Interview: Everett Quinton in “Galas”

I have had the great pleasure of directing Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton twice, in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws and a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea. The Williams play got some terrific reviews, which you can read here (and you can see some lovely photos here). Charles Ludlam was perhaps the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement, and Everett was his partner in art and life.

Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Ludlam’s fictionalized tribute to opera diva Maria Callas, entitled Galas, in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run. I sat down with this humble genius to talk about it.

So how did this revival of Galas come about?

It was suggested last fall. I’ve been working with the Yorick Theatre Company. Chris Johnson, who is the Artistic Director of Yorick, talked with Pastor Mark Erson who is the Artistic Director of Theatre at St. John’s Church on Christoper Street, where Yorick performs. They came up with the idea of doing Galas – because of the Stonewall 50th anniversary and World Pride – suggested it to me and I said “good.”

Is this a role you’ve wanted to do?

Yeah, people over the years have suggested it, but there was never the opportunity to do it. Now that it has, I’d be a fool to say no; its a terrific part. I’m having fun with it. When you’re directing it and you’re in it, like I am with this, there are so many pots on the stove. But now me and the other actors are starting to cook! [Laughs] I love the actors in this group, they’re a wonderful group and we’re finding our way.

There’s humor in everything Charles wrote, but am I right in thinking this is one of his more serious plays?

It does play as more serious, yes. That’s the beauty of it. It starts out one way and it flips midway, which is not accidental on Charles’s part. You carefully study the script and he sets up the flip early on. I’m really enjoying exploring that. When I was in the original production, for which I also did the costumes, I didn’t worry about the big picture. So that’s a joy of this production for me. It’s around this time that Charles blossoms from a good writer into a really fabulous one, so skillful. We all improve as we go along, right?

Funny thing is, this big play was originally supposed to be a two-hander for me and him, about an actress and her maid. I don’t know what was going on at the time that provoked him to turn it into a life of Maria Callas. Because usually that’s the way he worked, something in the air tweaked him.

I know this is fictionalized – she’s named Galas not Callas – but I recall that it actually tracks pretty closely with Callas’s life.

Pretty closely, except there’s a couple of things I couldn’t make sense of and then I realized that’s the fictionalized part. I thought I knew from the original production that the last act takes place in Paris – and it doesn’t [Laughs], that’s the fictional part. But it is a close tribute, and I’m using her speaking voice. All of the scene changes are her singing.

I love that Callas demanded a dollar more than all her contemporaries – she would say “so-and-so’s getting so much so I want a dollar more.” I love her arrogance, and when you realize who those contemporaries were, you realize oh my God she had cojones, she had ovaries. [Laughs]

Are you an opera fan yourself?

A fan, yeah. I have no intellectual conceptions about it, I just love it. Tony Randall called it the greatest of art forms, which is arguable. Those singers just do so many wonderful things. I mean I walk around the apartment pretending to be one. When I got the costumes for the original production, I had a decent budget and I found this beautiful green dress for Charles to wear as Galas. But when I first got it home, I wore it and went around the apartment pretending I was soprano Shirley Verrett [Laughs]. So I’m a lip synch opera queen. Charles liked opera but there were bigger opera queens in the company and our chatter could annoy him. I called it “gay baseball,” we talk about opera and musicals like straight guys talk about baseball.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Interview: Sven Ratzke

Dutch singer Sven Ratzke had a sparkling opening night a Joe’s Pub last night, with a whole bunch of East Village glitterati in attendance, including nightlife legends Chi Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell, pioneering performance artist Penny Arcade, Matthew Crosland and Dan Fortune. Ratzke was doing the American premiere of his club act Homme Fatale, and I had this brief exchange with him about the show.

For the purposes of this show, what is your definition of Homme Fatale?

A Homme Fatale is a man that you can compare to a femme fatale. He can be dangerous, wild, and seductive: a pimp, hustler, womanizer, Casanova, Mephisto and many more characters. A Homme Fatale can be also get lost in his own mystery or his own role. But a Homme Fatale means also a man that overcomes fate, that gets in a fatal situation. That can be very feminine and mysterious. So it’s open to interpretation!

Does the idea of Homme Fatale have anything to do with androgyny?

Yes, of course it can. Seduction is always associated with females, while males are more the predator. I totally do not agree. I think especially in our time, these lines are crossing.

Are you a Homme Fatale?

Yes, of course. It’s a title I got a long time ago from the European press. In the beginning, I didn’t know what they meant. I was intrigued.

What, musically, should we expect from this show?

