January 21, 2018

THE TONY’S: “You’ll have a gay old time!”

Last night the Tony’s produced a fast-paced, commercialized 3 hours that sadly left some vital theatrical contributions (set design, costumes, lighting) on the cutting room floor like so much grizzle in a butcher shop. The meat of our ‘new theater’ consists of actors (i.e.recognizable movie and TV stars) and spectacle. Like so much in modern American society cuts like these promise a lean, mean economical machine and unlike so much in American society these days the Tony’s broadcast delivered. To their credit several of the actor’s didn’t forget ‘the little people’, profusely and emotionally praising their personal dressers and hairstylists by name. Despite the audience illusion that its all about vamping in the footlights, actors usually remember that theater is a collaborative art.

It’s hard to argue about the cuts when the result produced such an entertaining show, mostly focused on big musical numbers that appeal to the tourists of NY who made 2010-11 the most profitable year in Broadway history. Broadway theaters sold a record $1.1 billion of tickets in the past 12 months with a 5.9% rise in grosses and 5.4% increase in attendance.

The show began with a tongue-in-cheek musical number insisting that Broadway is not just for gays anymore (did it used to be just for gays? All these years and NOBODY told me!). It was well done and very funny, demonstrating a confidence within the gay theatrical community borne throughout the show with winners thanking their ‘partners’, solemn reverences to Larry Kramer’s revival of The Normal Heart (a solid piece of theatrical realism, an important political statement in its day but hardly revolutionary theater even in the 80’s when I saw it at The Public) and the over-the-top Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which looked like a segment of THE RICHARD BEY SHOW run amok. (Is that a redundancy? THE RICHARD BEY SHOW always ran amok!) it was no longer a requisite for the broadcast to foist that shocking (?) television cliché on middle America, the gay liplock but this new openness did inspire new ponderings and double entendres (at least for me): When Hugh Jackman sang to Neal Patrick Harris ‘You’re the top…’ did he have to purposefully avoid inferring the double meaning? Was Trey Parker wearing mascara and is he gay too? Could the muscularly heterosexual MOTHERFUCKER IN THE HAT (it begins with a sweaty, hot-blooded, sex scene) ever hope to compete in any category against THE NORMAL HEART, the most important gay play of the 80’s?

The opening number which insisted that Broadway is not just for gays ironically led to the most virile, openly gay Tony show in history. It also implied something entirely different: when it comes to theater sensibilities we are ALL gay now. Ben Brantley, the NYT critic was on MORNING JOE today with his analysis endorsing my original impression. Brantley said he was a gay man with a gay sensibility and that Americans had embraced that sensibility. I personally hate Brantley’s reviews and part of it is BECAUSE of his gay sensibility. It seems to me that this sensibility biases his criticism (and I read most of Times reviews), creating unreliable accounts of what took place in the theater. Adversely but similarly, John Simon’s homophobia likewise produced many unreliable reviews. Some of Brantley‘s quotes on Morning Joe were that the Tony’s presentation was ‘a very gay show’-(making Willie Geist squirm in his seat a bit), ‘ the message of the Tony’s was ‘you don’t have to be gay to be gay’, ‘there’s gay ‘homosexual’ and ‘gay sensibility’, I’m both’, and ‘suddenly its cool to be singing like Barbara Streisand on the streets’. Notwithstanding the fact that I’ve joked for years that I am a gay man trapped in a straight man’s libido (I’m single, love show tunes, have an interest in fashion, love theater and theatricality), it’s a joke based upon a stereotype. Aren’t there many gay men who DON’T have this so called ‘gay sensibility’, who wouldn’t think of bursting into ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ in the middle of Lexington Avenue?

It is undeniable that gay men have had a core role in creating modern American theater and not just as actors: Williams, Sondheim, Bernstein, Wilson, Robbins, Kushner, I could go on and on. If last night’s telecast was a celebration that unlike so many past gay geniuses there is no longer a need to find protection in the closet, that’s a good thing. If it was an exuberance of pride over the contributions of gay men to the theater, that is understandable. If it was a declaration that theater is now the domain of ‘gay sensibility’ and that either you have it or you won’t like theater, I don’t suppose that is a good thing. Gay men have made essential and lasting contributions to American (and World) Theater. Their contributions have lasted because of their universality not because of their ‘gay sensibility’, which births expressions as faddish and short-lived as ‘camp’ and the latest fashion trend. What is ‘gay sensibility’ anyway? Is it something humanely or aesthetically independent of heterosexual or human sensitivity?

And just a few more questions: ‘What drug was Christie Brinkley on last night? Did her speech coach actually teach her to enunciate that way?!?!’ ‘What was bugging Frances McDormand? She seemed like an overwhelmed West Side shopper at Fairway irritated by all those damn shopping carts!’ ‘Come on, don’t tell me Chris Rock never saw a musical before. That was a joke, right?” “I love Mark Rylance on stage as an actor. One of my favorites. But what was that walking through walls about?”

Anyone have answers?