by D.L. Groover
Richard Greenberg’s gay baseball play Take Me Out may have recently gone to the showers on Broadway after winning numerous Tony awards and a Pulitzer for best 2003 drama, but the rainbow flag continues to fly high and proud over the Great White Way. If you’re anywhere near 42nd Street, there’s a show to match the color you prefer.
With its alternative-lifestyle characters, grunge Rent continues to soar, playing to 98 percent capacity years after its premiere. Jonathan Larson’s beguiling rock musical, an East Village La Boheme, may very well attain the status accorded such classics as Oklahoma or Gypsy—it’s just as good, and speaks to its audiences in that universal way great shows always do. Its renown is also heartbreaking: The preternaturally talented Larson died hours before the first preview. He never knew his energetic, life-affirming creation would be his epitaph. In true show-biz fashion, he went out with a hit.
Whatever else becomes a legend most, any show based upon The Wizard of Oz has “gay” written all over it. Wicked needs more than a sprinkling of pixie dust; it needs a closet full. Everyone and everything flies, but this plodding musical remains earthbound. Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, Prince of Egypt) adapted Gregory Maguire’s airy novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, but has dropped a house on the story, turning light fantasy into a lumpy $14 million proto-feminist tract. Idina Menzel is the emerald-tinged Elphaba, roommate at sorcery school of very popular, very superficial, very blonde Glinda. After innumerable pop-Broadway anthems, they cross broomsticks, and you know the rest.
Campy but exceptionally ponderous, Wicked boasts a career-enhancing performance from Kristin Chenoweth (musical theater’s current female darling) as a Clueless-like pre-Dorothy Glinda. She’s getting the Tony this year. Wicked will not.
From last season, multiple Tony-winner Hairspray continues to pony, stomp, and frug up a storm. Derived, yet sanitized, from the cult cinematic gay trash world of John Waters and drag diva Divine, this old-fashioned, uplifting musical bubble is energized by Harvey Fierstein’s cartoonish matriarch Edna Turnblad, accompanied by the buoyant bouffant score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. This show almost makes you nostalgic for the ’60s.
In the “straight” play category, Tennessee Williams’ classic closet drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sizzles, but only in the poster. Unfortunately, the pajama-clad beef of Jason Patric and the pin-up lustrousness of Ashley Judd is two-dimensional. When they actually open their mouths on stage, the illusion shatters. Ned Beatty’s Big Daddy won’t erase any memories of Burl Ives’ stunning portrayal, but in this tepid, unsexed production he’s the only thing breathing.
Then there’s Doug Wright’s spellbinding true tale of German cross-dresser Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, I Am My Own Wife. In a startling performance, Jefferson Mays inhabits dozens of characters in this complex portrait of an ultimate survivor. In her quest to be true to herself, von Mahlsdorf lived through the personal horrors of a dysfunctional family before facing even larger horrific forces under the Nazis and then East German communists. As witnesses, we are ennobled at the personal cost and duplicitous sacrifice needed to keep going, but we can only judge her at our peril.
Another closeted gay character on Broadway happens to be blue, bespectacled, a Republican, and a Muppet. And don’t tell anyone he’s gay. Rod is one of the furry cast members of the irreverent Avenue Q, an adult musical by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty. This Sesame Street/South Park amalgam is the surprise hit of the season, and the full frontal puppet nudity has even entertained the former First Family (yes, with Chelsea, too). How can you go wrong with a show that includes Trekkie Monster’s addiction to Internet porn; the incessant mating rituals of Lucy T. Slut; and a muppetized Gary Coleman? Foul and funny, this is the street where Bert and Ernie should have lived.
The life of flamboyant cabaret performer Peter Allen—Oscar-winning composer, song and dance man, Radio City Music Hall headliner, Judy Garland’s opening act, husband of Liza, and gay as the ace of spades—should be a no-brainer for a Broadway musical. Sadly, The Boy from Oz is lobotomized Biography 101: a crash course that briefly touches the high spots, listed above, but reveals nothing. Because it uses a catalogue of Allen’s pre-existing songs to link his life, these illustrations are only surface. When you use a generic love song (“Love Don’t Need a Reason,” for example), it remains a generic love song, without specific character, without dramatic depth, whether it’s a duet for two men, as it is here, or a heterosexual anthem. It doesn’t enlighten.
