3:20 PM |
Curtains For Drama Queens: Theatre as a Form of Queer Marker
“What do you do with queens? Stand them around a piano and play selections from Gypsy.” ~ FRAN DRESCHER in The Nanny “Look, I’m 40, I’m single, and I work in musical theater—you do the math!”
~ NATHAN LANE, in response to a question on his sexuality, The New York Post, 8 November 2000
Nobody knows just how the yoking happened. But somewhere along the way—during the past hundred years or so when theater became firmly entrenched in the modern pop cultural consciousness—an intimacy with drama and musical theater, but perhaps more of the latter, somehow became a distinct marker for homosexuality. An even stranger twist to this proposition: this is an affliction (so to speak) that, by and large, tends only towards gay men, and never usually lesbians.
Thus, a predilection towards show tunes, made manifest by having an impressive recall of whole lyrics to the songs in Les Miserables or Miss Saigon, or an enviable working knowledge of the backstage lives of Patti Lupone and Julie Andrews, can be used to easily paint anyone into categorical inclusion of “gay life.” The marker is so distinct that Broadway today has become a veritable metaphor for the gay community.
In Marion Dane Bauer’s groundbreaking collection of young-adult short stories Am I Blue?, for example, that “link” becomes a litmus test to determining issues of sexuality and identity. Bruce Coville, in the title story of the anthology, writes about a gay fairy godfather who gives the gift of “sight” to a possibly gay (and much-bullied) kid, empowering him to “see” who is “queer” around him. He does this by being able to see gay people in varying shades of blue, depending on the degree of their sexual preference. In a café near New York’s theater district, the boy Vincent tests his gay sight (or “gaydar”) and sure enough, an overwhelming number of people around him starts to turn bluish—thus, “outing” their gayness:
“Well, this isn’t a typical place,” said Melvin [the fairy godfather]. “You told me the theater crowd hangs around in here.” (emphasis mine) He waved his hand grandly. “Groups like that tend to have a higher percentage of gay people, because we’re so naturally artistic.” He frowned. “Of course, some bozos take a fact like that and decide that everyone doing theater is gay….”
The same assertions can be found in various films, books, and plays, such as Frank Oz’s In and Out (1997) and Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s Avenue Q. In Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey, the character of Father Dan uses musicals as a metaphor for “living joyfully in the face of evil.”
That a taste for a peculiar brand of entertainment can be a symptom of sexual preference must be said to exist beyond the bounds of scientific explanation. The symptom is cultural, and slippery, and to date, no clinical or psychological link has been established between homosexuality and the love of theater. In fact, in the essay “Our Love is Here to Stay: Gays and Musicals,” John B. Kenrick writes: “We could all too easily stray into a deep psychological discussion [but] to my knowledge, no one has published a scientific analysis of the gay musical buff’s mind.” But still, the linking between the two might even sound preposterous and derivative in proposition—and yet, the distinctiveness of this marker remains in place for many of us. In Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture, John M. Clum makes a claim, for example, that what sports are to many straight men, musical theater has been to many gay men.
Let me tell a personal story. I remember, for instance, one nighttime cruise around Dumaguete City with some longtime gay friends. There were four of us in the car, and we had already traversed the city streets looking for ways to unburden the boredom of small-city life—and somehow, between crossing one darkened street corner into another, we all began belting out an obscure selection from The Sound of Music: the song we sang was “I Have Confidence,” and we managed to sing it—with much gusto—in its entirety, remembering whole lyrics, melody, and harmony, and later marveling how it was that we somehow still remembered a song we had loved—the feeling was surprisingly collective—since childhood. And we somehow knew that the answer was because we were gay. It went without saying that theater was in our blood.
Somehow, the phenomenon even goes beyond lyrics and memories of theatrical narratives.
