Friday, March 25, 2011

On Elizabeth Taylor and Being TOO Gay

Every now and then I find myself asking, am I too gay?

If you just asked whether such a thing really exists, the answer is “Hell, yes!” Haven't you seen those over-the-top gents flouncing about on The Jerry Springer Show in pointlessly tight clothing, wrists akimbo, stretching the letter “s” to perilous lengths, and, to borrow a phrase from an old showtune, “flaming with all the glow of sunrise?”

Granted, I am not that sort of head-turning caricature, but I enjoy indulging in a bit of camp as much as the next gay man. (Some cozy night by the fire, I may regale you with tales of how I once won donned full drag to host a talent show while impersonating Joan Rivers, sans facial reconstruction. Yup, I admit – I am that gay.) My proverbial Lavender Elite Card has been stamped “active member” for more than three decades, and because I authored, I am even immortalized in the charming book How the Homosexuals Saved Civilization (if you don’t believe me, look it up – I’m in there). So it is only natural that I occasionally find myself wondering if I have finally stumbled a few steps beyond the boundary between gay and (Oh Mary, don't ask) too gay.

Such was the case the other day when I heard about the death of Elizabeth Taylor. While others were recalling her various films, marriages, tragedies, friendships and philanthropies, I have the sneaking suspicion that I may have been the only person on earth whose first reaction was to recall her as a song lyric. In the hilarious off-Broadway revue Whoop-Dee-Doo!, someone impersonating an effusive fan warbled the refrain, “I love you Elizabeth Taylor-Hilton-Wilding Todd-Fisher-Burton-Burton-Warner . . . -Fortensky,” openly hoping that Liz would remember his bid, since (in the wake of her marriage to the much younger Larry Fortensky) she was apparently “into romance with a kid.”

Remembering someone’s full name because it was in a lyric? If that doesn’t prove I’m too gay, then what (short of writing the song in question) would? Hell, I haven’t felt that gay since I led a contingent in the New York Pride Parade while singing showtunes on a bullhorn. (Hey, you have go a long way to be one of the homos who saved civilization!)

My warped mind then turned to the two screen musicals Taylor appeared in. She got her start as a child actress at MGM, where every performer under contract had to be willing to appear in musicals. Four years after winning international stardom in National Velvet, Taylor was seen synching her lips to someone else’s voice in A Date With Judy (1948), ostensibly crooning “It’s a Most Unusual Day.”

Unfortunately, three decades later, Taylor sang for herself in the screen version of A Little Night Music (1977). Although gorgeous and dramatically effective as Desiree, her singing was one of the film’s chief liabilities. Unanimously dismissive reviews made the film a “must miss.” Attending the film’s opening day in Manhattan, I was one of only eleven people in a rather large theatre.

Did you know that Taylor almost filmed yet another Sondheim musical? In the late 1970s, there were plans to produce an all-star screen version of Follies, with the divine Liz playing Phyllis, a role originated on Broadway by Alexis Smith. Imagine the oft-divorced Taylor tackling “Could I Leave You?” For better or worse, plans for this project never jelled.

I saw Taylor on Broadway twice; first in a brilliant revival of The Little Foxes and then in a decidedly less-brilliant revival of Private Lives – which nevertheless provided a priceless moment when Richard Burton took his then ex-wife in his arms and uttered Noel Coward’s glorious line, “Deep down in my deepest heart, I want you back again.” (I’ll never forget the way that audience gasped!) Like millions of others, I treasure her searing performance as Martha in the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Taylor set aside any hint of her vaunted Hollywood glamour, turning herself into a coarse, braying uber-bitch. It led to her winning the Academy Award – her second – and rarely has the honor been so richly deserved.

In recent weeks, as Taylor's health worsened, it was rather sad to see the slimier supermarket tabloids gleefully competing to dig up the most ghoulish available photos of her. So when death finally came, there was a special satisfaction when the front page of every legitimate newspaper emblazoned with breathtaking photos from her glory years. To the end, Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky was one of a kind, and it is fair to say that her extraordinary presence made this planet a slightly more interesting and endurable place for the rest of us.

And if saying that makes me too gay, then light the candles, get the ice out and roll the rug up. (Ye gods, another showtune . . .)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rubberneckers - Don't Call Them Theatre-goers

Last week, while commuting to a course I teach at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, the bus I was on got stuck in a snails-pace traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike. After thirty minutes, we came upon the cause of the snarl, a dump truck loaded with scrap metal which had overturned on the opposite side of the highway. Despite some rather scary looking piles of twisted steel, no one appeared to be injured. The debris and the people dealing with it were all on the other side of the road. The only things slowing us down were those moronic drivers who had to stop and gawk. One of my fellow bus passengers grumbled, "Hell, there isn't any blood over there. Why bother slowing down?"

Perhaps it is in our human nature to crave a look at disaster, so long as it is someone else's. That certainly explains why the media continues to focus on the spectacular public implosion of Charlie Sheen, even though many, including myself, have long since stopped giving a rat's extremity about this superannuated Brat Pack wanna-be (I am old enough to point out that his far more talented and attractive brother Emilio was a legitimate Pack member, and had the good sense to grow up.) This morning, the network news shows put off reporting on such trifles as our two wars in the Mideast or the deadly rebellion in Libya, and instead lead off with footage of Sheen looking like an embattled dictator facing rebellion as he wildly waved a machete on the roof of a Los Angeles hotel and vowed vengeance on the studio executives who just (and justly) fired him from his obscenely overpaid role on Two and a Half Men. It seems that, no matter how low this pathetic man goes, the media (and a depressingly large percentage of the public) will remain glued to his every misstep, nurturing the hope that they will get be watching live when Sheen's boundless megalomania comes to some kind of a bloody climax.

This obsession with rubbernecking would explains why people continue to fork over small fortunes to see Spiderman Turn Off the Dark. Aside from having a hilariously clunky title, this so-called musical has left two cast members seriously injured, over a hundred thousand ticket buyers poorly entertained, and every critic in New York howling that the show is a disaster. The New York Times (which has a sad propensity of late to praise ghastly musicals) went so far as to describe Spiderman as "one of the worst musicals in history." Now, word has it that the show's producers are planning more rewrites, necessitating yet another postponement of their frequently delayed opening night. Despite all this, according to, Spiderman filled 85% of its seats last week, pulling in a whopping $1.28 million at the box office, a figure only outdone by one Broadway competitor, the long-running Wicked.

At this point, no one can seriously claim that they are attending Spiderman in hopes of seeing a good show, or even a passable "work in progress." Millions of people who routinely ignore Broadway are now quite aware that this so-called show is a $65 million (and by now that official figure must have ballooned to one far higher) mega-flop. So I suggest the press stop referring to anyone attending Spiderman as "theatre-goers." Call them what they are -- rubberneckers, dimwitted thrill-seekers hoping to witness the next bloody accident. Its not about the story or even about the songs; its about watching a disaster in the making, with the added forbidden hope that one may get to see another performer meet a painful, perhaps even blood-soaked fate.

Considering the number of people who are currently making a living by providing coverage of the devolution of Charlie Sheen, I daresay the producers of Spiderman may find enough paying rubberneckers dumb enough to cover at least part of their ill-advised investment.
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