Writing about Broadway 35 years ago, William Goldman derisively declared that “homosexuals” were largely responsible for creating American musicals. But even more so, argues the scholar D. A. Miller in his book Place for Us, the Broadway musical has been largely responsible for creating gay men (at least among the white middle class in the post-war era). Boys, the Berkeley professor notes, sang along or lip-synched in their basements to original cast albums in a kind of gay “puberty rite that, though it was conducted by single individuals in secrecy and shame, was nonetheless so widely diffused as to remain, for several generations, as practically normative for gay men as it was almost unknown for straight ones.”
The Broadway musical as radical consciousness raiser? As fomenter of queer revolution? Only a performance artist—one who has been promoting gay rights in his work for more than two decades—could make such a claim.
Enter Tim Miller, as a kid in his California basement, “the Motorola over here, suppressed queer agency there,” crooning away with his mom’s LPs. Sure, in stereotypical fashion, the secret solo performances, which soon graduated into stripteases to Gypsy presented for the titillation of neighborhood boys, “helped send me on my journey as a queer person,” says Miller, one of the infamous NEA Four. But more than that, they shifted his sense of America. The musical 1776, which he saw as a fifth-grader in 1969, was “the single most formative thing in my political education” because it encouraged him “to question our nation’s history.” Call it the show-tune queen’s answer to Howard Zinn.
Miller didn’t set out to explore the incendiary nature of chorus lines and 11 o’clock numbers when he started working on Us, a new solo piece that opens on September 9 at P.S.122 (a space Miller helped to found some 25 years ago). What he wanted to write about—stirred by the pending expiration of his Australian partner’s visa and the prospect that they will have to leave America to stay together—was the idea of exile. But when he got into the rehearsal room and started to delve into “my sense of alienation” from the U.S., “those musicals kept coming up,” providing the soundtrack to his dawning sense of gay identity and his decision, at age 10, to escape to Canada should the Vietnam draft still be in effect when he became 18.
When Miller thinks about leaving the country now, it’s to find that “place for us” where he and his partner can be recognized as a couple and afforded full rights after “walking through a storm,” “climbing every mountain,” “dreaming the impossible dream,” and living all the hopeful clichés from “the anthems of those old warhorses.”
What else, he asks, is Oliver’s plaint—”Please sir, can I have some more?”—but the expression of “a proto-gay activist, claiming voice and claiming space”? How can one watch Fiddler on the Roof today and not recognize that “it is about gay marriage”? As for that holiest of shows in the gay canon, The Sound of Music? “It teaches we must leave organized religion, get laid, and fight fascism.”
Don’t expect any nods to Oklahoma, however. “No way,” says Miller. “It’s sooo Reaganesque!”
A season in waiting: The Public sits tight
Has the Public Theater hired a new artistic director from Oklahoma when we weren’t looking, confirming fears that they’d replace George C. Wolfe with a middle-aged, middle-American white guy from a regional theater? No, it’s just the recently announced 2004–05 season that makes it look that way: five plays by white men—OK, one is Shakespeare (see Charles McNulty’s story, page 46)—but among the other four (though admirable and accomplished writers for the most part) none is a surprise, much less a risk.
The pool of candidates for the top post, meanwhile, has by all reports dwindled to a group of, well, middle-aged white guys, admirable and accomplished directors for the most part, but none who is a surprise, much less a risk. According to board chair Kenneth B. Lerer, the Public won’t be naming Wolfe’s successor until “late fall.” Lerer said that “it doesn’t make any sense to do the search in public” so he wouldn’t confirm or deny that any of the names being bandied about in the community—Oscar Eustis, Doug Hughes, Des McAnuff, Gregory Mosher, Daniel Sullivan—are among those who have been asked to answer a long questionnaire about their vision for the Public and the kinds of works and artists they would bring in.
Whoever gets the job, Wolfe told Stage Left when he announced his resignation in February, needs to be ready to do battle in “a landscape that is more reactionary” than the one he entered a decade ago. “I hope whoever takes over will share that sense of needing to perform a service. It’s a fight. Anything you do that doesn’t affirm the mainstream—it’s war. I hope whatever people come in are their own kinds of warriors.”