A quick survey of acknowledged gay male icons in popular culture will always include a bevy of theatrical giants—Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lupone, Julie Andrews, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, to mention only a few. Female stars they may be, but their celebrity presence and often larger-than-life personal stories, coupled with their musical theater backgrounds, have made them homosexual icons—a tribute that almost always come to form by way of “drag.” Today, for drag queens to dress up as Barbra Streisand is de rigeur and natural—in a way that dressing up as Britney Spears is somehow not. Sometimes, this “drag” can take the form of the ultimate hybrid of the character of the Emcee of the KitKat Club in Cabaret, and Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Nothing could be more camp that that: a big man with a feminine swish, all made-up in pancake white, hair gelled back into a shiny polish, features—eyes, mouth, nose—heightened to suggest a kind of kabuki effect: the theatrical drag queen is all-dressed in gentleman’s clothes, cloaked with the effeteness of butlers and prostitutes—bowtied, jacketed, corseted—all snug in an androgynous charm. To this world, Rupaul, the most famous drag queen of them all, once said: “Everyone is born naked and after that, everything is drag.”
What is one to make of this link between homosexuality and theater? Is there a history by which to archive this phenomenon? How has this “connection” endured even up to the present?
Perhaps, by way of summarizing towards an answer, I can say that theater has always served as a form of code, a “secret language” for many of us who were never given a chance to speak what was it in us that needed articulating. Homosexuals have been historically “Other-ed” in our heterosexist culture, and have remained voiceless as a subaltern class. Can the subaltern speak? Gayatri Spivak says “no” in her landmark essay; for the most part, I agree with her, but I also disagree with her: we may have the silence as a strong given, but gay men have always found subversive ways of “speaking out.” Theater is one such medium. One might even call theater a kind of “sign language” for gay men—which worked fine because theater proved to be something of a chameleon: it can mean one thing for a straight audience, and another for a homosexual one. That way, no one’s really the wiser.
One can start with Wayne Koestenbaum’s assertions in The Queen’s Throat, which examines a historical bond between gay men and opera divas, where he argues that the full-throated utterances of the opera diva provided a venue—a “release” really—to the “rage and pain” of pre-Stonewall gays. (Before the so-called Stonewall riots in 1969, which started the gay rights movement, at least in the United States, gay men were “closeted” by culture, silenced by the social, legal, and medical establishments. A vocal self-identification as a “gay” man was not just frowned upon—such kind of expressions were not allowed at all).
Clum, in Something for the Boys, illustrates this fascination for the diva image as something that fleshes out a longing for the silenced gay man/boy:
The diva [is] an escape from an oppressive life into magic, the diva musical is about a woman’s escape from the humdrum. …[T]he diva fights for liberation from stasis in a grim, everyday world. To closeted gay men, the diva heroine was a figure of identification. Where does one find magic if one is different and must try to hide one’s difference? The ideal is escape from the provincial, where one is hated, and fabulousness, an antidote to grayness and the strong sense of entrapment. In the process the diva gains glamour and power.
Then there is the other example of Oscar Wilde, who found a way of public expression—albeit veiled or coded. The playwright was—and is—famous for his witticisms, and one quote in particular serves a point in my thesis now. Wilde had once declared that he had given voice to “a love that dares not speak its name.” As a wit and dramatist, he had an exquisite sense of words—punning and double entendres being two of his writerly talents—and more often than not, he used words in his ostensibly “straight” plays as vessels to be read between the lines, to come to mean something different to a gay audience. These words are to be spoken and understood with a secret blush, accessible only among those initiated to the codes by which gay men lived their hidden selves. In The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, Wilde gives us, as a start, the situation of Algernon wanting to visit the country—that secret metaphor for the “gay closet”—and inventing a friend named Bunbury to visit. How homosexually bawdy can a deep reading be? Bunbury. “Bun,” as in buttocks. And “bury,” as in … (Sinfield 27). I don’t think I need to continue this to make my point clear.
