Last night λ and I were at Broadway Backwards 6. Once a year, in support of a local youth LGBT center, Broadway Cares brings together a concert -- increasingly star-studded as each year goes by -- in which women sing songs traditionally song by men and men sing songs traditionally sung by women, not changing most of the pronouns (usually, although by no means always, the pronouns referring to the singer him/herself remained the same. The pronouns were never changed for the object of affection in the song.) _____________________________________
It wasn't just a lovely night, though God knows it was that. It was also an important night. Important for the cause it benefited, but also for the ways that it got you thinking. About all the things we can mean when we say the word "queer". About how gender works in our society and why it works that way. Why it has to "work" any way at all. And the performances were spectacular, because in the six years that this thing has been around it has been growing and growing its reputation and now a whole lot of the biggest stars on Broadway perform there. It was pretty amazing, start to finish. And it made me want to write about it.
For starters, this year was apparently in many ways more serious than other years. I had only seen small clips from other years, and they'd been awesome on their own, but this year -- for the first time, they said -- they elected to frame the show around the news events of the last year. There have been a whole lot of them pertaining to the gay community. A whole lot. Some of them are inspiring, one or two are funny. Too many of them are tragic. They were all remembered.
And so you start out on a high note, celebrating the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell but still wrinkling a nose at Robert Gates' "but not quite yet..." language, before segueing into a smashing, lecherous, and altogether delicious rendition of "Don't Tell Mama" from Cabaret, sung by Alan Cumming. Of course. I had never seen him live. I can tell you that it is worth it. From there they went to "closeted Republicans lol!", which I didn't much love because seriously, we're still snarking on Larry Craig? Really? But there are worse things to do than to have a trio of men sing "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" (one of my favorite songs ever, I have got to say), concluding the modified lyrics with "Larry is a fairy and I'm feeling him up."* Not bad.
I'm not going to go through all the numbers one by one (though I will in another post post a set list under a cut with a list of who sang what with little reviews where appropriate.) What I wanted to talk about is the ways that songs change when they are sung cross-gender, and the ways that my thinking about gender (even after *all these years of thinking about gender*, shit) changed as I watched.
Because there are as many ways to queer a song as there are songs themselves, I think. Or at least as many as there are actors. There was a decent share of camp last night, and that was fun. "Summer Lovin'" epitomized that, frex. Some other songs didn't go the camp route but made a simple swap from straight to gay, and that can range from cute to surprisingly moving (last year, I guess, it was Betty Buckley's "Some Enchanted Evening" that had people wiping away tears; this year Debra Monk's "On the Street Where You Live," framed as an older woman struggling to come out, was gorgeous and frankly *way* better cross-gendered than it ever has been sung straight.) I swore I was not going to get into a bunch of number-by-number-analysis-for-no-good-reason outside of that other post and I swear I will not do it again in the rest of the entry but I cannot bear not to tell you, everyone, now, right now, that Karen Olivo and Mandy Gonzalez (you don't know them? THEY'RE THE BEST EVER, GO FIND THEM), in "putting a new twist on their original Broadway performance of In the Heights," (you don't know the show? IT'S THE BEST EVER, GO FIND IT) -- um, I'm rapidly losing track of my sentence, but the point is they took "When You're Home," the Benny/Nina duet, gave us a little dialogue beforehand which created a WHOLE NEW CANON in which NINA AND VANESSA WERE GIRLFRIENDS, and then made the song a lesbian duet. Amazing. Amazing! A sweet little elf wandered through my happydreams one night and then skipped right over to the Broadway Backwards people and whispered in their ear. I mean. I mean!!!
But I digress.
Because those were the songs that went from being fun/sweet straight songs to being fun/sweet gay songs. And that was great. Really. Also great were the songs that fucked with gender power dynamics and with gender itself. Bebe Neuwirth did "All I Care About Is Love" (remember, Billy Flynn's number from Chicago? you know it, moviegoers) in a hot-as-hell white pantsuit with a black carnation in the lapel and a cigar, and she sang and performed the hell out of that song. Those of you who only know her as Lilith have no idea what you're missing, and that is good, because if you did you would cry.
So there were straight-to-gay songs and there were genderfuck songs and there were cis-to-trans songs too (fewer of those than I would have liked tbh -- maybe even just one, as I reread the program? shit --- but at least that one was Brian Charles Rooney's "One Halloween/But Alive" and was breathtaking, one of the highlights of the show, which helps). It was all wonderful. But there were just a few songs that fell into my favorite category, and it's a difficult category to pull off, and I'm still working through it even now.
