Saturday, August 2, 2008

Where There's A Will

It's hard to believe that more than a quarter century has passed since gay men first started succumbing to AIDS. During those first frightening years of the epidemic, a truly ugly phenomenon kept playing out in city after city.

Nothing brings distant relatives out of hiding like the thought that they might inherit some money. Since many gay couples had not drawn up wills with specific instructions about what should happen in the event of an untimely demise, homophobic family members sensing sudden fortune descended on the dying men like vultures.

In some cases, they used their status as next of kin to prevent the dying man's lover/friends from entering the hospital room. In extreme situations, the family conspired to change the locks on the decedent's abode immediately following his death, thus depriving his gay partner of access to his home and other joint assets that he shared with the deceased.

Since that time American law has undergone some changes. Heterosexual couples have learned about the importance of a prenuptial agreement. The gay community has come a long way toward recognizing the need to legally protect themselves by drawing up living wills, appointing executors to their estates, and naming a specific person (other than a blood relative) who will exercise durable power of attorney. California and Massachusetts have led the way in declaring same-sex marriages to be legal and equal to heterosexual marriages.

Two recent experiences -- one onscreen and one onstage -- examine the curious question of a gay man's testatory (rather than testicular) endowment. As in most relationships, hindsight provides a visual acuity of 20/20.

During the 1950s Stefan Braun was a furrier to many Israeli celebrities and socialites. With an extremely charismatic personality and the pushiness of a gay costume designer who won't settle for anything less than perfection, he doted on dressing up wealthy women. Famous for the elegance of his designs, Braun was also a gay narcissist with a need for many lovers. His business in Tel Aviv kept thriving until the onset of the anti-fur movement. At a critical point, Braun sold his business to a friend and underwent a sudden, rather bizarre transformation into a hermit/miser who was afraid to spend any money.

Hidden for nearly 40 years in the shadow of Braun's success was his first lover, Eliezer Rath, whose story invokes images of Eric von Stroheim's performance as Norma Desmond's chauffeur/ex lover in Sunset Boulevard. Having been coaxed away from his previous job as a waiter, Rath initially helped to run Braun's business. However, once the initial bloom wore off their relationship, he was relegated to an almost vestigial status. After being hospitalized with pneumonia (while Braun generously took care of the medical bills), Rath returned to their home to discover that he had effectively been cut out of the day-to-day operations of Braun's business.

Rath's personality very much matched that of the subservient lover who is just happy to take care of someone, even if he is rarely recognized for his devotion. Over the years Rath was forced to play second fiddle to whoever was Braun's latest sexual toy -- and eventually ended up living in the servant's quarters of Braun's large house. Think of John C. Reilly's portrayal of Mr. Cellophane in Chicago and you'll have a perfect description of Rath's body and personality.

When Braun and Rath drew up reciprocal wills, the wealthy furrier directed that his entire estate go to Rath. Braun's attorney questioned him about leaving money to his relatives, but Braun stated "I've given them plenty," and effectively cut them out of his will. Rath, who was convinced that he would die before Braun, was shocked to outlive the love of his life. Upon the furrier's death, the shocked family members -- who had shown much less interest in Braun's life as his financial support had diminished -- blamed Rath for manipulating the dead patriarch of the family into cutting them out of his will.

Needless to say, that's when the shit hit the fan. This was very much the kind of same-sex relationship in which nothing is overtly said which could reveal that the two partners are gay. Braun's family sued to have his will invalidated. However, after four years, the court ruled in favor of Rath -- a triumph for the sad and dumpy gay survivor who had given his all to the man he adored.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival recently screened Itamar Alcalay's fascinating documentary Stefan Braun (which includes footage from home movies made while Braun and Rath were relaxing at home, camping it up at parties, and traveling on vacation) but also shows the elderly Rath, still deeply in love with the deceased Braun, clinging to the souvenirs of their life together. It also has a musical score which lends a strangely acerbic undertone to the film.

That's hardly the case with Ron Lytle's delightfully silly romp, Oh My Godmother!, which is currently enjoying an extended run at the Zeum Theater. I first saw this piece of musical comedy fluff at the Altarena Playhouse in Alameda about a year and a half ago. Since then, most of the cast has transferred over to the new production delighting audiences at Yerba Buena Center.

Since its first appearance somewhere in China, the Cinderella fantasy had undergone numerous transformations. Rossini (La Cenerentola) and Massenet (Cendrillon) turned the story into popular operas. Prokofiev used it as his inspiration for a full-length ballet. Walt Disney animated it with an extra dash of bibbity-bobbity-boo in 1950. Julie Andrews starred in Rodgers & Hammerstein's made-for-television version of Cinderella in 1957. The poster child for fairy-tale child abuse even appears in Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods.

Recent screen adaptations have included 1998's Ever After (starring Drew Barrymore), 2004's A Cinderella Story (with Hillary Duff as Cinderella), Ella Enchanted, starring Anne Hathaway (2004), and the hauntingly beautiful Year of the Fish (2007). None of them, however, share Ron Lytle's treatment in which "Cinder Albert" is a young gay man whose deceased father left him a trust fund. Until Cinder Albert reaches legal age he is stuck living with his monstrous stepmother and her two ugly stepdaughters ("If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they put one on ME!").

In this version, Albert's fairy godmother (who may in fact have once been Albert's father's male lover) is a gay silver daddy who runs a drag shop on Castro Street. Lytle's music and lyrics, which owe a great deal to Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Jule Styne, bring a musical theater connoisseur's knowing eye to his updated version of Cinderella.

Lytle makes some horridly delightful musical references to Gypsy, West Side Story and other Broadway classics. Silly songs and hand-sewn sequins abound (the show ends with a rousing chorus of "Old Fashioned Commitment Ceremony"). Two gay parents become hysterical at the thought that their son could turn out to be a breeder. Gavin Newsom gets called out.

It's that kind of a show.

In some ways, I find Oh My Grandmother! a more genuinely San Franciscan phenomenon than either Beach Blanket Babylon or Insignificant Others. No matter how you slice it, Lytle's entertainment is just plain fun. I particularly enjoyed the performances by Scott Phillips as the fairy godmother, Tomas Theriot as the swishy, narcissistic Payne, John Erreca as the hysterical Truman and Jenifer Tice as the evil stepmother.

Brandon Finch (Albert) and Kyle Payne (Prince) performed solidly as the young male lovers. Lisa Otterstetter (Esther Hazy) and Julia Etzel (Esta Lieber) brought down the house with the ugly stepdaughters' rollicking duet, "Somebody For Everybody," (which owes a great debt to Cole Porter's "Nobody's Chasing Me" from Out Of This World).

If you're a serious musical comedy queen who can 't make it down to the Zeum Theater to catch a live performance of Oh My Godmother! you should probably order a copy of the CD from the show's website. It ain't The Drowsy Chaperone, but it's a lot of sweet and silly fun.

And frankly, we could use a lot more of that in today's world.

No comments: