Sunday, April 10, 2011

Giving Credit Where it Is Due

Cover of Michael’s Thing, 1979
“Barry and Ward”
from Doric Wilson’s A Perfect Relationship

To the editors, New York magazine

Molly Young’s article on Freeman Gunter in the current New York magazine (April 11), makes a sad and dismissive mistake. She lists magazines that Freeman Gunter worked for, describing them as gay porn. She may be right about Playguy and Honcho, but she does a huge disservice to Mandate and Michael’s Thing. It was an era when publications like New York magazine dismissed the culture coming from the queer community with a sneer and a snicker. The New York Times refused to even use the word “gay,” and only mentioned our community if the article was derogatory.

Michael Giammetta published Michael’s Thing between 1970-2000 as a guide to cultural and social happenings of the GLTB community. It was the one of the main and most reliable sources of information. It also was a handy guide to the most important institutions of the early days of liberation, the gay bar. The covers of Michael’s Thing may have featured pretty boys almost in their all together but inside the focus was theater, dance, cabaret. They were all there, all the early voices of what would become queer culture. Freeman Gunter was an excellent critic. There are careers in the arts still going full force that began thanks to his taking notice of them.

Mandate magazine was started as an “out” version of After Dark in the early 1970s. It featured some of the early stars of GLBT photography, John Michael Cox, Jr., Jürgen Vollmer, and first and foremost, Roy Blakey. Under the editorship of John Devere, it contained thoughtful reviews covering all of the arts, and essential articles on the emerging gay liberation movement. John Devere’s coverage of the protests surrounding the filming of Cruising is still a high-water mark of gay journalism. Mandate did eventually deteriorate into a gay porn publication, but initially, it was a main source of considered reviews and serious reportage.

Plays of mine from the 1970s have become central to the gay literary canon and are still being performed all over the world. A Perfect Relationship is a huge hit in India where it is credited with recent political gains. Street Theater, my play about the Stonewall uprising, is presented yearly. Freeman Gunter, Michael Giammetta, and my good friend John Devere are real heroes of the movement, and were it not for publications like Mandate and Michael’s Thing, neither of these plays would have survived let alone prospered. Not when magazines such as yours and newspapers like the Times treated the queer community like a dirty little secret.

Doric Wilson, playwright

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Move Over Merman

You must see Harvey Fierstein and Christopher Sieber in La Cage Aux Folles. If you do not have the price of a ticket, hustle your body in Times Square. If you have passed the sell-by-date, hustle someone else’s body. Just get there. Not since Taylor and Burton has there been such a hot theatrical love affair! And this time there is no question about “the kiss.” The chemistry between the two of them is palpable. You could reach out and touch it were you not in danger of burning your fingers.

Harvey Fierstein was born a Broadway star; with La Cage he is now a certifiable Broadway legend. It seems I have heard everyone but Alvin the Chipmunk sing “I Am Who I Am.” I have never heard anyone sing it with the searing authenticity Harvey brings to it. A critic friend says he doesn’t sing it so much as act it. I suggest he more than acts it, he inhabits it with wrenching heartbreak and ultimate pride. Spending more than fifty years of my life dedicated to the cultural expression of the GLBT community gives me the authority to beg every gay person in this country to see Harvey in this role. (And if they are smart, the straights should also come along for the ride.)

Christopher Sieber is the perfect “straight” man. Time after time he sets Harvey up with the ease of a latter-day George Burns. He is the ultimate smalltime showman. I cannot imagine anyone else in the role. He owns the stage like the late Robert Preston. He seems born to sing love songs. You can feel the generosity of his love, both for his son and Zaza and how the circumstances of the script are wrenching him apart. It gives a convincing central energy to the play.

Years ago when I saw La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway I was very disappointed. The cast was fine, the production if anything too extravagant. Not to mention far too polite. The Cagelles were about as dangerous as Disney showgirls. (And, as Mark Finley points out, the “oh-so-clever guess which of the Cagelles is actually female” was ultimately demeaning) It just did not come together. There was no heart. And except for the big song, the score seemed generic. In fact this got me into trouble when I saw the road company in Seattle in the mid 1980s.

My old pal Keene Curtis was playing Zaza so I gathered together a theater party and off we went to the opening. In the lobby I was approached by the critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who had interviewed me a week before. He knew the show and asked me how it had become such a big hit. I answered because the audience walks “into” the theater whistling the score. Early the next morning I got a phone call from a furious Keene asking what the fuck I was doing in his review! I was quoted in the very first line.

Shortly after I saw La Cage on Broadway, I moved back to the Northwest for family reasons. I ended up in Portland and met Darcelle, a drag performer with her own nightclub. Darcelle was a cherished landmark in Portland. She yearly had her own float in the Rose Parade, headed white gloved charity committees, was beloved by the community. Her club was seedy and down at the heels and packed every night with straight couples on their anniversary and secretaries having a gals night out. As I sat watching the show one night it hit me. This is what the club in La Cage should be like.

And this is exactly what Terry Johnson’s current production of La Cage Aux Folles has done. One look at the stage manager tells you these Cagelles are indeed dangerous. (Not to mention some of the hardest working dancers in this city) The club is such a comfortable old shoe, if it actually existed in this city, there would be nightly lines of tourist buses at the door. And suddenly the score seems fresh and joyous; you still walk in whistling it, but this time for a much happier reason. It is a cozy old friend you haven’t seen in a long while.

PS - I want to thank bon vivant and friend Jim Landé for being partly responsible for the revival of La Cage. Also thank you to marathon audience member Rick Hinkson, who took me as a belated birthday present. It was one of the best times I have had in the theater in a long while.

PPS - Harvey, I love you! What’s not to love about a kind and gentle legend?