The Tonys: Always Home-Sweet-Home for Gay Theater Buffs

By Donalevan Maines

A lesbian musical! Tommy Tune’s 10th Tony! A bisexual host! The original Hedwig! With all bases covered, what an LGBT time ’twill be when CBS broadcasts the 69th annual Tony Awards on June 7.

The Tony Awards are always home-sweet-home for gay theater buffs, and they’ve been especially welcoming to native Houstonian Tommy Tune, who was told by a friend in the 1960s, “In Houston, if you dance, are talented, and extremely unusual, they call you a sissy or a weirdo. In New York, they call you a star.”

This year, Broadway is also a “fun home” for lesbians, including out actress Beth Malone, whose character in the musical Fun Home explains, “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself—and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”

As a very special friend of mine says, “There’s a lot of gay at this year’s Tony Awards!” It might be easier to write about who isn’t gay, but (yawn) what fun would that be?

Cumming (in 2005) on the cover of OutSmart magazine.

Co-hosts for the live ceremony from Radio City Music Hall in New York City are Kristin Chenoweth (the über-gay-friendly star who’s also nominated this year for Best Actress in a Musical as Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century) and Alan Cumming.

Cumming recently revived his Tony Award-winning breakthrough performance as the master of ceremonies in Cabaret, this time opposite Aaron Krohn, a son of veteran Houston acting couple Charles Krohn and Chesley Ann Santoro.

Santoro played scatterbrained Kristine (who can dance but can’t sing) in the original run of A Chorus Line, a show that is back on our gaydar (as if it ever disappeared) since leading this year’s Tommy Tune Awards with 12 nominations. (Krohn’s parents presented Best Leading Actor and Actress at the Tunes, and his lovely mother played Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn in last month’s Theatre Under the Stars production of The Music Man, which featured a galaxy of local stars including Charles Swan, director of musical theater at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Montrose.)

Chenoweth (in 2009) on the cover of OutSmart magazine.

“As past Tony Award winners and Broadway favorites, Alan and Kristin are no strangers to the Radio City Music Hall stage,” said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, and Heather Hitchens, president of the American Theatre Wing, in a statement. “They both have a contagious charisma and share an electrifying excitement about Broadway that will translate to the fans watching at home, all around the world. We are thrilled to welcome them into the hosting role for the first time.”

Nominations for the 2015 Tony Awards were announced on April 28, with Fun Home competing for Best Musical alongside An American in Paris, and tying it for the most nominations (12).
Out writer Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori adapted Fun Home from lesbian Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir. Bechdel is portrayed at three ages—43, 19, and 8—with all three actresses earning Tony nominations (lead actress for Beth Malone, and featured actress for Sydney Lucas and Emily Skeggs). Fun Home also scored nominations for leading actor (Michael Cerveris), featured actress (Judy Kuhn), direction, book, score, scenic design, lights, and orchestrations.

The other nominees for Best Musical are Something Rotten and The Visit, which Terrence McNally, John Kander, and Fred Ebb wrote for Chita Rivera. Kron, McNally, and the authors of Something Rotten compete for Best Book of a Musical with out author Craig Lucas (Blue Window, Prelude to a Kiss), who adapted An American in Paris.

Take my word for it—there are tons of other LGBT nominees (William Ivey Long probably has Best Costume Design of a Musical sewn up again) and many with less than six degrees of separation, including Airline Highway’s Julie White, a former Best Featured Actress in a Play winner as a lesbian talent agent in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed (she also played a radical lesbian feminist in a movie version of the late Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, which is up for Best Revival of a Play, starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss).

Local Cypress native Robert Askins, who graduated from Cy-Fair High School in 1998, wrote Hand to God, a Best Play nominee. At tonyawards.comHand to God is called an “uproarious and provocative new American play” about a “shy, inquisitive student who finds an outlet for his burgeoning creativity at the Christian Puppet Ministry in the devoutly religious, relatively quiet small town of Cypress, Texas.”

The more rambunctious Houston will also be spotlighted when Tommy Tune accepts this year’s special Tony Award for lifetime achievement. Tune, who is 6-foot-6 and 76, has already collected nine Tonys (as a performer, choreographer, or director) for Seesaw, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Nine, My One and Only, Grand Hotel, and The Will Rogers Follies.

Most everybody in Houston probably has their own personal Tommy Tune story. This is not the time or place for mine (he demurs), but suffice it to say that Tune got his start at Lamar High School when legendary drama teacher Ruth Denney cast him in Annie Get Your Gun. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tune returns to Houston every year to preside over the Tommy Tune Awards, a Theatre Under the Stars program that honors excellence in musical theater in Houston-area high schools. In particular, he bestows the $5,000 Ruth Denney Scholarship to a senior who plans to major in musical theater in college. (This year’s winner is one of Swan’s students at HSPVA.)

