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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

shot of gender talk with a Broadway mixer

February 8th, 2011 (12:18 pm)

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."


Posted by: Kare Bear (luvs_chicago)
Posted at: February 8th, 2011 05:39 pm (UTC)

I've never heard of this, and am very intrigued! How awesome that you guys got to go. I'm sad that I haven't heard of most of these shows/songs/actors, but am excited to see the set list. Please include a "Go check out this soundtrack!" footnote for those that I need to hear. :-D

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 02:18 am (UTC)

I will! I always think of you here and there at Broadway performances, when there's a song I think you'd like. Obviously I didn't get around to doing my little set list/reviews tonight. Tomorrow! I want to find YouTube vids of some of the songs and performers to show -- well, all of LJ, but I don't know how many people will be interested. I think you will be in at least some of them though.

Posted by: Susan Jane Bigelow (shashalnikya)
Posted at: February 8th, 2011 05:51 pm (UTC)

This sounds like SUCH a cool show.

I'll tell you, I'm really, really bad at not seeing gender, too. I think it's just so ingrained.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 02:23 am (UTC)

I know. I don't know what it would take to unlearn it. I want to raise my children* with less of an instinct towards categorization and binaries than I grew up with... but it will be hard because it's everywhere and I know I can't even identify all of it.

The show was amazing though. :)

*nonexistent as yet. Have not forgotten to make any major updates ;)

Posted by: Pirate Jenny (deliriums_fish)
Posted at: February 8th, 2011 05:57 pm (UTC)

I'LL read it!


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.

Who, on your FL, knows Bebe Neuwirth only as Lilith? I mean, here?

Posted by: Kat (kindness_says)
Posted at: February 8th, 2011 06:08 pm (UTC)

I often forget that she was Lilith, probably because I was pretty young when I watched Frasier.

Posted by: Kat (kindness_says)
Posted at: February 8th, 2011 06:07 pm (UTC)

Sorry, but your comment of 4460 characters exceeds the maximum character length of 4300. Please go back, shorten it, and try posting it again.


This night sounds AMAZING.

I also agree with you on so many of the things you said, and it's funny that this comes up here because I spent a lot of yesterday discussing a lot of things such as the movie The Kids Are All Right, my feelings on bisexuality and how it's perceived (which has to do with, of course, gender and privilege and why can't experimentation just be experimentation, EITHER WAY, with whomever, in a perfect world where there isn't an assumed norm, blah blah blah blah blah), and "looking gay," and why I want my queer characters to look or not look a certain way, and the awesomeness of minority characters having plots that aren't about Being A Minority, and queer lit and film and how I wish it weren't so often so depressing, because I know those are stories, but why are they the only stories we tell, etc., etc., (although this is changing, as the world changes, hooray) and I LOVE what you said about gender binary, because, yes, me, too, so much, and I'm sometimes reflexively heteronormative in my head, too (although I think I actually feel a little better about that now that you mention, gender discrepancies do exist within gay couples even if sex does not! which is obviously not to say that someone is a guy/girl, OBVIOUSLY, but there are dynamics that we associate, although, ugh, I wish there weren't dynamics that we associated, even though, personally, I happen to play into them fairly well), and then I get so upset because I don't want to be this way but it happens. (I should clarify, I by no means am one of those idiot jackasses who's like, "So who's the dude/girl?" and it's not necessarily appearance-based and there are real-life and ficitional couples where it doesn't apply, period; but sometimes it does and I think it.)

I know a lot of the songs you're talking about, obviously, and I'm fascinated by all of what you've mentioned but especially Summer Lovin', just for funsies, On The Street Where You Live, which I always hated because it was actually sung by a somewhat annoying (but very bright, and very nice to me) boy who happened to be gay and was very bad at "playing straight" (which is another issue to tackle, what playing straight means, but it's...in the case, it had a lot to do with his not being a very good actor and no one ever being able to remove him from himself, blah blah blah never mind not the point right now) and I don't like the original character and blah, blah, what an annoying song!!!!!! and it sounds so fascinating the way it was framed here. And Stars and the Moon, which I actually do like, but I don't think I ever thought about it in as strictly gender role/privilege/finance-related ways as you. (I don't know your background; but I wonder if it may have to do with the environment I grew up in; and possibly being younger, too.) But oh, wonderful.

Posted by: Kat (kindness_says)
Posted at: February 8th, 2011 06:07 pm (UTC)

In writing the love story (primarily of two boys) that was my Yuletide and has since sprung into several episodes of a TV show, I listened to a lot of music that I wished was less distinctly gendered, so I could apply it to them. =| Like, the "theme" to the show, you can tell, is supposed to be about a girl (although I don't think of it that way, because it was introduced to me by the friend being like, "This song reminded me of Devon and Luke.") - they say things like "flower balm perfume." Which then calls into question, WHY is that a girl thing, blah blah blah, Old Spice Guy.

Also, this reminds me of when I was going around asking people if they heard "City Hall" by Vienna Teng and pictured men or women. I've always pictured women, I think because of certain words and its being sung by a girl? but what's really interesting is, my bestie, who is a queer woman/girl/whatever, has always pictured men! She has this really adorable backstory for them, too; it's a little Brokebacky so I wonder if it has to do with that movie and this song coming out around the same year/s when we were in high school? I don't remember exactly. BUT ANYWAY this came up around Yuletide peak and we talked about it and it was FASCINATING and I went around asking everyone what they pictured (there are no pronouns, intentionally), and it's mostly women, but I wondered how much of that was because I talked to a lot of queer women and how much of that was because it's sung by a woman and how much of that was because of use of words like "pretty" and "baby" and "hair."