A lot of original new songs. I asked amazing songwriters to write stories and songs for me. And I wrote many songs myself, alone or in collaboration, for example, with the New York-based Rachelle Garniez. And we give new interpretations of the “Hommes Fatale” of pop: Lou Reed, David Bowie, Joy Division and Iggy Pop.

What, theatrically, should we expect from this show?

I take the audience on a trip, like LSD. But you will have no hangover the next day! A trip into the night, around the world with crazy storytelling, swinging songs and intimate ballads. And I’m an entertainer, a stage animal.

This show is about “pimps, lovers, thieves, legends, angels and devils” – that sounds like Jean Genet’s world. Is he an influence here?

Oh yes! A wild Genet dream with a touch of Oscar Wilde, Fassbinder, Bowie and many more.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

News: Simply Barbra Holiday Show: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Matzo…

simply-barbra

Steven Brinberg is the premier Barbra Streisand impressionist, who has taken his act, “Simply Barbra”, to international acclaim both on stage and television (performing on several occasions with none other than Streisand buddy Marvin Hamlisch) paying homage to all that is Streisand. Steven does not lip-sync but does a stunningly accurate singing impressionism of Streisand.

Steven will be doing Simply Barbra Holiday Show: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Matzo… at Feinstein’s / 54 Below this Sunday, December 18. It’s an evening of holiday tunes, Streisand classics and glimpses of other divas from Cher to Bea Arthur. All performed live, no lip synching. Look for a special guest star to join Barbra to help ring in the holidays – and sing some famous Christmas songs written by Jewish composers.

Steven Brinberg has been acclaimed for his vocal performance of Barbra Streisand for over a decade around the world. In addition to touring all over America he has also played extensively in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Thailand, Spain, Mexico and Canada…more cities then the real Barbra! Steven was hired by Streisand’s management to perform at her friend Donna Karan’s birthday party.

The show contains songs from both The Christmas Album – “probably more from that one,” Steven notes, and Christmas Memories. “It’s funny,” says Steven, “I change the show constantly especially the talking. At one point, I referred to James Brolin as a famous B movie and TV actor, at another point I took the B out. The challenge in keeping the shows fresh after so many years is helped by Barbra still being such a presence. Keeps it current. And I’m always free to sing songs she has never done, as I know exactly how she might do them down to the last breath. I had been singing ‘Make Someone Happy’ in the show years before she recorded it. And the end result when she did it was pretty close. I was surprised though that she changed her phrasing on the lyric from ‘Love is the ansuh’ to ‘Love is the anserrr’ perhaps to plug the title of the album!”

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Interview: Justin Sayre

Justin Sayre

The Meeting* hosted by Justin Sayre – the monthly gathering of the International Order of Sodomites, a fictional “centuries-old organization which sets the mythic Gay Agenda” – will come to an end at the conclusion of its upcoming season. After seven years of audacious humor, trailblazing political discourse and button-pushing cultural exploration, the acclaimed comedy/variety show will be presented for the eighth and final season from September 2016 through May 2017 at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater. The Fall 2016 season shows are Sunday nights at 9:30pm and will feature tributes to gay icons Bette Midler (October 23), and Angela Lansbury (November 20), with the 8th Annual Holiday Spectacular! being held December 18. There will also be a November 5 show at Oasis in San Francisco.

I talked recently with Sayre about The Meeting*, his new comedy CD The Gay Agenda, and his popular podcast “Sparkle & Circulate”.

What was the origin of The Meeting*?

I had gone to a Radical Faerie event and I had never been to one before I was struck by the community, the discussions that people were having. I left and the whole idea for The Meeting* spurted out in one moment. [Laughs.] “Oh! What if you did a comedy / variety show, that was political and topical, that celebrated different gay icons? Invite people from the community to intepret their work, rather than doing impersonations. Do it month to month.” Really, came up with the title and the whole thing. I called some friends in New York and asked, “Do you think that will work? Would you ever come to something like that?” The response was positive, so I though, okay I’ll try it! See what happens, nothing really lost if it fails – it’s only one night [Laughs.] I thought that for the first year, really, it’s only one night a month if it doesn’t work out how bad is it? It really hit the ground running, we did the first two shows at the Duplex, and they said “this is really smart and fun, and we would love to have you back.” And there was always something new I wanted to do, or new people I wanted to have on it.

Do you think of your monologues as stand-up?

No. I still don’t consider myself a stand up in a strange way. I’m more of a storyteller. To me stand-up is more athletic, they’re more like rock-jumpers going from idea to idea to idea. As a theatre actor, it was more about “this is part of this particular section of the show, and here we need to introduce this idea to help frame the next part.” Like my “hanky code” story was framing emotional baggage. Or we need to introduce the political side of x, y and z for what’s coming up next, so we need to spin it this way.

