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Is Billy Elliot Gay? Is Liza Admitting To Marrying Them?

Rush: Getting all giddy with Ionesco
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It was a Broadway season about liquids, from the rain scene in Mary Stuart, where only one queen stayed dry, to the snow falling in White Christmas and Slava's Snowshow, where I wore galoshes and a visor. Throw in the bawdy bathtub moment in Desire Under the Elms and the toilet bowl in Rock of Ages (not to mention the one referenced in the meds-flushing Next to Normal), and you can say Broadway made a splash this year, which is far preferable to deciding it was totally in the toilet.

There was actually a surprising amount of desperate excitement, thanks to revivals, slumming Oscar winners, antiwar themes, and absurdist plays, much of the fare reflecting both a faltering economy and a heightened sense of mild rebellion.

At the annual Tony nominees' meet-and-greet at the Millennium Hotel, I got to probe some of the season's darker themes, while unearthing the sunny personalities who were oh-so-grateful to be honored.

West Side Story's fabulous Karen Olivo told me about her "A Boy Like That" number: "I can't thank Arthur Laurents enough. Having me revert to my native tongue when everything goes south gave me a launching pad to add a whole set of layers." Brava, chica.

Diane Paulus, who directed the other old dance-ical, Hair, told me that hippiedom may not be her native tongue, but she's definitely a believer: "I'm a total wannabe closet hippie," she said. "I wish I'd been alive in the '60s. I was a political activist in the '80s—fighting for nuclear disarmament and Planned Parenthood and taking buses to Albany." And back in '79, Paulus hopped transportation to see the movie of Hair and, at the time, she said, "I thought it was great. [Co-author] James Rado would die if he knew I'm saying that!"

From the big screen to Broadway and 15 Tony nominations, Billy Elliot is the Thatcher-bashing tuner about miners and minors all wanting to jeté to fulfillment. I told director Stephen Daldry that I felt Billy is obviously gay and wants to be with his campy friend Michael at the end. "I think everyone's different," Daldry responded. "People can interpret it any way they want." And his interpretation? The maddening British demon wouldn't say!

I then got to meet the boy who plays Michael—David Bologna, who is 14 but comes off mid-40s. What a pro! Competing nominee Gregory Jbara, who plays Billy's father, joked to me, "I'm bigger than David. I can kick his ass." More seriously, Jbara said he was thrilled that they recognized David, and I know he meant it because I caught him later telling the kid, "I love you, man. I'm proud of you."

Averting my eyes from the sincere display of sentiment—ugh—I jumped on Haydn Gwynne, who plays Billy's crusty mentor, Mrs. Wilkinson, and has thought up a whole backstory for the character. "I imagine her having been scouted to be a showgirl," Gwynne told me. "She probably had an affair with the married magician who was second on the bill, and she got pregnant. I could give you Mrs. Wilkinson's Early Years—the whole show. A whole movie actually!" And Miley Cyrus would be amazing in the part!

But right at that moment, I had to tell reasons to be pretty's Thomas Sadowski and Marin Ireland that when I caught their play, a couple in front of me looked at each other during intermission and said "Oy vey." But they stayed and liked it! "People shout out some crazy things," said Ireland. "They're surprised by how into it they are. A lot of times, it folds in and amps up some of the moments." In other words, it actually helps the show. So come on down and scream your guts out!

Instead of shouting crazy things at Exit the King's brilliant Geoffrey Rush, I asked him if Ionesco would be a fan of his production. (Some critics with a direct line to the dead absurdist swear he wouldn't.) "Somebody said the other productions have been quite morose," replied Rush. "What we call a dark-brown night in the theater, where you're looking at your watch a lot. We think Ionesco has written this play with phosphorescent ink, and it deserves a giddy kaleidoscope of spirituality and burlesque."

And is his megalomaniacal despot reminiscent of burlesque-king Dubya in any way? "People have drawn these parallels," admitted Rush, "but I think the play is more universal than that." I guess it covers Dubya's father, too.

Meanwhile, Speed-the-Plow's Raúl Esparza agreed with me that his play seemed even more relevant this time around, the AIG collapse and other factors making it super-timely. "There was the 'maverick' line," he said. "People thought David Mamet added that!" Turns out, it was already in there—though I doubt Sarah Palin searches Tony-nominated dramas for her conversational gambits.

Some people also thought Esparza was on drugs to have given such a wonderfully wired performance. "People asked me, 'Did you do a lot of cocaine?' " he related. "No! I'd have a heart attack." But recently, Esparza did play off his own adrenaline to sing "New York, New York" at a gala event because Liza Minnelli had canceled due to an eye problem. Said Esparza, "David Hyde Pierce told me, 'You made it your own. A cross between Liza and Frank.' And at Miscast, I sang 'The Man That Got Away.' I'm going to do the entire Judy-Liza oeuvre!"

And, finally, I got to meet the great Liza herself—if not Frank—whose eye looked better, both of her peepers lighting up when I said I loved her Broadway material about a certain ex-husband. "Why not, at this point?" Liza replied, laughing. "I'm not exactly the example for marriage. I give up!"

Fun With Fantastic Fantasticks Fanatics

Not a dark-brown night at all, The Fantasticks is the Off-Broadway musical about a couple who only learn to truly love each other after they've rolled around in some mud. (And more liquids! Let's not forget "Soon It's Gonna Rain.") The sweet little show is now 50 years old—it's separated at birth from Madonna—so they celebrated the anniversary with entertainment by belter Orfeh, hottie Aaron Lazar, and the original Luisa, Rita Gardner, who gorgeously sang a medley from the show and admitted, "I used to swallow the confetti every time I opened my mouth to sing." I'm sure the rain helped wash it down.

I tossed well-deserved glitter at another vintage musical act, Lesley Gore, who did a fabulously textured set at Feinstein's last week, climaxing with her defiant feminist anthem "You Don't Own Me." I hear the song will be included on a Quincy Jones tribute album, and while Marc Ronson was going to produce Amy Winehouse singing it, her body said "No, no, no," so they got Adele.

But it's my party, so let me tell you the real highlight of last week's giddy kaleidoscope of spirituality and burlesque: In the wake of my on-air critiques of Miss California, Carrie Prejean, for being an inarticulate bigot, dwindling demagogue Bill O'Reilly told his audience that commentators like me engage in hate speech that lowers the discourse. A surprise feminist, O'Reilly called me and my ilk "fanatics" who spew "vicious rhetoric" in public! Hello, pot belly! That's like Ann Coulter calling someone an insensitive opportunist! No one's lowered the bar in America more than O'Reilly has with his hateful prejudices and relentless bullying. And if hypocritical half-naked moralist Prejean aggressively advocates that gays don't deserve equal rights, and I zing her back with saucy jokes, then I'm labeled a hater? God, I hate that!

musto@villagevoice.com


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