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 

Ham and Dregs

He drinks a DOZEN DIET COKES per day.

He watches at least FOUR HOURS of TELEVISION (and sometimes up to EIGHT HOURS) per day.

He is often surrounded by guests at dinner where everyone consumes STEAKS (well-done) with tons of GRAVY, salad with gobs of BLUE CHEESE dressing topped with BACON crumbles, and MASSIVE slices of CAKE with EXTRA SCOOPS of EXTRA RICH ICE CREAM for dessert.

Melania in the vegetable garden: “He’ll never find me here!!”

He enjoys belittling employees, friends and enemies, particularly in front of others, loves to gossip, and gets moody after a couple of days of “peace.”

No – he’s not a SUPERHERO.

He’s…THE VILLAIN.

You don’t believe me?   Check this out.

It’s sad to learn – from 60 DIFFERENT SOURCES no less, many of who work or worked for him – that a sociopathic toddler daily dirties the rooms where Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy and Obama once stepped.

Talk about bad real estate

Though – full confession — he and I agree on one point. The entire liberal left as well as the vast MAJORITY of the country IS out to get him. We want to get him OUT OF OFFICE before the country crumbles under the weight of his overinflated ego and underinflated supramarginal gyrus.

The latter would be the part of the brain that helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion.

Whole studies have been done on this. So perhaps he can finally make himself useful to society in his post-White House years (2018? 2019?) by volunteering his brain for scientific research.

Never gonna happen, Chairy.

Yeah, like that’ll happen. Volunteering, I mean. With nothing in it for him.

Though maybe if Putin orders it so….

Oooooo SHADE

If this sounds like a bit of an irrational rant, well perhaps it is. Rant, I mean. Because it’s certainly not irrational. In fact, reading it over feels incredibly rational. Especially for anyone who has lived in the United States for the past year and endures occasionally watching the news, reading a newspaper or has generally listened in on anyone else’s conversations around lunch or dinnertime.

This weekend my husband and I are finally getting to see Hamilton. This is that musical about one of our greatest unsung Founding Fathers who was never really credited with being a founding father and never became president.

Yet, he fought numerous bloody battles in the Revolutionary War, literally created our financial structures and helped end the international slave trade before dying at age 49.

Not throwing away his shot

No, he didn’t have bone spurs. He was a poor IMMIGRANT whose mother died when he was a child and whose father abandoned him until an older cousin took the poor kid in.

The rest of the story is, as they say, history, if not the type we were all taught in school at least the subject of a 2016 American musical that won the Pulitzer Prize (only one of nine musicals to do so) as well as 11 Tony Awards.

I, for one, would rather have the awards. They’re shinier, no one can take them away and history gets rewritten every few centuries or decades, depending on the era in which one lives.

Get Lin-Manuel’s ready #onlyOscarleft #matteroftime

It’s hard not wonder in which era we all reside. In terms of history, I mean.

Though it’s easy to illustrate we’ve evolved from the time of Hamilton. One doubts he could ever have dreamed a man with no governmental or legal experience – only gobs of money from personal business interests– could assume the presidency when the majority of the country hated him.

#nuffsaid

Certainly, the dentistry is better today. I’ll personally offer myself up as testimony to that. But not to the rest of it.

The burden of proof is on which indeed is more preferable will unfold as the weeks and month trudge on.

Do we choose steak, blue cheese, double ice cream and bacon?

Or do we subsist on something just a little more sensible?

Does googling cute pictures of the Obama family count? #comeback

What history will tell future generations – well, that’s a whole other story – and depends who’s in charge.

But I always check the art of the time if you really want to know the truth. Lord (or whomever you believe Him or Her to be) knows what they’ll find for 2018.

Hamilton — “The Room Where It Happens”

Something for Everyone?

William Goldman, the Oscar winning and once highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood (though he lived in New York) once famously said of the entertainment industry:  “Nobody knows anything.”  I never truly believed this, though I said I did.  After all, it’s easy to be the most successful and highest paid anything and say that because a) you’ve already made it, b) you are one of the few of us who are so clever and talented that you don’t have to figure out the regular rules, or c) you are probably also the kind of person who is ALWAYS in the right place at the right time, something that never seems to happen to me.

Now that I’m mid-career (if I live to be, like, 110), I know that’s bullshit.  You might not believe me because, well, why should you?  Especially if you’re the age I was when I first heard William Goldman make his remarks in the 1970s.  But trust me, it’s true.

Conventional wisdom tells us a lot of things but what it doesn’t tell us about are the EXCEPTIONS – and CHANCE – both of which have a lot more power than we think and shifts conventional wisdom on a dime.  It also probably produces the best films, television, music and theatre, anyway.  Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché but bares repeating – no one thought “Star Wars” would be the hit that it was; Francis Coppola wasn’t the first choice to direct “The Godfather; horror films were dead until “Halloween,” musicals were dead until “Chicago” and “Glee;” and John Travolta’s career was dead until a fan of his named Quentin Tarantino decided it would be a hoot and cast him in a little film called “Pulp Fiction.”

Further – you don’t make movies on issues such as anti-Semitism in the 1940s until a film like “Gentlemen’s Agreement” wins some Oscars and makes money; nor films about black and whites intermingling or marrying until “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”; nor hire blacklisted writers until Kirk Douglas decides “that’s crap” and employs accused Commie Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus” because he knows he’s the best man for the job.