Who influenced you as a performer?

Especially as a gay performer, as somebody coming out of the cabaret world Justin Vivian Bond was an enormous influence on me, I was obsessed with Justin and Kenny Mellman as Kiki & Herb, when they were playing I would buy tickets for every performance. Just the way they would work this really intelligent commentary into this wild world. Also people like Sandra Bernhart, certainly. And strangely, Stritch. I know that sounds so strange, but I’ve taken a huge thing from her performing style. You know just stand there and do it, deliver. Not anything else really, but just that – she’s always represented that to me, and for better or worse the honesty that comes out of that.

Tell me a little about The Gay Agenda.

We’d always recorded the shows, and about two or three years ago we thought, well, we have all this material, it’d be great to put it together and have a “Greatest Hits” of The Meeting*. Dan Fortune, my producer spearhead the idea, we picked out tracks, listened to dubs and all that stuff. It really represents what The Meeting* has been about very, very well.

In listening to The Gay Agenda, do I detect the influence of Buddy Cole [Scott Thompson’s insanely flamboyant character from Kids in the Hall]?

[Laughs.] Scott actually came to one of the shows and I said to him, “Sometimes I feel like I’m just doing Buddy Cole!” [Laughs.] I grew up with Kids in the Hall, and Buddy Cole is one of the first out people I remember seeing, and talking so frankly about it. I remember being so titillated and excited, thinking “look at him, he’s so gay!” [Laughs.] I take that as a huge compliment, really I do, because I think everything Scott and those guys did was so fantastic and ahead of their time. Thank you for even thinking of me in the same light!

How did the “Sparkle & Circulate” podcast come about?

It’s another way to get more material out there and to keep fans interested. Once our YouTube channel started to take off, we wanted to supply people with a really easy, accessible way to “tune in.” When we started there was just too much on my plate to consider something as complex as creating a whole other show. We have all these great guests at The Meeting*, because of the format of the show I don’t interact with them much. The podcast came out of my desire to actually talk to people I admired, find out where they were at with their work, what queerness or gayness has to do with their work. I found very quickly that I really liked it. And it’s really taken off, it’s a remarkable thing that I never saw coming but really delight in. And that will continue long after The Meeting* is over.

Do you have anything coming up?

Two plays coming up by the end of this year, I’m working on a pilot right now, books coming out. The work has grown exponetially through and because of The Meeting*. I got hired to write for Two Broke Girls because Michael Patrick King saw a clip and thought I was really funny. I got my book deal in a very similar way.

One last thing, as someone who has said that, in the boudoir, calling you “Madame” works just as well as calling you “Daddy,” what’s your take on masculinity?

I don’t deal with it well! [Laughs.] When somebody’s really butch I’m very “What are you doing in my house? Get outta here!” It’s almost what the premise of the show is, in a weird way. Even in the beginning The Meeting* was going to operate from the fact that being gay was never outside the norm but was the norm, even the superior norm. So there are no apologies, no teaching anybody, we’re all in on the joke. It became a celebration of what that means. I think so many people have a struggle with masculinity, because they think its about strength or some kind of bravura, but I so often find that masculinity is about insecurity. It’s about demanding space because you’re worried that somebody else is going to take it. And when you give that up and say “You know, I take up space simply because I’m this person, nobody can take it.” I can invite people into it and make sure that other voices are heard. Everything doesn’t have to be a pissing contest. I think we get a lot more done thinking like that, and are just happier. I take on masculinity because I feel like it’s something that people are forcing down on themselves, or using to force someone out of their space. I’ve seen masculinity being used as a preventative measure, and I don’t like that. I take it on because I want to free people of it, metaphorically take it off the table and poke fun at it. Within expectations of masculinity there’s that thread of misogyny. It’s always shocking to me that little gay kids grow up and want to be like the kid that tortured them in middle school. That seems silly to me. We need to celebrate who we are rather than try to be somebody else.

For tickets and more information about Justin, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Interview: “The Fifth Beatle” tells story of Beatles gay manager

FIFTHB PG 077crop

Brian Epstein, the man who brought the Beatles to the world, was gay when it was a felony to be so in the U.K., Jewish in an anti-Semitic time, and from Liverpool when it was just a dingy port town. The Fifth Beatle (Vivek J. Tiwary, writer, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker, artists) is a critically acclaimed, #1 best selling New York Times graphic novel and forthcoming feature film recounting the untold true story of Epstein, the brilliant visionary who discovered the Beatles in a cellar in Liverpool, nurtured, protected, and guided them to international stardom, and died extremely successful and painfully lonely at the age of 32. I chatted with Tiwary recently about the queerer elements of Brian’s life and The Fifth Beatle

I hear The Fifth Beatle is associated with a particular charitable cause.

