Friday, February 17, 2017

A Necessary Escape

by Eric Peterson

It’s a common stereotype that all gay men love musical theatre, and the show-tune-loving queen who knows all the lyrics that Sondheim ever wrote is a particularly powerful trope, because let’s face it, we’ve all met that guy. I prefer to think that gay men love musical theatre just as much as EVERYONE ELSE loves musical theatre, only we’re not constrained by the toxic masculinity that plagues straight men and so are free to admit it freely and without shame. But, I happen to love musicals, so of course I would say that.
And, I’m fully aware that this particular stereotype, accurate though it may be in many cases, is still limiting and harmful. It’s one more piece of data that allows our heteropatriarchal society to take us less seriously. Musicals are fantasies — nobody spontaneously breaks into song with a full orchestra behind them in real life. Like our obsessions with fashion, film noir, and Britney Spears, it speaks to our fascination with surfaces, and therefore reveals our lack of depth.

Except that what’s on the surface can often tell you a lot about what lies beneath. I see a lot of musical theatre — whenever I can, which is pretty often — and last month, I had the pleasure of seeing a local community theatre production of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret. Like most community productions, some of the performances were better than others, but nevertheless, the story impacted me in a way it never had before. It’s difficult to reduce this or any work of art down to a single sentence, but one way to look at Cabaret is that it’s about those who work and surround a seedy nightclub in 1930’s Berlin, so obsessed with having a great time that they fail to notice the rise of the Nazi Party all around them. But of course, the first time a character strolls onto stage, blithely sporting a red armband with a swastika, we can’t help but notice. (But never mind; fashion is super shallow.)
As musicals go, Cabaret is pretty dark; everybody knows that. And yet, people still spontaneously break into song with full orchestra accompaniment. It’s a fantasy, but it portrays something very real. Bob Fosse’s film version had an indelible effect on me as a teenager; Liza Minnelli became my first object of diva worship, and the scene where Michael York’s Brian reveals his queerness hit me like a ton of bricks, even if I wouldn’t come out myself for another decade. Its effect then was far more personal than political. After all, it’s not like the Nazis would ever come back in my lifetime … right?
But in a town hall turned into a makeshift theatre in November, 2016, that proverbial ton of bricks hit me again: This is now. This is us. These happy rebels singing all about sexual freedom will be dying in the camps in three or four years, and the Ku Klux Klan is currently celebrating the election of a candidate that based an entire campaign on hate, division, and by the way — the most explicitly anti-gay platform in GOP history. This is happening today, right now.
Okay, so I’m not the first one to equate Trump and the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Had I given it a moment’s thought before seeing Cabaret, I might have expected my reaction. I was more honestly gobsmacked last weekend, however.
I spent last Sunday at DC’s Kennedy Center with a gay couple, eating brunch (because of course we began with brunch) and seeing a musical. John and I had seen it before, but this was the first time Sidney had seen Wicked, the musical by Winnie Holzman & Stephen Schwartz. Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, Wicked tells the “untold story” of Elphaba, better known as The Wicked Witch of the West. In it, Elphaba discovers long before Dorothy Gale that the heralded “Wizard of Oz” is a phony, and it frames her opposition to him in terms that we can empathize with. It proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story, but it does so with music that ranges from cute to touching to bring-the-house-down-power-diva-heaven.
But there’s a lesser-known song in the larger piece. It’s called “Wonderful,” and it’s all about how the Wizard crafted his image. In it, he sings, “I never saw myself as a Solomon Or Socrates/I knew who I was, one of your dime-a-dozen Mediocrities/Then, suddenly I’m here, respected, worshiped, even/just because the folks in Oz/needed someone to believe in,” aaaaand, cue that ton of bricks again.
This is him, I thought. It’s Trump. He continues, “Does it surprise you, I got hooked/and all too soon/What can I say?/I got carried away, and not just by a balloon/Wonderful, they called me wonderful/So I said, ‘Wonderful, if you insist/I Will Be Wonderful’ and they said, ‘Wonderful!’/Believe me, it’s hard to resist!”
This was not supposed to be a history lesson, I thought. This was supposed to be a morning of escapism, about a green girl in a made-up world who wears a pointy hat and belts high notes to the second balcony. And here I was watching Donald J. Trump sing a show tune. Dammit.
But as I continued watching, my eye moved back to Elphaba. She’s different. She’s been bullied and ostracized her whole life. But she has power, and she knows it. The Wizard is offering her words of kindness, something she’s been starved for her whole life, but she’s smart enough not to fall for it. If he’s Trump, I thought, then she’s me. Or she could be, if I’m smart enough, and brave enough.
Rather than being a flighty afternoon of escapism, my Sunday matinee performance of Wicked became, for a moment, a mirror of the world that I actually live in, and an inspiring call to action. With fabulous gowns and soaring melodies, but still.
In the years ahead, we need to get serious; I’ve no doubt about that. And part of that, as counter-intuitive as it may be, is to experience art. We must support artists, and we’ve got to feed our soul. Some of it will surely be an escape from the real world, and that’s okay; we need to seize our joy when we can find it. But we need to seek our reflections as well. If you’re averse to people who spontaneously break into song with a full orchestra behind them, then go see the new Star Wars movie, get lost in the new seasons of Orange is the New Black, or Game of Thrones, and don’t be afraid to notice when a scene is all about race or sexuality, even if race or sexuality are never mentioned. Art is a uniquely human way to learn about ourselves, and about the world around us.
In this new era of American history we’re embarking on, we’ll need as much of that knowledge as we can get. And if you can sing along to it, all the better.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Welcome to POPeration!

We're Stacey & Eric, the hosts of a new podcast -- POPeration! -- where we (how clever is this?) dissect pop culture for about 20-30 minutes every week.

It's our opinion that while popular culture is often not taken very seriously -- it's actually really important. Even when entertainment -- movies, music, teevee, etc. -- is created to be pure escapism, it sends a message. Art can either be a mirror for its audience or something that inspires us to change, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. And we're going to talk about it. With curse words and everything, because it's our fucking show.

We haven't set a launch date yet, but once we do - this blog will be where you can find new and archived episodes, and most importantly -- where you can interact with us via comment threads. Tell us what you think of the show, why you think we're brilliant or why you think we're full of shit, and what pop culture trend or artifact you'd like us to discuss next. Or, if you'd rather connect with us via Facebook or Twitter, you can do that, too.

We're very excited to begin this journey. Watch this space for updates as we prepare to launch.

-- E&S