Perhaps one can best start a paper tracing the marriage between homosexuality and theater by invoking the historical place of theater in people’s lives. Michael Bronksi, writing about Laurence Senelick’s Lovesick: Modernest Plays of Same-Sex (Gay) Love, noted:
The theater has traditionally been considered a place of sin and waywardness. Thus, with its reputation for loose sexual behavior, rejection of traditional gender and social roles, and emphasis on the imagination, the theater came to provide a place for gay men and lesbians who embodied the Outcast from the heterosexist cultural norm. From Charlotte Charke—a cross-dressing lesbian who acted and managed theaters in 18th-century London—to Oscar Wilde to contemporary “out” playwrights like Craig Lucas and Paula Vogel, the stage has provided a home for expressions of same-sex love.
But that was not always the case. Theater had been a religious and educational activity throughout the Middle Ages, practiced almost exclusively at religious festivals, and reproduced with religious themes. Great play cycles were performed at festivals like Corpus Christi in cities like York, Chester, and London. Suppressed because of their religious messages, these plays were soon replaced first with new ones by men like John Leland, whose purpose was to discredit the old religion. By the late 16th century, though, a public, secular theater had emerged and was thriving in London and the provinces. William Shakespeare was the greatest son of this period. The success of Shakespeare and his compatriots was only a generation long, however. The Puritans soon saw the theater as a place of debauchery, and towns began banning plays and bribing traveling players to go elsewhere. In 1605, the British Parliament passed a law against blaspheming on stage. Eventually, in the 1640s, the theaters were closed as “enemies of public morality.”
Thus theater as haven was born.
It is important to note at this point one vital component by which we link theater with gayness, and that is the evolution of “drag.” While “drag” has an extensive history going as far back as the Greeks, one form of it actually stemmed from Elizabethan drama—a theatrical form that demanded that all roles be played by men, even women’s roles. Thus, in Shakespeare’s time, it was customary to see Romeo and Juliet with Juliet being, in reality, a male actor in women’s clothes.
That “drag” act has always proven compelling in the history of theater. Senelick, in another book titled The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre, does a survey of “gay theater” that spans from ancient to modern times (M. Butterfly, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Barry Humphries’s most popular Dame Edna Everage), and manages to explore with some thoroughness the manifestations and significance of cross-dressing and drag culture in theater and performance practice. In his survey, he presents hundreds of examples that dissect the subject with its various underlying myths, meanings, and customs, and the historical significance and sexual implications of each. He notes:
Whether it’s Ziggie Stardust strutting the stage in a white satin gown or a troupe of Kabuki actors masquerading as women to a mesmerized male audience, the evocative transvestite performer offers a subliminal homoerotic fantasy and provides the lasting image of the show long after its closing night. Pantomimists, dame comedians, principal boys, glamour drag artistes, androgyne rock stars, and male impersonators are traced from their roots in tribal ritual and Christian pageantry to today’s forms—the dandyism of Little Richard, the queer sensibility of Sylvester and the Coquettes, the thrift-shop drag of Boy George—capturing the allure and excitement of gender-bending performance: its rebellion, its public spectacle, its amusements, its tragedies, its escapism. (emphasis mine)
In this book, thus, Senelick lays the groundwork for theater as an “accepted” forum for expression of things usually frowned upon, perfectly absorbing the dynamics of balance between mainstream and anti-establishment forces, becoming home for “misfits, ravers, radical activists, and outcasts.”
But, in the whole consideration of this history, such presentations have largely been possible only after the one moment in history that catered in “queer consciousness” into the heterosexual mainstream: the Stonewall riots.
Stonewall, for many things associated with gay culture, provides the perfect demarcation between the covert and the overt in gay expression—covertness being the province of the closeted pre-Stonewall past. Clum, in his essay “Gay Modern Theater,” hazily makes this distinction by calling the parts separated by the line as “modern” and “contemporary.” Clumsy those categories may be (he concedes to that, calling these parameters as “arbitrary”), he defines with clarity the heart of the issue:
For gay drama, one can say that the dividing line between modern and contemporary drama is the Stonewall Riot of 1969, which symbolized the change in lesbians and gay men from internalizing and acting on their society’s negative attitude toward them and their insistence, supported by fellow homosexuals, in asserting their own worth and pride.