The option would be nice.


Posted by: Justine (devifemme)
Posted at: February 8th, 2011 06:08 pm (UTC)

OMG, Babe, that is the most elegant review I have EVER read on a blog! Sincerely, it truly SANG!

I want you reviewing in the New Yorker or someplace Up There! Your (and the show's) purpose of turning people on to gender bias came off beautifully.

One knows something she's reading is great when she doesn't want it to END! And, happily, you went on at some length. (But not a word too many!)

I'm on BlackBerry at the moment, but will try to remember to do you justice in a post on my LJ when I get on my laptop.


Posted by: phryneateleusis (phryneateleusis)
Posted at: February 8th, 2011 06:28 pm (UTC)

Ah. I didn't make it to this. But it sure sounds like a fun time was had by all. PS, if you're slaving away at the set list, Playbill has it up.

Also speaking of a gender muddling. In some ways popular music already is that way. The more popular songwriters and teams from the '60s and '70s were men writing songs that were sung by women that were sung to men. Then add in the fact some of these songs were written by gay men, for men, sung by women, and also songs for women sung by men. And then throw in the number of performer who were gay singing songs that were nominally cis-gender directional but completely queered by the fact the lyricist and the performer are gay and it's already a giant tangle of who's writing for who and being sung by whom. I know I probably sound completely opaque, but I can offer a little example:

Gene Pitney wrote Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa about a guy who breaks up with his wife over the telephone because he meets another woman. Then Dusty Springfield goes and covers the song, but changes the gender pronouns to keep it straight. But we know she was gay and now the song is queered.

Posted by: Nathaniel Wolfthorn (ganimede)
Posted at: February 8th, 2011 08:28 pm (UTC)

There's a very famous song in the UK that's been gender muddled from the start and completely inadvertently. It's called Sally and includes the lyrics "Sally, Sally/Marry me Sally/And happy forever I'll be" and "Sally, Sally/Pride of our alley/You're more than/The whole world to me". It was sung by Gracie Fields and became her theme song since she first performed it in about 1931 or so. There was an amusing moment in the 1970s at the Royal Variety Performance, when she broke off mid-song to proclaim, "I've been singing a man's song all my life!" As far as I'm aware, no one even noticed or said anything about a woman singing a love song, complete with proposal, to another woman :)

Posted by: phryneateleusis (phryneateleusis)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 01:22 am (UTC)

Ha! Gracie Fields. Forgot all about that one.

Also, gender muddling makes me think of cocktails.

Posted by: Nathaniel Wolfthorn (ganimede)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC)

I didn't think anyone would really remember Gracie Fields these days. She's mostly been forgotten, except in Lancashire which is where she was from and where I'm from too :)

Posted by: phryneateleusis (phryneateleusis)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 09:38 pm (UTC)

Theatre nerd. Enjoys history.

Posted by: Nathaniel Wolfthorn (ganimede)
Posted at: February 10th, 2011 01:54 pm (UTC)

Ah, now all becomes clear :)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 02:05 am (UTC)

Yeah, Broadway songs have plenty of that too, especially both straight and gay men writing songs to be sung by straight women, straight men, etc. There's plenty of shows that are famous either for their unconvincing representation of the sex/gender the songs are written for or for the gay subtext that unintentionally wound up in the show (My Fair Lady and Camelot being two of the better-known examples there.) Also there's like everything Cole Porter ever wrote, with its barely-disguised deliberate queer subtext. :)

The show was a little different though. It's one thing for songwriters to be making a nominal attempt at writing het/cis songs; even if they're subliminally queer, it's making a show of preserving the norm. Same goes for cross-gender performances that change the pronouns to restore them to straightness. It felt like something new -- maybe it wasn't -- but it was new to me, anyway.

Posted by: phryneateleusis (phryneateleusis)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 09:37 pm (UTC)

Well, I wouldn't say that this show isn't different. Because it is for the very reasons you thought it was. But subtext, right? Never went anywhere. And here we go - where we're at a place when we can celebrate it as the main.

Posted by: -=juldea=- (juldea)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 12:40 am (UTC)
hold me!

Auuughghhgh I want a copy of that version of "Stars and the Moon" now!

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 01:43 am (UTC)

I've been thinking the same thing ever since the performance! I loved the song but I don't want to download a female version of it because I'm afraid it will disrupt the memory of the performance Tituss Burgess gave, which was so special. There was actually a guy next to me who was recording the thing (RIGHT next to me, argh -- all my squeals etc. are going to be right there) for sale to benefit some arts program somewhere or other. When that's finished you can hear Burgess' version :)

Posted by: Morgan (banshea)
Posted at: February 9th, 2011 02:33 am (UTC)

I'm operating on less than six hours of sleep right now, so the most intelligent thing I can say is that it bugged the hell out of me when my choir teacher at my all-girls' school insisted on changing the lyrics to "Where is Love" from Oliver to "Where is he/Whom I close my eyes to see." Doubly so when I finally saw the musical and realized that, in context, the song isn't about a romantic partner at all but a parental figure.

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