The Fifth Beatle is associated with Freedom to Marry (www.freedomtomarry.org). I’ve been researching the Brian Epstein story for 21 years, literally more than half my life, but I’ve been working on the Fifth Beatle for about seven years. My wife and I got married nine years ago, and during our engagement, we decide to align ourselves with Freedom to Marry. We were very excited to have found each other and be getting married – surprisingly so, since we’re both fairly nontraditional people. We never thought that marriage would mean that much to us, but we were surprised to find out it meant a great deal to us.

But it was also difficult, because we have a lot of gay and lesbian friends who were being told they couldn’t be married. Many of them were people who had been together longer than my wife and I had. So it was important for us to get involved in that fight. In lieu of wedding presents we made a large donation to Freedom to Marry, we highlighted them in our first toast as a couple. We made sure that the organization was an important part of our married lives together. So my history with Freedom to Marry goes back before I even started working on the Fifth Beatle. It’s an organization I have a deep and emotional connection to, and that feels very right for the Fifth Beatle.

There’s a line in the book, during a television interview where Brian’s being asked about the Beatles’ romantic lives, and Brian said “I think Beatles ought never to be married, but they will be one day and someday I might too.” It was viewed as a throwaway joke at the time, but really it was a pretty heavy thing that he said – people who knew him well realized he was saying something quite dangerous for that time. Because forget about getting married, he was worried about staying out of jail, should his sexuality be discovered – that’s the way things were in 1960s England. If there had been marriage equality in the 1960s, it would clearly have made a huge difference in Brian’s life, it might have even saved his life.

Was it well know to people close to Brian that he was gay, and when did it become generally known?

It was really only known to people in his inner circle – the Beatles, other clients, his family, his closest friends (some of whom were gay themselves). Brian didn’t have a lot of friends, Nat Weiss (who became the Beatles U.S. legal representative) was certainly his closest friend and confidant. So it was a very small inner circle. People who worked with him day in and day out at his family’s Liverpool record store NEMS, didn’t know, for example.

It really was that dangerous at the time, I think today it’s hard to imagine what it was like. A junior person at NEMS could have reported him to the police and he would have gone to jail! The matador analogy that runs through the book, represents that dance with danger and even death. By pursuing a career that pushed him so far into the public eye, he was really playing a dangerous game.

He died in 1967, there were major steps toward repealing England’s anti-homosexuality laws in that very same year. But it was only many years later that it became widely know than he was gay, close to decade after his death before it became common knowledge.

How important a source was Nat Weiss for that side of Brian’s life?

Without question he was the number one source, he knew the gay side of Brian’s life best. Nat passed away just a few months ago. He was very aware of the book, and the screenplay for the film, but didn’t live to actually see it on newsstands. He was a huge source to me, as well as a great friend. He was a New Yorker, and so I had the good fortune of meeting Nat some 10-15 years ago, he was at my wedding, we spent a lot of social time together. I really miss him.

Brian’s lover Dizz, is he representative of a real person or is he a composite?

No, he’s definitely a real person, his name was John Gillespie, and his friends called him Dizz as a play on the similar name of jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Yeah he was a real personal, a real hustler, a real blackmailer – everything Dizz does in the novel, he does in real life. I show the blackmail as happening during a television interview, when really it happened at a party. Other than that, though, he’s a very real character, I’m sorry to say.

One of my favorite lines in the book, comes when Brian is having the Beatles try on their collarless Edwardian suits and he says “The Beatles are in trouble if queers have no place in rock and roll”. Is that truly from the mouth of Brian Epstein?

John Lennon remembered Brian saying that, according to my research – though obviously at this point neither of them are around to verify it.

Many of the captions in the graphic novel illustrate scenes with lyric by the Beatles, but many others use lyrics from the American Songbook. And British Songbook for that matter – I was particularly moved by the use of Noël Coward’s “If Love Were All”, which alludes to similar life experiences between Coward (who was also gay) and Brian. For you, what’s behind the use of those Songbook songs?

Well the Coward song serves, among other functions, as a counterpoint to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” providing a very contrasting view on the same subject. Above all, those Songbook songs were songs that Brian loved. Ironically Brian was not a huge fan of contemporary pop music – he liked showtunes and classical music. So those songs were really more in line with his personal taste. The truth is, he viewed the Beatles as great composers, on a par with the music he loved: Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Irving Berlin.