Even superficially, Allen’s fascinating life was pretty amazing. Rendered in Oz, though, it’s had all the edges smoothed down. There’s nary a splinter to irritate the Blue Hairs. It’s all carefree, scrubbed clean, and about as truthful as those insipid movie bios that would have, say, Cary Grant as a most un-gay Cole Porter.
Isabel Keating, as incomparable Garland, is an optical and aural illusion, but she’s saddled with a waxworks character, while Stephanie J. Block is much too tall for Liza and has no character to play at all. Chiseled and buff Tony winner Jarrod Emick (from the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees) is wasted in a 15-minute supporting role as Allen’s lover. In a truly embarrassing stage moment, he gets to come back as a ghost to sing “I Honestly Love You.” The show, restructured and endlessly tinkered with since its Australian incarnation in 1998, has cringing moments like this throughout.
But what Boy from Oz does have, though, and no other show on Broadway comes close, is the megawatt star power of Hugh Jackman. Yes, Wolverine struts his stuff, sashays atop a piano, sings and dances, puts his hands on his hips, shakes his booty, and kisses Emick. But no Matinee Lady will take offense, because Jackman plays Allen playing Jackman. If you only know Jackman from those X-Men action films, you’ve obviously missed his previous definitive outings in Oklahoma and Carousel. He bulldozes into this flimsy material with such sweet charm and knockout charisma that you’re helpless in his seduction. There hasn’t been such a presence like his on Broadway since the days of Carol Channing and Ethel Merman—the police lines around the stage door and the clambering fans attest to that. He’s a true Broadway Baby, and The Boy from Oz would be worthless without him. Sorry, Peter.
The gayest show in town, however, is Boy George’s Taboo, but it’s struggling along at 62 percent weekly capacity. [At press time, Taboo was scheduled to close in February.] This most original, refreshing look at the decadent London club scene of the ’80s, populated with its New Romantic denizens of the night, is an absolute high. Slick and glossy, its failure to become a major hit is unfathomable. The press has been universally unkind to the show’s U.S. producer, Rosie O’Donnell, and all her legal troubles came to a head during Taboo’s opening last November, so the fallout may have had some influence. Although the gay aspects, the drug abuse, the freaks are in your face (“I’ll Have You All,” Leigh Bowery’s apotheosis to anonymous sex, is graphically set in a tearoom), it’s neither offensive nor terribly shocking anymore to see this kind of stuff on stage. Taboo isn’t perfect, either: All the many major characters get diffused under the dry ice and flashing mirror ball, but the show has such energy and slacker glamour, it works regardless.
Lovingly produced and exceptionally cast, with a great original score from Mr. O’Dowd (a.k.a. Boy George)—a few of his golden oldies are there to be savored again—Taboo has everything a big Broadway splashy show should need to succeed. Any show that highlights one of that era’s most original creations, the performance artist Leigh Bowery, gets bonus credits.
Euan Morton makes a splendidly dramatic and vocal Boy George. Raul Esparza as smarmy promoter Philip Sallon is in a class by himself. Jeffrey Carlson as prickly drag queen Marilyn is in a world unto himself. And Mr. O’Dowd as Bowery, though strangely distant as a performer, wears those fantastic outfits like he means it and comes into his own when he howls “Ich Bin Kunst” (“I Am Art”) from inside his museum display case.
With all its grunge depravity, radical chic, and sexual confusion, Taboo is a tuneful sentimental valentine wearing its punk heart on its sleeve. Roll it up and you’ll find a tattoo that declares, “Freaks just want to be loved, too.” Go see it. Taboo is a definite winner and deserves a full house.
D. L. Groover writes monthly on the arts for the magazine.