Sunday, May 30, 2010

Where The Boyz Are

This year's Memorial Day weekend marked two tipping points in America's cultural landscape:
  • On Friday, both the House of Representatives and the Senate Armed Services Committee laid the political groundwork to start the repeal of 1993's pernicious Don't Ask, Don't Tell legislation. The timing of this congressional activity (just prior to the traditional Memorial Day festivities) marks the beginning of a greater awareness that heterosexuals aren't the only members of the military who keep Americans safe. Conservatives who like to puff out their chests and somberly harrumph about the heroes who sacrificed their lives for this nation will have to start coping with the knowledge that they owe equal thanks to the many lesbians and gay men who died while in service to their country. These people are "real Americans," too.
  • Michael Patrick King's latest effort, Sex and the City 2, opened to some of most scathing reviews of the year. Not only did Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha get taken to task for their shallow consumerism, whiny egocentrism, and stunning insensitivity to Muslim cultures, a new and surprising line of criticism began to emerge.
Writing about the movie's many faults in Salon.com, critic Thomas Rogers explained Why "Sex and the City" Is Bad For The Gays:
"Over the past decade, television portrayals of gay men have cracked open into something far more nuanced. But much like the female heroines' designer fetishes, the gay characters in Sex and the City are still trapped in some very glittery late-'90s amber. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a glitzy, kitschy wedding, or a gay man who loves fashion, but the problem is the fact that, in the Sex and the City universe, that's the only form of gayness that exists. It's a culture, unbeknownst to many straight Americans, that has long since disappeared from the life of the vast majority of gay men. For people my age (who came of age in the 1990s) the mainstreaming of gay culture meant pushing away from clichéd ideas of gayness and finding new icons. Not Liza, but Ellen. Not show tunes, but indie rock. Liza's much-buzzed about Beyoncé "Single Ladies" cover perfectly encapsulates the mixture of misguided camp and pathos that plagues most of the film."
Although numerous military sagas have been filmed with titles like For The Boys (1991), Band of Brothers (2001), and We Were Soldiers (2002), it didn't take long for 1998's Saving Private Ryan to inspire a parody entitled Saving Ryan's Privates. Released in 2002, Shaving Ryan's Privates was a documentary about porn films that parodied Hollywood classics, boasting such memorable titles as Throbin Hood (starring Ron Jeremy as Friar Fuck, Randy Spears as Sheriff Naughty Ham, and Ron Vogel as Little Dong), When Harry Ate Sally, and Drive This, Miss Daisy.

In today's world, a comedian like Kathy Griffin doesn't hesitate to ask her audience "Where are my gays?" When Griffin traveled to the Middle East to entertain the troops in Iraq, she was accompanied by Michael McDonald, whose characterization of Stuart Larkin on MADtv had captured the hearts of military men and women (regardless of their sexual orientation).

The transition from closeted entertainers such as Liberace and Rock Hudson to shows that routinely feature gay characters (such as Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, Six Feet Under, Modern Family, and Glee) has been a long time coming. In his 1943 hit musical, Something For The Boys, famed -- and closeted -- songwriter Cole Porter gave Ethel Merman a title song whose lyrics take on new meaning in light of today's transformed military:
"I’m always doing something,
Something for the boys.
I’m always doing something
For the lads, if it adds to their joy.
So don’t tell me it’s a wrong thing
If I’m out with ‘em nightly till three.
'Cause I’m always doing something for the boys
Or they’re doing something for me!

Back in the days of gifty giving
When all God’s daddies had greens.
I was oh so busy living
Beyond several gentlemen’s means.
I didn’t care much where I fluttered
Long as my bank roll was buttered.
But now my life’s completely cluttered
With soldiers, sailors,
Not to speak of those big Marines.

'Cause I’m always doing something,
Something for the boys.
I’m always doing something
For the lads, if it adds to their joy.
So don’t tell me it's a wrong thing
If I flop on some corporal’s knee.
'Cause I’m always doing something for the boys
Or they’re doing something for me!"
In 1960, when Where The Boys Are was released, the movie's title song became a big hit for Connie Francis. I doubt she could have imagined such an over-the-top interpretation as the one performed by the late Michael Callen:


Nor, for that matter, could she have anticipated the popular song getting parodied by Ben Schatz and Irwin Keller for their 1999 Kinsey Sicks album entitled Boyz To Girlz:
"Where the goys are, someone waits for me.
Blond hair that glows, a tiny nose,
A strangely quiet family.
Where the goys are can be a mystery
I found church pews are filled with Jews
Who want goys in the sack religiously.

In a room with a million Hebrews
I'll find my gentile valentine.
While all the Jews are crowding 'round the food,
He'll be at the table with the wine!