To view the energy and enthusiasm that Tune brings to the event—and performances by Houston students who will advance to the National High School Theatre Awards in New York City—check out ABC Channel 13’s two-hour broadcast of the event beginning at noon on Sunday, June 21 (just two weeks after Tune collects Broadway’s highest honor).

Also on theater’s night of nights, we’ll see the out John Cameron Mitchell honored with a special Tony Award, following last year’s awarding of Best Leading Actor in a Musical to Neil Patrick Harris in the title role of Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Mitchell appeared on Broadway in Big River and in the original casts of The Secret Garden and Six Degrees of Separation. Off-Broadway, he was in Hello Again and Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me. He adapted Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth and directed Cynthia Nixon and Peter Sarsgaard in that 1996 production. Since directing Nicole Kidman in the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole and appearing in Girls on HBO, Mitchell is preparing to direct a movie version of Neil Gaiman’s punk-era How to Talk to Girls at Parties starring Elle Fanning.

What: The 69th Annual Tony Awards
When: Sunday, June 7
Where: CBS
Details: tonyawards.com

The play that inspired the movie

Gay Subtext: L–r: Kamran Takerpour, Jonathon Moonen, and Weston Barnwell in Patrick Hamilton’s Rope. Photo courtesy Company OnStage.
Gay Subtext: L–r: Kamran Takerpour, Jonathon Moonen, and Weston Barnwell in Patrick Hamilton’s Rope. Photo: Courtesy Company OnStage.

What I like about the Tony Awards is they put it all out there: gay is gay, and it doesn’t take an expert in subtext to follow along. However, in olden days and in other arenas, same-sex attraction was often a hidden motivation that went right over the heads of the clueless.

Even if, say, you always knew Rock Hudson was gay or your gut told you why Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, other examples of gay subtext weren’t always so clear. In fact, I remember how a Houston film critic, who isn’t gay, used to find something “homoerotic” in just about everything; more often than not, I would think, “He doth protest too much” (and maketh “much ado about nothing?”).

Many Alfred Hitchcock fans do a better job of supporting the thesis that Hitch was a master at infusing gay subtext as a means of scaring up more unease in his audience of peeping Toms. Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, and Norman Bates in Psycho are prime examples of possibly gay psychopaths, but especially Brandon and Phillip in Hitchcock’s 1946 movie adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play, Rope.

In it, Brandon and his devoted friend (called “Granno” in the play) murder a fellow college student for “the fun of the thing,” in a plot loosely based on the real-life kidnapping of a teenage boy by wealthy University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb. Even famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow couldn’t keep a jury from convicting Leopold and Loeb for trying to commit a “perfect crime.”

I imagine the gay subtext might feel more compelling in a live production, but the movie can also boast a gay screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, and leading actors who were gay off-screen: John Dall and Farley Granger.

What: Rope
When: through June 14
Where: Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Sq.
Details: companyonstage.org, 713.726.1219

The Tommys
Houston’s Tonys: The Tommy Tune Awards to be broadcast this month.

In Tune: Houston’s own Tommy Tune was  in town for his namesake awards. Photo: Everett Collection/Shuttestock.com.
In Tune: Houston’s own Tommy Tune was in town for his namesake awards. Photo: Everett Collection/Shuttestock.com.

It’s been less than five years since Texas Monthly magazine flogged Houston’s Kinkaid School for allowing a setting “where ‘gay’ was a casual pejorative.” Thus, this year’s announcement by director Justin Doran that Kinkaid would produce A Chorus Line was met with particular glee.

Sure, it was groundbreaking when Michael Bennett’s masterpiece debuted on Broadway in 1975. But as hate-mongers never fail to remind us, good seed too often falls on stony ground; other seed falls among thorns.

Veteran Houston actress Chesley Ann Santoro, who played tone-deaf Kristine in the show’s original run, remembers how A Chorus Line was “revolutionary” in its presentation of “being gay, with all of its complexities.” Previously, homosexuality had not been “a topic touched upon that much,” she recalls. “A Chorus Line showed the urge and the need and the right [of performers] to pursue their individuality.”

Doran’s students at Kinkaid performed the show magnificently and were rewarded with 12 nominations at the Tommy Tune Awards.

Foremost, in my opinion, was the nod for senior Harrison Poe, who was haunting as Paul, the aging dancer who had previously performed as a female impersonator.

However, to win the coveted Best Musical prize at the 13th annual Tommy Tune Awards, Kinkaid would have to fend off competition from, among others, Friendswood High’s production of Mary Poppins (which was given a special performance dispensation by Disney Theatrical Group), the circus antics of Pippin at Houston Christian, an acclaimed presentation of Les Misérables in Klein, and a much-lauded revival of Bye Bye Birdie at Stratford.

The April 21 Tony Awards-style ceremony that honored this year’s Tommy Tune Award winners was taped for broadcast beginning at noon on Sunday, June 21, on ABC Channel 13.

Donalevan Maines also writes about Fade to Black in this issue of OutSmart magazine.


Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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