Joseph Cady, in his own study of gay American literature before Stonewall, has also noted that long before the 1969 riots and the launching of the contemporary gay liberation movement, twentieth-century gay and bisexual male American writers (for it is in America that such consciousness first took root) had already produced notable—if hidden—literature about the subject.
There was frank and affirmative gay male American writing from the century’s start, but it was usually published abroad or by marginal presses or remained private and unpublished. As the century advanced, there were marked increases in both the amount of frank gay male American writing and the amount of it issued by mainstream publishers.
This pattern became unmistakable in the 1940s, when, among other firsts, books clearly concerned with homosexuality became best-sellers. A relative burst in published gay male American writing then followed in the 1950s, and this was in turn followed by what in context amounted to a flood of work in the pre-Stonewall 1960s.
But this increased public depiction of homosexuality was usually tinged with misery, when it was not totally bleak. It was as if gay male writers in these years were subject to a rule of concessiveness (either explicit or tacit), in which the price of greater public access was the confirming of homosexual stereotypes.
None of these patterns was seamless, however—for example, some relatively positive portrayals emerged from mainstream publishers early in the century, and some stereotypical ones appeared from independent presses; in addition, some amazingly positive depictions appeared in the decades just before Stonewall.
At least three general points need to be underscored about this remarkable body of material. First, it adds to the growing knowledge that, despite its epochal quality, Stonewall was not a self-generated event—it was preceded not only by earlier homosexual political organizing but by a mounting body of persistent gay male American writing.
Second, it implies that one of the greatest fears of the widespread reading public (and, by extension, of the society at large) was the prospect of encountering a non-stereotypical homosexual whose lot was no more restricted and troubled than an average heterosexual’s.
Third, though a few works within it received marked publicity, as a consistent and purposeful whole this body of writing was invisible to the general public, and as in every other potentially enabling aspect of their experience, gay readers and writers during this period had to be self-relying and self-inventing in finding and learning from this literature. Because of homosexuality’s continuing official “unspeakableness” for most of the century, no public commentator before Stonewall studied and organized this material into a discussible entity from which gay readers might benefit.
For Cady, literary works that began mapping gay concerns almost entirely existed only as novels, short stories, letters, and autobiographies, never usually plays—all except for Henry Blake Fuller who is best known for his realistic Chicago fiction of the 1890s. In 1896, Fuller presented a frank and daring portrait of homosexuality in a one-act play titled At Saint Judas’s, but Cady notes that there was no thematic follow-up until Tennessee Williams in the 1940s—and even then, he accuses Williams of treating the subject matter of homosexuality very evasively. (An example of this is the treatment of Blanche’s suicidal husband in the 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire, who may harbor gay feelings. In the 1950s, Cady writes, treated the gay theme a little more fully, although he still kept it in the background or off-stage, such as in 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or in 1958’s Suddenly Last Summer.) In fiction, however, the same cannot be said, and Cady points out to Williams’ first collection of stories, One Arm (1948), where the homosexual subject dominates two stories—“One Arm” and “Desire and the Black Masseur”—but does so by associating it with prostitution and murder.
Clum, however, is more generous, and points to pre-Stonewall plays that show an interest, if often oblique, to queerness. He cites, for example, Brecht’s first play Baal (1918) that features a bisexual hero—but concedes that for the most part, in these plays (e.g., the coded dramas of the 1930s such as Mordaunt Shairp’s The Green Bay Tree, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, and Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy), “lesbian and gay characters were more likely to appear in realistic problem plays, usually as ‘the problem’ that had to be eliminated by the final curtain,” and that “even these plays, which were hardly gay affirming, were often considered too immoral for production.” (Still, he also manages to highlight some plays that were open about their depiction of homosexuality, such as André Gide’s Saul, J. R. Ackerley’s The Prisoners of War, Noël Coward’s Design for Living, or non-realists plays such as Federico García Lorca’s The Audience, Julien Green’s Sud, and the works of Joe Orton.)
