order to build a new one for themselves.

You tell em, Liz!

Still, this doesn’t disprove the overall message and/or intent of either.

We get to choose which, if any, of their themes resonate for us, and our futures, and to act on them accordingly.  Yet we need to not get too caught up in their golden-hued memories or isolated mistakes.  Instead, perhaps the best strategy (Note: Or strategery, if one is so inclined) is to use the biggest of their lessons and themes as a new clarion call to an even better future.

Unless, that is, we’re not done just merely remembering quite yet.

Elton John – “Crocodile Rock”

Award Worthy?


I was lucky enough this week to attend the Television Academy Honors, an annual awards ceremony that recognizes the creators of socially relevant programming that creates awareness, enlightens, educates and/or positively motivates audiences.

It is an honor totally separate from the Academy’s annual Emmy Awards and was established as a way to spotlight television shows that go above and beyond to tackle difficult and timely issues in hopes that this will in some way fuel more discussion of the show and/or issue in the social zeitgeist.

It was also meant as a small pat on the back to the people who more often that not struggle against great odds to get these types of programs (e.g. scripted, non-scripted, documentary) on air.

Click here to see a full list of the 2019 winners

But suffice it to say they dealt with race (director Julia Willoughby Nason entering with Trayvon Martin’s mother to accept for Paramount Network’s docuseries, Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story);  childhood cancer (executive producer; writer Heather Wordham accepting for the Netflix comedy, Alexa and Katie, where one of  two teen friends lives with leukemia), transgender rights (creator Steven Canals and trans writer-director Janet Mock awarded for FX’s LGBTQ themed 1980s set drama series, Pose); and rape (co-directors Trish Adlesic and Greta Gandbhir cited for reporting on 13 of a group of hundreds of women awaiting scores of lost or misplaced rape kits in HBO’s I Am Evidence).

Trophies all around!

Now important as these themes are, one could argue the last thing the entertainment industry needs right now is another award, especially since presumably all of these people were paid and had the pleasure of seeing their vision and onscreen credit on TV screens, as well as many other screens, across the world.

On the other hand, why should one thing disqualify the other?

The fact that a person gets attention for or makes a living at something that benefits society is certainly not immoral in itself.    It only becomes that way when their compensation (financial or otherwise) is immorally over-the-top or the makers themselves are nauseatingly immodest, and/or immoral. 

Don’t even get me started on Mark Burnett.

In that way, show business award recipients are not unlike politicians – we may watch and secretly vote for the winner of our choice but on the whole we can also too often smell their elitism and privilege through our TV screens.  To truly trust and admire any of these guys and gals, particularly those of the political kind, is to make a leap of faith that we inevitably know we’ll be sorry for some time in the future.

Or, as the recent history of most sequels, subsequent seasons or elected officials too often demonstrate, the not-so-distant future.

I’m really glad I didn’t invest myself in this one #GameofThrones #toosoon?

Certainly this is beyond cynical (Note: even for a Chair), particularly when we speak about people who create content (Note:  Okay, I loathe that word too) that speaks to timely and serious subject matter.

You can’t lump two women who made a documentary about rape survivors whose evidence was misplaced with, say, the worst symbol of entertainment industry immortality (not to mention rape) and over-privilege – Harvey Weinstein.  Right???  Right??????

In the same way we wouldn’t condemn a white female director as slumming for having the temerity to direct a docuseries about the murder of a black male teenager like Trayvon Martin and its role in the social justice movement, especially since she had the participation of his mother.   Correct???  Correct?????

Hang in there, he’s getting to the point #TrustTheChair

Not to mention only the most insensitive loutish fool among us would gripe that said mother, Sybrina Fulton, only participated in the docuseries as a way to continue to be seen in the public eye so she could run for the job she now seeks – a seat on the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners.   Do you agree????  YOU AGREEEEE, RIGHT?????????

So, if that is the case, then why are so many of us now more than willing to jump to these same type of conclusions about many of those politicians now running for office, particularly those running for the highest political office in the land?

And why do so many more of us think even worse of the millions who just might be thinking of supporting any one of the above?

If we can award a show business content-maker for stepping up center stage and speaking eloquently to the issues, or even a single issue, then why can’t we have the same admiration for any one of the many politicians daring to do the same in our virtual Town Square at a time when, as a country, we are as divided as we’ve ever been?

High Blood Pressure 2020

Let’s leave Trump and his base voters out of this for now because that’s too easy.  Instead, let’s concentrate solely on a select few top frontrunners in the Democratic field.

Why is it that Joe Biden and his supporters are backwards-looking and the former Vice President needs to be spit-roasted and attacked on every point he’s ever made in a half century old career as we poo-poo all the positive points he scores in the 2019 landscape?

How is it that Elizabeth Warren’s supporters are unrealistic and virulent and she’s too librarian-ish and lecture-y and Trump-tainted to win a general election?

What does it say about us that Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to EVER have a serious chance of becoming U.S. president, is already being relegated to the category of moderate, safe, old school white male privilege and his supporters as something less than progressive?

When did it become okay to knock a female biracial senator like Kamala Harris for too often playing the race card and at the same time condemn her for being a little too tough on the non-white community as a former prosecutor because she rose through the mainstream political ranks while married to a white Jewish guy?  And how come it’s okay to grab HER mike on a stage and no one else’s?

Mood

I would be more than happy with any one of the above four candidates as the Democratic nominee to be our next POTUS.  And thrilled to have any of them, and many others as a REAL president.

To that end I’ve been vocal about each of them on various social media posts, as well as in person.

Yet I find that the candidate(s) and myself are ALWAYS eventually attacked by someone, and ALWAYS of my own party, for any one of the above reasons.

Now don’t get me wrong, I can take the attacks.  In fact, sometimes I too happily relish them, anxious to fight back and toss back some witty bon mot in the direction of the attacker, preferably right smack in their ____________.

Don’t mind if I do!

But that doesn’t do much except make me feel better and more superior in the moment.  Pleasurable though that may be, it also simultaneously pushes back said candidate of the moment at least a notch or two…or even three ok, eight.

Therefore it seems that if we can all too happily hand out awards for producers, directors, writers and stars who try to speak out and raise our consciousness on social issues in TV, we (including myself) might also try to cut a little slack to those few among us who we might not immediately support but who are at least trying speak to these real points in real life.

Agree or not, but to act as judge, jury and critic months before their full show, series or docudrama has even aired, or immediately condemn those of us who might like and/or try to promote the kind of socially relevant program they offer as knee-jerk ignorant, stupid or, worst of all, too privileged, IS JUST PLAIN ________.

….well, maybe consider …not doing it?

CANT… DO… IT… #trying

We will all likely try to speak out about social injustice in our own ways and through whatever means is available to us in the next year or so.  To listen to and truly consider the issues and the handful of candidates others will choose to make the case seems at the very least the mightiest of really American things to do.

It would also certainly be worthy of an award if we still gave them out for that kind of thing.   Though once upon a time we did and it was simply called… citizenship.

Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye – “Stop, Look, Listen”