My conscience scolds me, I date so guiltily.
But where the goys are, forbidden joys are
Big cowboys are waiting there for me.

My parents told me: Keep waiting faithfully.
But where the goys are, forbidden joys are,
Blond sex toys are waiting there for me!"
When Mart Crowley's groundbreaking play, The Boys in the Band, opened off Broadway in 1968, one of the gems to pop out of Emory's mouth was the line "Oh, Mary. It takes a fairy to make something pretty." The ability of gay men to lend an extra bit of camp and magic to the proceedings is best captured in this video clip recorded during a gay cruise when three dancers from a touring company of West Side Story flawlessly performed two musical numbers from the movie adaptation of Dreamgirls (this clip could easily have been titled "We Three Queens of Orient Are..."):


* * * * * * * * * * * *
New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting a musical revue entitled Boys Will Be Boys. Barely 90 minutes in length, it feels surprisingly long, remarkably dated, and may inspire audiences to keep checking their watches.

In some ways, Boys Will Be Boys is a perfect match for New Conservatory's subscription base which, like the San Francisco Opera's, has become largely geriatric. The unavoidable feeling that I had already experienced this style of rewriting show tunes (and adding in lots of gay references to the lyrics) was not helped by the fact that others have traveled this road with far better results.

The cast of Boys Will Be Boys (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Mae West famously advised audiences that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." There were times during Boys Will Be Boys when I felt like I was back on an RSVP cruise, listening to gay bingo patter ("K72 -- as in Kristin Chenowith looks like she's 27 but she's really 72!").

Unfortunately, too much gay mediocrity quickly loses its bite. In that acute arena of musical theatre where "You Gotta Have A Gimmick," if the gimmick starts to sag, one can encounter "Trouble" in more places than River City.

The framework for Boys Will Be Boys is similar to the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney "Let's put on a show" routine. In this instance, Ishmael Gonzalez has been suffering from Gay Attention Deficit Disorder ("a condition that renders some gay men unable to stay focused on any trend for more than a few weeks"). Five of his devoted friends decide to create and tour with a cabaret-style fundraiser called "Around The World in 80 Gays."

As I listened to the show's songs my smile started to fade and I began to feel like I was trapped in a fading Catskills resort for old queens who like to wallow in the ghettoization of gay culture and reminisce about the good old days when people coyly introduced themselves as "a friend of Dorothy."

Brian J. Patterson and Price Troche, Jr. (Photo by: Lois Tema)

But as someone who grew up on Broadway show tunes and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, I was particularly interested in the way the songs for Boys Will Be Boys had been constructed. The most common ways to write parodies of Broadway show tunes are:
  • Keep the original melody and rhythm, but change the lyrics to include as many gay references and as much innuendo as possible. Singer/songwriter Tom Orr has frequently excelled at this technique in shows ranging from "Dirty Little Showtunes" to "I Feel A Thong Coming On."
  • Write what Stephen Sondheim calls a "list song," in which you try to cram as many references to a particular topic as possible into your lyric.
In Boys Will Be Boys, the songwriting team has opted for a heavy-handed combination of the last three approaches. The lyrics to their song "Someplace Obscene" (a spoof of "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors) read as follows:
"My new boyfriend's a copper.
But his tastes are not always proper.
When we climb into bed, he becomes a real pig.
Still, I've found an attraction
To the lure of his boarish action.
So just hand me a fork
‘Cause my hunger for pork is real big.

Some handcuffs of my own,
A vest with real chain link.
I bought some chaps this afternoon.
They're naugahyde, I think.
We've cock rings and a collar
And a few toys in between.
Amyl nitrite fills our lair
Someplace obscene.

He trims his thick mustache.
I love to shave his head.
He bulges in his uniform
Both in and out of bed.
By night he is my king of beasts.
By day he's just a queen
With a fetish that we share
For Vaseline.

Between my nightly spankings
And the "Yes, Sirs" with salutes,
I kiss the ground he walks on
And his huge… tremendous… twelve-inch… boots.

I'm his submissive bitch.
He's Daddy, he knows best.
He grabs the gloves and Crisco
You can fill in all the rest.
Our love reads like a story from
Tom of Finland magazine.
I may be sore;
Still, I'll explore
Someplace obscene."
Poster art for Boys Will Be Boys

While the music written by Kenneth Kacmar (and performed with light-handed grace by G. Scott Lacey on the piano) is perfectly acceptable, most of the lyrics and dialogue by Joe Miloscia suffer from overkill. Irving Berlin's "An Old Fashioned Wedding" (written for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Annie Get Your Gun) gets transformed into "A Gay-Fashioned Wedding." Some of his lyrics almost seem desperate, as evidenced in Miloscia's frenetic reworking of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for Gypsy's "Some People":
"Some boys only get their thrills
Sniffing powders and popping pills.
That’s okay for some gay boys
Who need help to survive.
Those boys only get their kicks
Sipping cocktails and turning tricks.
That’s living for some gay boys
Who won’t see forty-five.