Both Cady and Clum consider that the turning point in gay theater was the 1968 staging of Mart Crowley’s seminal The Boys in the Band, which came out near the end of the 1960s, and, as Cady describes it, “made theater history by focusing its (and the audience’s) entire attention on a group of New York gay men at a birthday party.” The play came at the heels of other works that seemed to represent a veritable flood of gay expression. In Edward Albee’s first play The Zoo Story (1960), one of the two characters announces, without hesitant preamble, that he was “queer” when he was 15—and Albee provides him with monologues that tackle with such openness his homosexual references. Also in 1964, Terrence McNally presented his first play, And Things that Go Bump in the Night, where an openly gay character proves crucial to what eventually happens to the play’s strange family.
But Cady notes that despite some positive portrayal of homosexuality in some plays, they seem to gravitate towards judgmental condemnation:
The remarkable achievement of twentieth-century American gay male writing before Stonewall might at first appear to be offset by the fact that much of it seems concessive. For example, in their association of homosexuality with violence, suicide, murder, or other kinds of pathetic death or at best with lives of freakishness or isolation, many works in the post-World War II outpouring of published gay male writing seem to confirm Mart Crowley’s famous line in The Boys in the Band, “Show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”
Clum shares the same observations and notes that while Crowley’s play is seminal, the play “can be seen as a somewhat rotten slice of gay history.” He writes that
it displays not only gay slang and manners of the period just before the Stonewall rebellion, but it shows vividly the ways in which gay men suffered from internalized homophobia. There is no gay pride in Mart Crowley’s play, only shame and self-hatred. Jealousy, bickering, alcoholism, and regret define the lives of these unhappy men, but at no point do they realize that the enemy is not themselves but the homophobia that shaped them.
Cady, however, he acknowledges that perhaps this is due to some other factors. He writes that “it may chiefly represent a marketplace compromise authors felt they had to make to get their work published,” and that “even when writers might have shared some of these materials’ depression about homosexuality, that could not have represented the whole or the core of their feelings.” There was no total concession to the prevalent (and socially mandated) silence, he finally says. The act of the gay writer writing about these subject matters yoked to his sexuality is an indication of that urge to express—even if it has to conform to stereotype and is shadowed by mainstream apprehension about homosexuality.
But after Crowley’s hit, Clum observes an upswing in the production of gay plays and their treatment of the gay theme—and cites Caffe Cino in New York’s Greenwich Village as a place where young gay playwrights from various places around the U.S. “began creating unashamedly gay theater for the adventurous audiences who frequented what became known as off-off-Broadway.“ In his essay, “Gay Contemporary Drama,” he extends the roll call to include Robert Patrick and Doric Wilson, Lanford Wilson, Charles Ludlam, Martin Sherman, Peter Gill, and Sky Gilbert, the lesbian theater of Jane Chambers, Susan Miller, Jane Kirby, and Holly Hughes, the theatrical experimentations Karen Finley, and the eventual 1990s success of Terrence McNally, Harvey Fierstein, Larry Kramer, Paul Rudnick, and Tony Kushner.
In the Philippines, however, the reverse is apparent: homosexuality and its expression seemed to find an early home in the drama. It is in fact amazing to note that when we talk of an all-encompassing history of gay literature in the country, we inevitably start, not with fiction or poetry, but with the drama—especially with the plays of Severino Reyes, Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero, Orlando Nadres. For sure, many of their plays also subscribed to Cady and Clum’s observation of “concession” to mainstream concerns. Nadres, for example, in his seminal play Hanggang Dito na Lamang at Maraming Salamat, subscribes to what is now easily considered as gross simplifications of local gay stereotypes—the loud parlorista Julie and the closeted straight-acting, self-hating Fidel. One can note that perhaps these characters were reflections of what was then the predominant models for gayness in Filipino society—but that does not stop plays such as this from becoming easily dated in the evolution of social mores and modern gay complexities. Yet still one can congratulate Nadres and his ilk for in fact putting out these stories out there, given the suppressive culture they found themselves in.
