Thursday, 21 November 2013

Killed by A Chorus Line: The Death of the Musical

            It keeps happening. Here I am, doing what old fags do, buying old musicals in the sale bin at HMV (Do I still shop at HMV? Yes, I certainly do.)  Well, recently I came across So Long, 174th Street -- a long forgotten musical – a big failure in 1976 (16 performances). Who was involved with it? Oh -- people like Joseph Stein, Robert Morse, and Kaye Ballard. So, I took the cd home, and listened to it. And guess what.
It was fabulous.
            This keeps happening over and over again. I find an old musical that everyone has forgotten about, one that was a flop sometime around 1976 (hm…why does that year ring a bell?) put in the ol’ computer, and big surprise! It’s better than anything I’ve heard (musical-wise) in years.
            Well, I did a little digging (web-wise) and discovered that 1976 was a year that featured two other musicals you may have heard of: A Chorus Line, and a little show called Chicago. Interestingly, A Chorus Line was a mega-hit (6,137 performances!), and spawned what we now know as the megamusical. It also killed Chicago (936 performances) and So Long, 174th Street. And as far as I’m concerned, it killed musical comedy, period.
            Now I don’t blame A Chorus Line. Sure, it’s a boring musical with only one good song (okay, maybe two). So why was it such a big hit? Well, it seemed incredibly contemporary at the time – gay content, monologues, and an altogether avant-garde feel.
However the fault lies not in the musical, dear Brutus, but in ourselves.
The problem is capitalism. Money kills culture. It eats culture and spits  culture out its rear-end. (Catch Spiderman. On it’s way to Las Vegas no less.) When capitalism marries art, art goes down the tubes. (See Garth Drabinsky. I know Elaine Stritch praises him in Showstopper. But let’s face it, she’s an actress, and when it comes down to actresses, they really need jobs).  
            So since musical comedy is now a thing long gone, it makes sense to me (cuz I’m an ol’ guy) to try and remember what it once was.
            The most important word in ‘musical comedy’ is ‘comedy.’ It’s a word that is usually excised from the phrase. That’s because comedy has pretty much disappeared from mega-musicals. And comedy was the most important element in musical comedy.
            Opera finds its origins in tragedy, and operetta finds its origins in farce.  Opera is not funny (except unintentionally). Operetta is intentionally funny in the hands of Offenbach, or Gilbert and Sullivan. But the characters in operetta are not real. They are cardboard cutouts singing funny songs and representing human vice.
            It took the American musical to carve out a very special niche for music and comedy – which appeared together for the first time. This means that the characters in musical comedy are sympathetic and real as well as being funny, The best songs -- the ones that define musical comedy -- are not the ballads (though they can be nice) but the comic songs.
In Stan Daniels’ score for So Long 174th Street there is not a single bad song – not a tuneless number, or a witless one. Kaye Ballard brings tears of laughter to my eyes every time I listen to her sing ‘My son, the druggist,’ because she was portraying a real mother, and singing a very funny ode to human vanity -- sweet and hilarious at the same time. What did the estimable Clive Barnes say after the musical opened?
“When the music and lyrics do not work for a musical, the musical does not work.”
Well that’s biting criticism.
            What he should have said was:
            “The American musical comedy is dead. When money and art fight, money always wins.”



Saturday, 16 November 2013

Coming Out is Not Easy: Especially for an Oxfordian!

            Okay I’ll start by telling you everything. It’s true, I'm a drag queen. I am also an associate professor, not a full professor. I hold a University Research Chair at the University of Guelph -- but only in the arts, not in science. During my long and checkered career I have held many far left political opinions. And yes, I sometimes fart, in the presence of my long-term partner -- late at night, when no one else is around. And finally, yes, I have a cat. And, truth be told – that cat has the ungodly name of well…. Booger. And yes, he is now being treated for constipation. And finally well, my cat is -- the vet tells me -- not grossly, but at least very, very, very overweight.
Why did I feel it necessary to unburden myself in this way? To reveal these personal, nay disgusting details of my private life (things that might make Rob Ford blush)?
Because I’m coming out.
            I am one of those who think that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the real Shakespeare.
            I made all those horrible admissions before telling you I’m an Oxfordian for one reason only. When we Oxfordians reveal  ourselves, we know that our ideological opponents -- those who believe that Shakespeare was The Man From Stratford (Stratfordians) --  are not the least bit interested in discussing matters of proof.  In fact they are not interested in discussing the issue at all. Instead, they will employ the Ad Hominem, argument, i.e. -- they will proceed to attack us, personally.
            This is what happened to Don Rubin and I, when we organized a Toronto Shakespeare Conference (‘Shakespeare and the Living Theatre’) in October 2013. Don was criticized for wearing leather vests. My own colleagues attacked me in the local newspaper for giving students ‘incorrect points of view.’ One Guelph doctoral candidate compared my views to ‘creationism.’
            Some people think that an English professor who says that The Man From Stratford was not the real Shakespeare is the equivalent of a science professor who says that the sun revolves around the earth. But universities provide tenure, and support academic freedom, so that professors cannot be fired for having unpopular views. If professors had to operate in a sort of scholarly ‘wild west,’ then new research would be impossible. If a science professor says that the sun revolves around the earth, he or she will most likely not be published, students will laugh at them, they will lose academic support, and soon slip into (albeit, paid) oblivion.
            However, more and more academic essays are being published around the authorship issue, and several universities are teaching courses that take it for granted that Oxford could very well have been Shakespeare.
            One argument that is often raised against Oxfordians is that we are classist. It is an Ad Hominum argument -- one I would like to address here.
            Yes, I think the Earl of Oxford – not a lowly gentleman farmer -- probably wrote the plays that have been attributed to Shakespeare. But of course, yes, even a gentleman farmer can be a genius! That is not the issue. What is the issue? The plethora of education and information evident in Shakespeare’s plays. Such a display of knowledge and erudition would only have been possible for someone who had Oxford’s extraordinary privilege, privilege that allowed him (for instance) to tour Italy for fun, to access the library of magician Francis Dee, and be tutored by the leading Ovid scholar of the day (Arthur Golding) at a very young age.
My argument for supporting the candidacy of Oxford is the opposite of classist.
            Bardology has popularized the myth that a real writer must be (like The Man From Stratford) an ordinary, model citizen, a heterosexual, and, most importantly: a man who cannot be discovered in his work.
            Oxfordians, on the other hand, believe that the Earl of Oxford (Shakespeare) was possibly bisexual, possibly a murderer. We believe that he led a somewhat tragic life, and that his biography and personality are revealed in his  works.
            Could the greatest writer in the English language have been a flawed human being? Could he have been, even a  ‘failed’ person? (The Ad Hominum argument returns!)
            The answer to that question is part and parcel of your very own humanity.
            And a message to Stratfordians everywhere: you won’t find the answers to these, or any other questions, by continuing to do what you are doing: trying desperately to protect your own, failed, scholarship.
And the rest (someone said) is silence.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Yes, it Does Matter, and Will You Shut Up?