Here and there, not often, there was a song that seemed to manage to transcend gender. I am going to come out and tell you right now, I am terrible at not seeing gender. I default to assuming binary gender until I am let know that someone identifies as genderqueer. Someone may ping me as possibly genderqueer, but I still wonder in my mind, say, "butch lesbian? trans man? genderqueer?" and my mind wants a category. I guess that's my problem, that my mind wants gender categories. The subconscious part of my mind. The conscious part of my mind would like to say fuck the categories, people are who they are and if they want you to know a self-identifying category they'll let you know. That is where I would like to be and where I am not because categories are ingrained in me and I can't get them out. And so with most of the songs last night, if they were gay then it was like "oh, so neat, it's a gay couple singing that awesome song!", and the genderfuck songs were "wow, that's a great new spin on it," and the trans number was heartbreaking if ultimately inspiring because the songs were in keeping with the headlines which are fuck too many fucking suicides but... anyway.
But I was talking about the songs that transcended gender.
I can think of two that seemed to do it for me, and the interesting thing is that they are far from genderless in the originals. One was "Stars and the Moon" from Jason Robert Brown's Songs from a New World. I had never heard the show and I should because the song was gorgeous, but it won't be as gorgeous sung by a woman, because as soon as it's sung by a woman it slides into these frustrating stereotypes. The song, in the original, is about a woman who keeps being courted by, and turning down, a guy who wants to offer her "the stars and the moon" and all of the other beauty in life he can find to offer her, but she keeps turning him down because she wants champagne and cars and penthouses and so on. Then she finds a guy with a shitload of cash, and they marry, and he gives her every material thing she could ever have wanted, and it gets old so fast. And now she's longing for the moon.
It sounds kind of trite. Kind of boring. This is because the whole love-vs.-materialism thing is a dichotomy that has been set up for us a million times and it is *always* the debate that the woman is having because women are the ones who are expected to be seeking out and hooking up with the sugar daddies. The sugar daddy, the trophy wife: we know the story. So it's boring.
But we don't know the story when it's sung by a man. Tituss Burgess (who gave a lovely performance of the song) doesn't femme it up at all, doesn't play it by any stereotypes, so you just have this man, a man who doesn't have all these American female issues laid on him -- there isn't the "you should be a housewife," there isn't the "if you work you'll make less than a man anyway," there isn't the "your husband should take care of you." There isn't all the gender baggage in that song anymore, and that does two things. First of all it leaves your ears open more to the fact that it is a beautiful song. But secondly... suddenly it's just a song about people. The power/privilege gender dynamics disappear but nothing comes in to take its place, and suddenly it's just a song about a person going through this, not someone struggling with being gay or with gender or with anything else like that, but just struggling with life. It was gorgeous. I felt it moved beyond gender in a way few of the songs that night did, made you forget all about it. And I loved it.
The other was "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered," and it was sung by Len Cariou. I feel like I should put a paragraph break there so everyone can gasp, but only about three of you would even know why one would gasp there, so I'll explain to the rest that Len Cariou was the OBC Sweeney Todd, as well as a bunch of other things obvs, and is amazing. He's in his seventies (?) and oh, with such a presence. And on the song, I've got to tell you, I have never liked that song. At all. I've always heard it sung by women and it always annoys the crap out of me because it seems so simpering and simpleminded, "bewitched" and "bewildered," like this man just swept her off her feet without her knowing what was going on and she's just clinging to his neck, dizzy and giggling and singing about how bewildered she is. I never articulated it consciously, but it carried all that for me subconsciously, and my reaction was pretty much "oh, please."
Len Cariou is not dizzy and clingy and simpering. I will not tell you that he performed it in the manner of Sweeney Todd. I would not have liked that. But neither did he perform it in the manner of Kellie Pickler (from whom I first heard the song). It was sweet. It was a sweet song about the state of being in love. Love does feel that way sometimes. Or can. I can't say it's an experience of love that I've personally had, but I'll accept it's there for some. But I don't think it could have ever gotten out of a gendered place in my mind as long as a woman was singing it. And then here's Len Cariou and he's singing a song about the state of being in love, and we're not flipping the gender/power dynamics because he's not singing to a woman, it's not this "girlfriend on top" vibe. It's two people standing on equal ground, and one of them is singing about his love for the other one. And it was beautiful.
I'm not saying gay relationships are all perfect because there are no gender discrepancies between the people involved. It is factually untrue that there are no gender discrepancies within gay couples, because gender doesn't equal sex. My point is more that the pre-loaded gender stereotypes that those songs came with were erased, and what was left was an open book, on whose pages you could imagine a post-gender relationship.
It's not that I think we need a world where relationships are post-gender, although the option would be nice. It's more that the option is not available right now, the world doesn't work that way, and then for a few minutes last night, suddenly, it felt like it did.
God, it was a wonderful night.
I'm going to do the set list up later. I hope someone will want to read it. I want to talk more about the show.
*Original lyric: "Bobby is my hobby and I'm giving him up."