Today, the influence of gay dramatists cannot be overestimated. Gay screenwriters such as Ricky Lee, Jose Javier Reyes, and Armando Lao, and openly-gay film directors (Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Maryo J. delos Reyes, Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, Gil Portes, Joel Lamangan, Mel Chionglo, Chito Rono, Chris Martinez, Francis X. Pasion, Joselito Altarejos, Brillante Mendoza—perhaps any contemporary director of note) have come to invariably shape Philippine popular culture as far as cinema is concerned. Also, in the theater scene, Floy Quintos, Ed de los Santos Cabagnot, Anton Juan, Glenn Sevilla Mas, Jose Dennis Teodosio, and even Rene Villanueva have penned gay plays.
And yet the question remains: why are gay men naturally inclined to theater, particularly the musical? I have always contended that this is so because theater has always had a seductive, perverted appeal to gay men: first, there is the promise of sinfulness marked by its history; second, performing somehow lends towards a fulfillment of the idea of leading double lives—and public performance thus is a mask, and appeals readily to the call of performativity as essayed by Judith Butler; and last, it legitimizes issues as art, the pansy excuse for the strange singing/dancing gentleman.
But Travis Tanner, in her 2001 essay “Hail the Broadway Queen!: Gay Community and Musical Theater,” offers this idea:
The love of many gay men toward musical theater is connected to the expression of the woman inside the man. Generally, [the] 20th-century American masculine culture has taught the “real man” to kill the woman inside him. He is to love guns instead of dolls, trucks instead of flowers, and punching instead of hugging. However, the gay man—the “stereotypical” gay man who loves Broadway musicals—is too much in love with the woman inside him; he would rather indulge her, even be her. Musical theater allows him to celebrate her, express her, and identify with her.
Tanner cites that before Stonewall, there was a preoccupation in American society to codify what was masculine and what was feminine—a concern that leeched towards behavior. She writes:
To the sensitive, artistic young boy of the 1940s, 50s, or 60s who heard the “call” of musical theater, the feminine side, though he didn’t understand it yet as a feminine side, was not something to kill but to cherish and develop. So he spent his boyhood playing his LPs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman, Styne, Gershwin, Porter, Comden and Green, Bernstein, or Sondheim.
She quotes D. A. Miller, who has described the “occult ritual” of the pre-Broadway Queen adolescent in “A Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical” (1998) as thus:
… The archaeology of the post-war gay male subject regularly turns up a cache of original cast albums. These were used, scholars now believe, in a puberty rite that, thought it was conducted by singing 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 among straight ones. The boys destined, as it was said, to be musical, would descend into the basement of their parents’ home…and there they would sing and dance to recorded Broadway music (in one variant, merely mime singing and dancing) under the magical belief that, having lent the score the depth of their own abjection, they might then borrow all its fantastic hope that their solitary condition would end in glory and triumph. In contradistinction to other puberty rites, including their own, the only body fluids to pour forth in this one—but they did so copiously, orgiastically—were tears.
Tanner believes that this is the beginning of the queer boy’s journey to “camp,” which leads to “diva worship,” which leads to a belief in “fabulousness,” which are all encapsulated in the dynamics and glitter of the Broadway musical. Which of course leads us to our earlier observation courtesy of Clum and his idea of the “diva” as an “escape.”
And perhaps that idea is best expressed in a Filipino musical Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah ze Muzical, a musical by Chris Martinez and Vincent de Jesus based on the superhero graphic novel by Carlo Vergara that notoriously upended the local and popular Darna stereotype by turning the heroine into a super woman emerging out of the body and consciousness of a gay man. (In both play and comic book, the story follows the main narrative of Mars Ravelo’s original, which is ZsaZsa Zaturnnah’s inspiration, and which critics have long noted as containing a subterfuge of gay reading—an interpretation that Vergara has managed to flesh out, quite successfully: a gay parlorista named Ada encounters a magical stone that lands from outer space, which he swallows, and which subsequently turns him into the titular super woman—illustrating Tanner’s theory of the female invert inside the stereotypical gay man—and soon saves the town from a series of devastations and supernatural incursions. That a musical has been made out of this story seems to be circumstance that has to be considered as being eventual.)
