By Donalevan Maines
Twist his arm and out Broadway-baby Gregory Purish might spill some tea on Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose mammoth musical Hamilton set a record with 16 nominations going into the June 12 Tony Awards on CBS-TV.
Pour him another Macallan 25 for bawdy anecdotes about Patti LuPone, Hugh Jackman, and the late Elaine Stritch, or get an earful on how last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) nails the current misguided Broadway mindset of trying to lure audiences with movie stars in stage roles.
Purish won’t be present at this month’s kudofest in Radio City Music Hall, as he’s left his longtime post managing the bars at 18 Shubert theaters on Broadway to become camp boss on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
That’s fine by him, as Purish, who at age 46 now calls League City home, hated attending the Tony Awards in person. “It’s a nightmare,” says the Jersey Shore native, who also played a heroic but unheralded role in what he calls “the second wave” of the AIDS crisis in New York City.
At the Tonys, he explains, “You arrive at 1 p.m. and sit through boring speeches that seem like they will never end. The musical numbers—the fun part—doesn’t start until 8 o’clock [New York time], and by the end of the night, you’re starving, you’re dying of thirst, and you’re about to piss in your pants because for three hours you couldn’t get out of your seat.”
Purish grew up attending some of the 20th century’s biggest stage hits, including Cats, whose seven Tony Awards in 1983 included Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Fort Worth’s Betty Buckley.
Some other highlights for the young fan were up-close views of Polly Holliday and Jean Stapleton in the female version of Neil Simon’s 1965 Tony winner, The Odd Couple; TV’s Barney Miller, handsome Hal Linden, in Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport (three Tony Awards including Best Play in 1986); and James Earl Jones and Maureen Stapleton in Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy.
When Purish was 18, he moved to the Big Apple in 1988 with the intention of going to college, but instead he went directly to work for Redden’s Funeral Home at 325 West 14th Street. “They were the first funeral home in the city to take AIDS bodies,” explains Purish. “I felt it was a noble profession and we were doing the right thing,” he says. “We were there for people at their darkest time, when nobody was going to help them, money wasn’t going to help them, only you were going to help them with this predicament.”
Pioneering AIDS activists from Gay Men’s Health Crisis, including playwright Larry Kramer, “were in Redden’s every day,” says Purish. “I had the pleasure of knowing these warriors. It was pure happenstance that I got to be involved. I didn’t know about Redden’s; at the end of the interview, they said, ‘One more thing, putting our cards on the table, we take AIDS bodies, let us know if that’s a problem.’”
In 1985, Kramer penned The Normal Heart about that devastating period in gay history. Its Broadway bow in 2011 won three Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play. “His account was completely accurate,” says Purish, who remembers picking up corpses from once-flourishing apartment buildings that fell dark during the epidemic. “I was burying people younger than me, hustlers who were 16 and 17. Seeing what I saw, I think, is what kept me alive and HIV-free.”
In 1992, Purish moved to San Francisco, where, he says, he worked for the funeral home that helped bury the late Randy Shilts, author of the 1987 best-selling book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (as well as The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk and Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf).
In 1994, Purish returned to Manhattan and a steady diet of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, but he mourned what might have been if AIDS hadn’t taken top talents such as director/choreographer Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line). “It struck me how we lost a whole generation that would have done magnificent work,” says Purish. “Their deaths changed Broadway forever. Our ‘collective theatrical palette’ became less sophisticated. The bar was lowered drastically, and everyone that was left did not know any better, and we ended up with what we have now. I believe those that we lost in the ’80s are looking down from heaven and clutching their pearls at what they see being produced on Broadway now and saying that we are all f–king crazy! Crazy for producing it, crazy for starring in it, and crazy for buying tickets to it. When they look down from the heavens and see who and what is nominated, that is when we begin to see tornadoes, hurricanes, and flash flooding!”
Today’s Broadway musical was salvaged, says Purish, by the success of Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. “Suddenly, everybody realized that a musical could be set in modern times and make money,” he explains. “Now, Lin-Manuel Miranda comes back to Broadway with Hamilton, not set in modern times but definitely with a modern score.”
Purish hopes the next step forward on The Great White Way will be to champion new dramas. “The current formula for success on Broadway is ‘revival with a movie star,’” he explains. “If you look at the list of nominees, it is probably 50 percent revivals. Some shows need to go away! Why are we seeing them every five or six years? There is no excuse. I really hope that the Nederlanders, the Shuberts, and Jujamcyn begin to wake up and start putting some money behind the abundant talent that is out there. There are so many young, gifted writers that can’t get a play even ‘workshopped.’”
Among young actors on Broadway, Purish’s favorite is Nina Arianda, who followed her first Tony nomination in the 2011 revival of Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday with a win in 2012 for Best Actress in a Play in Venus in Fur by David Ives.
The 2012 ceremony was especially notable for Purish because his friend, former One Life to Live actress and LGBT rights/AIDS advocate Judith Light, won Best Featured Actress in a Play as Silda Grauman in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities. She returned in 2013 to win the same category as Faye in Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties.
Purish surely endeared himself to Light when he told her that his boyfriend called her the best in the business at crying on cue. When his boyfriend, who was a fan of Light’s Emmy Award-winning turn as Karen Wolek on OLTL, met her backstage, Purish says, Light took them into her dressing room, shut the door, and commenced squalling like a mashed cat. Then, becoming suddenly composed, he says Light “blew her nose, wiped away the tears, and said, ‘I still got it, right?’”
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.