What’s in the future for The Fifth Beatle?

We’re working on a film version, I’ve written the screenplay, we announced at the end of last year that Peyton Reed (Yes Man, Bring It On, Down with Love) and Bruce Cohen is co-producing (Milk, Big Fish, Silver Linings Playbook, Oscar winner for American Beauty). The most exciting thing is that Apple Corp. on behalf of the Beatles have signed off on the project and allowed us to do a deal with Sony TV who control Beatles music. We are literally the first and only film about the band in history to be granted full access to their music catalog, and we are very proud of that.

To purchase, click here.

Review: Oliver!

oliver!

The lively revival of Oliver! at Paper Mill Playhouse reminded me what a fundamentally odd musical it is. Composer Lionel Bart adapted it from Charles Dickens’s 1838 novel Oliver Twist, one of his darkest works, featuring thieves, whores and murderers galore. Bart lightened the overall tone of this young orphan’s quest to find home and family in 1830s London. The most obvious result was the transformation of the evil master larcenist Fagin into something more like a charming pied piper.

Even with that lightening of tone however, there is still something ineffably strange about these relentlessly cheery tunes (the score is one of the catchiest, ever) cheek and jowl by dark Dickensian London, however whitewashed. Perhaps I should add it is entertainingly strange, especially in a production as energetic as this one, directed by Mark S. Hoebee, with frisky choreography by Joann M. Hunter.

The title character is a bit of a passive cipher – for the child actor playing Oliver, all that is really required is that you don’t get in the way of the audience sympathizing with your predicament, and that you sing your big song “Where is Love?” in a suitably angelic way. This production’s Oliver, Tyler Moran, does both, quite charmingly.

The characters that carry the weight of the show are the tragic prostitute Nancy (Betsy Morgan) and the abovementioned Fagin (David Garrison). Morgan knocks “As Long as He Needs Me”, Nancy’s big belting ballad, out of the ballpark, and Garrison wisely leans into the warmer and more compassionate qualities that Bart imparted to Fagin. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Interview: J. Stephen Brantley

pirira

Playwright/actor J. Stephen Brantley (pictured above, right) set his gay-themed play Pirira  during the July 20, 2011 riots in the African nation of Malawi. As that country erupts in riots, American aid workers Jack and Ericka take shelter in the storage room of a struggling NGO. Half a world away, Malawian student Gilbert and his gay co-worker Chad begin another day in the back room of a Manhattan florist. By the day’s end, they discover their lives are inextricably linked across continents, language, and time. I asked Brantley to provide some insight into this intriguing work.

What is Pirira about?

Pirira tracks two seemingly unrelated stories, separated by 7000 miles, simultaneously. It’s about the unexpected ways in which our lives are connected with, and our identities are tied to, people who may be very different from us. One of these stories is about American NGO workers in Malawi during the 2011 demonstrations. The other features a Malawian student in the states working in a wholesale florist’s with a gay New Yorker. Audiences see both unfold at once, in the same space, in real time.

You also act in Pirira. What’s that been like for you?
Really challenging. I’ve acted in my own work many times, and I’m writing a one-man thing for myself at the moment. But Pirira is different. Maybe because of the complex musical architecture of the piece, maybe because it all feels so personal…Jack is not an easy role to act anyway, but I find it nearly impossible to do so when I’m in my playwright head at all. It’s never been like that for me, but some nights it’s like going to battle with myself.
I know you’ve been thinking about writing plays about Africa for a long time. Is this the final result, or is this a subject you might continue to pursue in other plays?
Pirira is probably not my only Malawi play. I packed a lot into this one, but there is much more I want to say about that place and the people there. My big dream is to write something there, on African soil, and maybe work with some Malawian performers in putting it up.
You have long been concerned about the situation of gays in Africa. How can our readers help or get involved?
It’s tricky. Change comes slowly to Africa, and rarely at the demands of progressive-minded Americans. And yet, I know for sure that LGBT people in Malawi, in Uganda, and in the rest of the continent need and want our support. I’m a huge fan of Frank Mugisha and Sexual Minorities Uganda. Sign up for and share updates from the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission. And in Malawi, and organization called CEDEP is one of the few NGOs championing LGBT rights. Their office was smashed up a few weeks ago, and they could certainly use our support. Educate yourself. Sign the online petitions. Just cultivating an awareness that LGBT rights is a global issue, and a matter of life and death in much of the world, will get us closer to true equality and human dignity for all.
For tickets, click here.