And as a gay man, I resolve, at this latter part of the paper, to see this play as a reflection of a gay identity. For a play that first reared its fabulous red head way back in 2006, its longevity on stage is quite telling—and that is how one must call it now, “longevity,” given the vaporous thing that is a typical Philippine theatrical run. Armed with a Pagoda Cold-Wave Motion Gun ready to zap anyone who will carp and disagree, we might as well acknowledge that Carlo Vergara’s ZsaZsa Zaturnnah ze Muzikal—adapted from the comic book by Chris Martinez with direction by Chris Millado—has (sasshayed its way to a spot in the hallowed selection of local theater classics, the way Nick Joaquin’s Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino or Alberto S. Florentino’s The World is an Apple or Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero’s Wanted: A Chaperone or Orlando Nadres’s Hanggang Dito na Lamang at Maraming Salamat are constantly returned to, again and again.
And rightfully so.
A commercial and critical hit when it first came out as a Tanghalang Pilipino production, the merry (and gay) adventures of ZsaZsa (of the fabulous red hair) has not overstayed its welcome since zapping into our consciousness three years ago—and the clamor for it has remained, if one must judge by the full houses it has maintained, as well as the constant call for yet another run.
Given my Dumaguete bearings, I must confess I’ve only seen the show in its latest incarnation. But many weeks after I first saw it during its Valentine run in the CCP Little Theater, ZsaZsa Zaturnnah ze Muzikal—already a pop culture phenomenon now in its sixth staging (something perhaps totally unheard of in the local theater scene: a gay musical based on local material, not Broadway, that has people clamoring for more and more)—stubbornly remains like a sweet, wonderful infection in my head.
An infection, I tell you: it has spread in my system like a mad, beloved musical virus whose sole symptom consists of my ability to suddenly belt out extremely singable show tunes. From the energetic chorus of “Heto na sa wakas, heto na! / Ang pagkakataong hinihintay natin sa wakas ay dumating!” to the triumphant “Ikaw ang superhero ng buhay kong ito / Ikaw ang Krystala at Darna ko / Ang Sugo at Mulawin ko, Lastikman at Gagamboy / Si Volta at Kapten Barbel ko / Ang Super G ng buhay ko... / Ikaw ang superhero ng buhay ko!”, the songs stay with you.
Who would have thought there would be days where Joey Paras’s (who play the gay sidekick Didi) unequaled rendition of the comic/dramatic swan song “Nakikita Ko Na ang Nakakasilaw na Ilaw” would become a kind of morning song for me, something I’d unconsciously press play in my CD player while I go about preparing for my day? The song’s pathos is heartfelt—but at the same time, its wicked comic edge allows us to step back a little bit and wink at the whole melodrama of it all.
Any theater critic worth his salt will probably tell you that this is the ultimate litmus test for how a musical can withstand the wear-and-tear of time and audience interest: a musical that hums, and continues to hum even after the last curtain call has been done, has the best chances of becoming a veritable theater “classic.” Carlo Vergara’s tale of an angst-ridden gay parlorista—who finds himself, after swallowing a big stone, transformed into a titan of a superheroine, battling with zombies, giant frogs, and Amazon women schooled in the evil martial arts of local showbiz glitter—is already a classic by that standard, if we are to judge by the sheer devotion it has almost inexplicably commanded from people who have seen it, and then loved it thoroughly.