            I’m sorry to be so annoyed about this but I’m really tired of hearing that it doesn’t matter anymore whether or not your are gay. And to find an article by Paul Gallant in In Toronto magazine with just that theme (Open Closet Policy: Does coming out even matter anymore?) just makes me weary with frustration.
            All the people that Paul mentions in his article are people I admire. But in each and every case, coming out has been, I would argue, a huge issue for them.
            Gallant mentions Anderson Cooper, Ellen DeGeneres, Trevor Boris, Maggie Cassella, Ann- Marie MacDonald, Rick Mercer, and Kathleen Wynne – and though it’s hard to figure out exactly what he’s saying about most of them, his general conclusion is – if it mattered once whether or not you came out, it’s no big deal now.
            I beg to disagree. I think it’s important to note that Rick Mercer, Ellen de Generes,  and Anderson Cooper came out once their careers were established; and for good reason – they wanted to get a little respect before everyone made a big deal about their sexuality. Maggie Cassella and Ann- Marie MacDonald --  god bless them -- are beautiful, enormously talented, femme-looking white women. Maggie has always been very out, and Ann-Marie MacDonald is lesbian if anyone asks -- but frankly if you’re femme, white and beautiful nobody really wants to know. Trevor Boris is funny as hell. He is also out and effeminate and – well I don’t know how to tell him this – but as talented as he is, he is likely to be always known as one of  Canada’s ‘gay comics.’
            Kathleen Wynne is out and though she tries to look femme, her efforts lead her to resemble your high school gym teacher dressed up for prom (again, God bless you girlfriend -- but a string a pearls just isn’t going to do the trick!).
So much for it all not mattering.
            All of these celebrities should be commended, not only for their achievements, but also for their coming out whenever they have done so -- early or late in their careers (or even just if someone asks!). But for anyone to assert that it hasn’t mattered whether or not they have come out or not, is just….well – that notion is filled with more bullshit than a post-video apology from Rob Ford.
            Anyone who is not lying through their teeth knows it matters very much whether or not you are queer and whether or not you are out. Yes, in the western world (and only in the western world I might add) we have two things -- human rights and political correctness -- that help us to imagine that homophobia is over. But we all know that you can’t erase hate from the human heart. Human hypocrisy is rampant (again Rob Ford comes to mind) and the amount of acceptance we queers get from the straight community depends completely on
a)    how gender regular we are
b)   how little we talk about sex
In other words, if you’re a boy who looks and acts like a boy, or a girl who looks and acts like a girl, you will experience less homophobia than if you are not. And if you just never talk about sex -- ever -- straight people may manage to forget that you gobble knobs and/or munch carpet in your spare time.
            So why do queers these days have so much invested in pretending no one cares whether or not they are straight or gay? It really makes me laugh to watch the new prototype of the respectable fag who thinks he’s ‘fitting in’ –  um….skinny jeans, immaculately trimmed beard, funny glasses, and a bow tie? Hey, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you ain’t foolin’ nobody, no time, honey! And despite these futile efforts to look just like everyone else, straight men in most cases just don’t give a shit about that pot belly  (why can’t I stop thinking about Rob Ford?).
But we gays care very much.
            Truth be told, we really do.
            So why the denial? The best I can do is to suggest that gay men -- like everyone -- want life to be nice.  They think they can rid the world of homophobia by wishing it away. Well I don’t know how to tell you this, Dorothy, but all the wishing in the world will not, in actuality, get you home.
            And in fact, the hours you spend dreaming that lies are true is valuable time wasted – time that could be used in trying to change the human hearts around you, by practicing complete honesty and timely disclosure of the full truth and nothing but  (whether it makes straights queasy or not!).
            Sorry Paul Gallant, but on this one I happen to think you are dead wrong.