Or take a chance on anything particularly new and different in the post millennium world because the world economy is in collapse, everyone is risk adverse, the public IQ has been dumbed-down and we now live in a four quadrant world where any artistic property that has a hope of being made has to appeal to the broadest audience possible and have the potential to be an action figure, an app or a happy meal.

Oh please.

All it takes is guts, talent, perseverance and, yeah, a little bit of luck.  But we all have luck at one time or another in our lives – both good and bad.  If you believe you never had any good luck – well the fact that you’re still breathing does count.  And if you still want to believe that isn’t true then you can take some solace in the fact that if there is only bad luck, someone’s lack of luck could certainly cause you to inadvertently prosper.  Would that be considered your good luck?  Well, I certainly think so.

I was amused at Lady Gaga’s recent HBO concert for many reasons, but none more so than when she imitated one of her doomsaying, know-it-all NYU professors regarding Gaga’s chance of making it – Teacher (in heavy New York accent):  Well….you know….(gum chomping)…yaw’ll never be the STAHHHH (star).  Ya maybe can play the ballsy best friend… But ya’ll NEVER…… etc, etc.

Now granted, I may not be the greatest college professor in the world, or even in the top 1000, but I can’t imagine ever telling that to a student, or anyone, because – how the hell do I know?  Or anyone know? Hint:  If they tell you they do, remember what William Goldman says – they don’t.  And you can take his word for it because he’s made far more money and films than I have AND has also written numerous plays, books and musicals, too.  Google or IMDB him.  You’ll see.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001279/bio

If you still don’t want to believe either of us – consider this year’s Tony Awards and what I couldn’t help but feel was the emergence of everyone’s inner GAY.  As in homosexual, same sex marriage, or the love that dare not speak its name as they used to say in the fifties (yeah, times are changing.  The Tonys might help gay marriage pass in NY…but still…)

Having been born at a time when they still used to say the latter and now living in a time when I write about the former, I confess to a still continuing surprise when I watch the opening number of a primetime, family-oriented network (CBS) offering hosted by an openly gay host (Neil Patrick Harris) and star of a very high-rated (at least it was) and traditional sitcom (“How I Met Your Mother”), singing to, oh, 50 million people – that theatre “Is Not Just For Gays Anymore” without so much as a ripple of public disapproval or threatened network boycott.  This was UNHEARD OF even just 20 years ago.  (see this or this).

But that’s not the only thing.  Yeah, we know the theatre’s always been more gay friendly than other entertainment mediums (is it something inherent about New York or because drama originated with the Greeks?), but the show then continues to become a tribute to an irreverent musical called “Book of Mormon” by the at one time controversial “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  Remember when there was public outcry about their work and very existence?  What changed?  Was it CHANCE?  Or were they the EXCEPTION?  Or —

Did they just continue to do their work, good work, and the world somehow caught up with them?  Maybe that’s why they’re the toast of Broadway.  And not even gay.  (As far as I know).  Nah, I guess it’s just luck and chance.

Someone who is also the toast of Broadway and gay who I do know (of)  is a man named Larry Kramer.  For those of you who know him, you know how strange this sounds.  Mr. Kramer was one of the first (if not the first) activists to speak out about AIDS in 1981 – offending much of the gay community by handing out leaflets in the gay Mecca Fire Island and begging people (fellow gays) to curb their sexual activities until more was found out about the disease and demand government action.  He also offended much of the straight community, as he’d done his entire life, by simply being his unabashedly gay, mouthy, take no prisoners, self.  Mr. Kramer continued to do so and wrote a play about his travails 30 years ago called “The Normal Heart” starring a mouthy hero patterned after himself which played off-Broadway and got mixed reviews for being TOO SPEECHY, TOO PREACHY and generally (I can say this now) ahead of its time.  As those of us who were around then and have (somehow) lived to tell this tale now understand, Mr. Kramer was right and his artistic work on Sunday was lauded as if it were truly the Rapture (not the fake one predicted). And now, in one fell swoop, he got Tony Awards, a public platform for him to speak to a worldwide audience without leaflets, and tributes by just about every film, television and theatre star in attendance.    (Mr. Kramer, by the way, has never been a stranger to controversy – his first novel – a roman a clef called “Faggots” – which took the gay community to task for its penchant for loveless sex – was a huge success in some circles in the 70s, yet also cost him dearly in the eyes of his own community).

The admittedly very long-winded point I’m making is – WHAT WILL YOU FIGHT FOR?  WHAT IS YOUR ORIGINAL VOICE TELLING YOU IS IMPORTANT?  Because if you’re interested in “making it” in the entertainment business – really making it – meaning having an impact – this seems as sure a way as any to do it.  It’s a slow, unsteady climb, not a straight one (oops, didn’t mean to make that pun).  Chances are events won’t EVER fall into place for your work of art the way it did for Larry Kramer, or even Trey Parker and Matt Stone.   But chance is so-named because it’s unpredictable.  Just when you feel sure it’s trending one way, it can easily turn around, sneak up behind you and say “boo.”  Or much more than that.  Ask Larry or Trey or Matt.  Chance is strange that way.

Ellen Barkin, who won this year’s Tony Award for best supporting actress for “The Normal Heart” summed it up best in her thank you speech when she said her experience with the play taught her one very important lesson:

“One person can make a difference – one person can change the world.”

Kramer did it for gay liberation and the issue of AIDS.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone did it for comedy, political correctness and, now – Broadway.

But isn’t it all the same thing?  Take a chance.