It helps, of course, that the source material—Vergara’s inspired gay reworking of the Darna komiks—is genuinely funny to begin with, and much more so because it borders innuendos. It is also something completely “relatable” for most Filipinos whose growing-up pop culture staples have included such guilty pleasures as the fantasy literature unleashed by Mars Ravelo and his komiks ilk. That the book is unabashedly gay and uses—with complete aptness and comic timing—the wit and zing of gay street lingo gives Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni ZsaZsa Zaturnnah an edginess and a sense of irony we have only limned from our favorite komiks tales such as Dyesebel, Dyosa, and of course Darna. Vergara has fleshed out what we have always somehow suspected about our superheroes, and yet he also does it with a kind of reverence for the whole komiks tradition: he pushes the envelope, yes, but he never burns it. I’ve been teaching the graphic novel in my Philippine literature class in Silliman University for some years now, and it has never failed to entertain my students, even when it finally becomes a vehicle for a very academic discussion on the role of komiks in our culture.
When I first heard that it was being adapted into a musical, I thought the effort would probably be disastrous. How would they do the frog attack? The zombies? The intricate transmorphication of the Amazonistas? Even more so, I wondered: how would ordinary Filipino theatergoers react to what is essentially a gay fantasia, where lonely gay man actually gets the handsome guy in the end? And would the music be any good at all?
I did not quite remember that theater is actually capable of making magic that even film, with all kinds of special effects at its disposal, cannot provide: the stage is a womb for imagination, and a creative use of trapdoors and revolving stages, scrims and curtains, shadows and light—and even hammy puppet-like prosthetics meant to approximate legs in battle—is enough to make the story believable, and enjoyable, without taxing our innate incredulity too much.
It also helps that the members of the cast embody their characters almost like second skin. Someone actually said that some of the actors—many of them reprising roles they originated in 2006—were merely going through the motions, that there was a palpable lack of energy and surprise that was probably brought on by being overly familiar with what they had to do. That is a valid observation, and perhaps it is also true—but as a first-time attendee, I enjoyed the interplay between camp and seriousness the actors tried to convey: Eula Valdez—beautiful and buff and oozing with a sex appeal that bothered the gay man in me—is a wonder to behold as ZsaZsa, displaying a voice, comic timing, and an inner knowledge of bayotness that would have proven fatal if the role was given to one with lesser talents; Tuxqs Rutaquio has the tricky role of making the angsty Ada relatable and lovable, and he does so with aplomb.
Kalila Aguilos as Queen Femina is relatively less successful—she grimaces too much and tries too hard—but she gives the role the correct measure of madness it demands, and for that, we enjoy her, too. Joey Paras as Didi has a role that seems designed to be a scene-stealer from the get-go, unfortunately for the main players—but it still wouldn’t have worked if Joey didn’t invest so much humanity into his manic comedy. And a scene-stealer he indeed was. (For those who have yet to see the show, wait for Didi’s announcement of the play’s intermission—it will have you in stitches.)
In the end, however, the heart of the show—aside from Carlo’s original story—is the music by Vince de Jesus. Theater critic Gibbs Cadiz once reported in an article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer that “a critic, emerging from the show somewhat glassy-eyed, pronounced ZsaZsa’s aural impact ‘all noise’,” that “a producer, rolling his eyes, said [his] melodies sounded all alike,” and that “a director wondered why the music didn’t just go all-out pop or local novelty.” But what’s success without the little carping? They may have valid points, but Vince’s music for ZsaZsa—which is a feast of a celebration of Filipino popular culture that takes in all sorts of dizzying influences ranging from komiks and OPM (Tuesday Vargas’s “Hindi Ako Bakla” and Hotdog’s “Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko,” for example), cheesy 1980s variety shows (like LoveliNess or Vilma!), and the lovable, much-missed cinematic schlock of Viva, Regal, and Seiko Films—feels and sounds just right. That they remain in your head days and days after you’ve last seen the show is testament to the music’s genius.
That is what I would remember most about ZsaZsa. How it completed one night for me into a brand of funny, sly, wicked, musical magic.
[Related: As a bonus, here's an excerpt from one of the gayest musicals out there -- "Gratuitous Nudity" from the very naked Off-Broadway revue Naked Boys Singing, albeit with the naked bits pixelized for YouTube...]