But I ain’t that kinda guy.
I’m tired of all the Met-Rx I’ve had to swallow,
All the disco I’ve had to play,
All the fashions I’ve had to follow.
Startin’ today, I’m kickin’ the “K”.

Some boys are the height of vain
Built the biceps but not the brain.
That's sexy for some sissies
For rough, tough, buff missies to be.
But some gay boys ain't me.

I had a dream
I saw it without poppers.
All about parties not on the circuit,
Give it a chance; you know you should shirk it.
I had a dream,
Just as real as could be, Mary.
South Beach fell into the sea, Mary
Madonna sinking as she vogues.

Trust me girls, forget Fire Island.
Let the Pines slip into the ocean.
Don’t buy any more Barbra Streisand.
Set a limit to your devotion.
Cut Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Dump the Dolce. Ditch the Gabbana.

Oh, what a dream
A fabulous dream, baby.
And in it I helped some eighty young bucks, baby.
I helped them all, baby
All eighty young bucks, baby!

(MUSICAL DIRECTOR)
(You’re not getting STDs from them ‘hos!)

That’s right. I’m gonna get me one good man.
Yeah, I’ll get him, and get myself out!

Good-bye to D.K.N.Y.
Good riddance to all the losers I’ve had to ‘ho through.
All the Daddies I’ve had to lay,
All the twinkies I’ve given blow to.
Chelsea boys, get outta my way!

Some gay boys may get ahead
With their butts up, face down in bed.
That’s pumping for some sonnies
Those trim, dim, gym bunnies, I can see.
Well, they can thrust and squat.
But not me!!"
Brian J. Patterson and Stephanie Temple (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The danger inherent in attempting to parody the work of great lyricists is that, by comparison, the parodist can be exposed as a lesser talent. In some cases, a much lesser talent. While New Conservatory's cast delivered an energetic performance, much of the show felt like it belonged in a wax museum.

Under Andrew Nance's direction, the ensemble of five worked hard to put the material over with as much enthusiasm as possible. As the resident fag hag, Stephanie Temple (who also did the choreography) purported to fall in love with the lone straight man who joined the group because he just wanted to be able to sing.

Timothy Barnes and Christopher M. Nelson sang the more lyrical ballads, but the show came to life primarily when Brian J. Patterson and Price Troche, Jr. were performing. Patterson's beautifully sculpted biceps provided a continued source of visual relief.

* * * * * * * * *
Thankfully, two of the films featured on the Fun In Boys' Shorts program at the upcoming Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival do a splendid job of upending old stereotypes of gay men. Written and directed by Kevin Patrick Kelly, Gay Baby focuses on a young heterosexual couple who, after watching an ultrasound, are informed that their soon-to-be baby boy is gay.

After Dr. Feldman (Richard Riehle) shows Maggie (Beth Shea) and Bryan (Larry Sullivan) an image of their son's rainbow-patterned strands of genetic material, Bryan starts to panic about what it will mean to have a gay son. Later, as they end up shopping for baby supplies, Bryan's fears are mollified by a charming, young, and very gay sales clerk named Kyle (Tye Olsen).

The surprise ending to Gay Baby will lift the audience's hearts as the shop's owners point to Kyle as an example of a young gay man being "all that he can be."

* * * * * * * * *
Mention should also be made of Go-Go Reject, which will undoubtedly delight fans of Jack McBrayer (who plays the wide-eyed page, Kenneth Parcell, on 30 Rock). Written by Heath Daniels (who bears an uncanny resemblance to McBrayer and stars as Daniel Ferguson), Go-Go Reject is guaranteed to put a smile on people's faces.

Directed by Michael J. Saul, this hilarious short tells the story of a young man with a performing arts dream. The only problem is that, whereas most go-go boys are hired on the basis of their hunkiness, Daniel is a bit on the skinny side. Despite his best efforts to get a job dancing as a gay go-go boy, his lack of muscle mass means that one door after gets slammed in his face by cynical, jaded bar owners like Tanner (Michael Estime) and Anthony Mojo (Drew Droege).

With the loving support of his roommate (Matthew Bridges), an exotic dancer named Cesar (Korken Alexander) who thinks Daniel's kind of cute, and an encouraging word from a young male ballet student (Andy Scott Harris), Daniel comes up with the perfect gimmick to make his dream come true: a specialty night for skinny dancers!

This 20-minute short is a lovely and endearing romp, made even more hilarious by Iva Turner's deadpan performance as Becky (contrary to what you think, that's not Mink Stole up on the silver screen). Here's the trailer: