SWISH CHEESE -- Gay stereotypes in theater


FLOWER DRUM SONG * Music by Richard Rodgers * Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II * Book by David Henry Hwang * Directed and choreographed by Robert Long bottom * Starring Lea Salonga * Virginia Theatre, New York City.

LITTLE HAM * Book by Dan Owens * Music by Juddy Woldin *Lyrics by Richard Engquist and Judd Woldin Choreographed by Leslie Dockery * Directed by Eric Riley * John Houseman Theater, New York City.

A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE * Book by Terrence McNally * Music by Stephen Flaherty * Lyrics by Lynn ahrens * Directed by Joe Mantello * Starring Roger Rees and Faith Prince * Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, New York City, through December 29.

Period pieces always have as much to say about the time theyíre made or shown as the time they depict. Currently onstage in New York are a handful of new musicals depicting gay characters from some time in the not-too-distant past. Little Ham, an Off-Broadway musical adaptation of a play by Langston Hughes, takes place in 1936 Harlem. The Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammersteinís Flower Drum Song, with a new book by David Henry Hwang, is set in San Franciscoís Chinatown, circa 1960. And A Man of No Importance, the Lincoln Center Theater musical based on the 1994 movie that starred Albert Finney, unfolds in 1964 Dublin. The gay characters in Little Ham and Flower Drum Song are almost identical -- swishy queens who design clothes for nightclub-singer divas-in-training -- while the closeted central character of A Man of No Importance is a middle-aged, theater-loving bus conductor who reads poems to his passengers and lives with his sister.

Gay men have always been good at playing the game of fluid identity, especially around gender roles. We can slap on a wig when duty calls but that doesnít stop us from building a muscular carapace at the gym, and we know both are forms of drag. Stereotypes are based on truth but they donít tell the whole picture. They freeze us into one image thatís comforting and unthreatening to the dominant culture. 
When such old-fashioned stereotypes of frivolous fairies and loveless bachelors persist even in the gay-gay-gay arena of stage musicals, what does that say about American culture, the theater, and gay life in 2002? Are they a way of measuring how far weíve come since the 1930s or the 1960s? Or just the opposite -- do they announce that, despite Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and Mark Bingham, we havenít come very far at all?

Flower Drum Song is the most shockingly retro of this trio. The revival was motivated by Hwangís desire to update the corny Orientalia of Rodgers and Hammersteinís original book. Hwang, whoís best-known for M. Butterfly, has done a good job of cramming in just about as much nuanced detail about the journey of Chinese immigrants assimilating into American culture as a Broadway musical can handle. Yet he came up with the all-new character of Harvard (Allen Liu), a running fag joke who flaps his wrists, minces like Marilyn Monroe, and says "Fabulous!" The audience laughs at him, as theyíre supposed to. Well, if The Producers can get away with it, why not Flower Drum Song?

Itís hard to get as hot and bothered about the stereotypical gay guy in Little Ham because the whole show is full of cardboard cartoon characters. Jimmy (Joe Wilson Jr.) is the flamboyantly dressed "coutourier" who brandishes his Oriental fan like a weapon -- heís the Ď30s Harlem equivalent of a snap queen. Heís just one of a dozen stock types whom Langston Hughes (who was quietly gay himself) may have lovingly portrayed in prose but which the musicalsí creators render lifelessly. Itís painful to watch a bunch of potentially dynamic performers hobbled by a mediocre script and poor direction. Although nothing in fairytale plot about Harlem residents uniting to kick the Mafia out of the neighborhood makes the slightest sense, it is worth noting that Jimmy seems completely accepted in this milieu. And the show drops hints that the white mobsterís bodyguard might play on Jimmyís team -- he secretly knits and takes unusual interest in a beauticianís makeup kit.

It doesnít make much sense, either, that Alfie Byrne, the main character of A Man of No Importance (played by Roger Rees), idolizes Oscar Wilde, puts on his plays with an amateur company, reads his poems aloud on the bus, yet seems oblivious to Wildeís reputation as the foremost champion of "the love that dare not speak its name." But for middle-aged closet cases, denial is a survival strategy. The musical is not especially deep or probing, but it does honestly convey the constriction of the closet and the social pressure that enforces it. 

Iím most haunted by the scene where Alfie summons the courage to go looking for love as a gay man, and the only way he knows how to announce himself is to part his hair in the middle, put on makeup, and wear a green carnation in his lapel -- in other words, to go out in Oscar Wilde drag. This is the moment that had the most contemporary resonance for me. The desperate search for how to be gay, how to look gay, the notion that you have to distort who you are to be publicly gay -- those impulses havenít disappeared with the advent of rainbow flags. Look at the pictures in any local gay publication, and youíll mostly find muscle boys and drag queens. In other words, about as much range of choice as you see in these retro musicals. Is that who we are?

The Advocate, December 10, 2002