Musical love search; Liza sightings; theater honorees
Now that the Pride hullabaloo is over, a quieter way to celebrate being gay might be listening to the CD, “Songs from an Unmade Bed” with lyrics by Mark Campbell and music by eighteen composers including Duncan Sheik, Steve Marzullo, Kim D. Sherman, Debra Barsha, Mark Bennett, and Gihieh Lee. Michael Winther’s ringing tenor provides the witty and poignant protagonist voice of a gay New Yorker recounting his search for love.
“Mark Campbell came to me and said, ‘I want to do a song cycle with you performing it,’” recalled Winther, an actor at ease in both dramas and musicals. “We both knew so many composers who were working towards that ultimate Broadway goal, but in the meantime, what do they do? There are so many other forms for people to write in that don’t cost $20 million. Mark and I collaborated with them, telling them what kind of songs were needed, like objets trouvés, a pretentious term, but I liked that aspect of stringing things together which then pick up meaning. Experimental theatre and the dance world use a lot of that, but in many ways musical theatre is so conservative; if you do anything a little different, people freak out.”
Winther also likes the universality of the songs, which while ostensibly written for a gay man are largely genderless. In more traditional theater, men are exiled to certain emotional categories—women get all the torch songs. I don’t think that’s valid anymore, because everybody has experiences, one way or another.”
Winther came out of the closet at Williams College, when he sang in a male a cappella group. “I was threatening to people because I wasn’t what they thought I should be—an effeminate person, which I certainly can be. But I played ice hockey, so was never persecuted or forced to become politicized. And now, professionally, you never know why you don’t get the job. Actors say, ‘I didn’t get it because I was gay.’ Maybe yes, or maybe you weren’t right for the role. When playing straight characters, you have to be feasible in the same way that straight guys playing gays have to be. Casting directors are mostly older gay men who are the most homophobic of anybody, but I’m happily under that radar because I’m a character man, not a lead.”
“I’m an acquired taste,” Winther offered, “and it’s nice that, as I get older, there’s more for me to do. Denis O’Hare, too, is like a chameleon—everybody knows he’s gay and it’s not a big deal. It’s too much of trade-off to give up who you are, but it’s changing so much in the last 10 years, look at [out actors] Chris Sieber and Chayanne Jackson, who are playing leads!”
Winther is currently workshopping a new theatrical dance piece, “Ann, the Word,” by choreographer Martha Clarke, which will debut at Lincoln Center this fall. Written by Alfred Uhry, it’s based on a book by Mother Ann Lee, who started the Shaker Movement, and also features Frances McDormand in the title role, Michael Berresse, Denis O’Hare and Michael Stuhlbarg.
I felt like I was at MGM in the 1950s on Sunday, June 4. At Lehman Performing Arts Center in The Bronx, the indefatigable Debbie Reynolds entered, screaming, ‘Where are the boys?!’ and knocked the argyle socks off a mostly alter kocker crowd, who hysterically kept interrupting her act with requests for autographs and memories of their dead husband, Morris. Then, at the Metropolitan Room, an intimate crowd in to see Billy Stritch’s snazzy Mel Torme show included Liza Minnelli and Lucie Arnaz, along with Michael Feinstein and Lucie’s hubby Laurence Luckinbill. Arnaz had just come from the matinee of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which she adores doing (‘Especially those clothes!”) and shrieked at Liza, “I knew you in another lifetime!” The two of them raucously joined in on the chorus of “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze,” causing Stritch to admonish, “You two should be separated!” “My whole life flashed before my eyes!” said Arnaz, and Liza explained, “That song is the theme from ‘The Long, Long Trailer,’ which Lucie’s parents did with my father. We met on the set of that!”
I told Liza I saw her perform in Hawaii, right after winning her “Cabaret” Oscar and she said, “I was with Desi [Arnaz, Jr] then!” and when I mentioned that tell-all book Torme had written about Judy Garland, she remembered, “My mother always called him Mel Torment. And Eggs Benedict Eyes!” Told that the Metropolitan Room was planning to book Torme’s son, Steve, she said, “Mel was a rotten father to him. Anybody would be fucked up with parents like that! Luckily, I was raised with a lot of love.” Our chat was conducted during a smoke break, right outside the club on 20th street, the heart of Chelsea, and at least a dozen queens walked by, totally oblivious to this gay icon, puffing her lungs away.
Two days later, Minnelli, in the same black and red lipstick print outfit, showed up at her old stomping ground, Studio 54, to give Harry Connick his Theatre World Award. The Awards, started in 1943 by Daniel Blum recognizes actors making impressive debuts on or Off Broadway. Lucie Arnaz (winner in 1979 for “They’re Playing Our Song”) was also there, remarking, “Wow, Studio 54! I’m glad I know where I am this time, right, Liza?!” She presented Maria Friedman her award for “The Woman in White,” which she accepted with touching graciousness, after a wild year, which included a bout with cancer.
More than one attendee, from Maxwell Caulfield to an eloquent John Lloyd Young, remarked upon how special the award was to them, being the first they were ever given and how, just looking at “this ugly ass award”—Connick’s humorous description—inspired them to keep going in hard times. Deliciously eccentric Nellie McKay accepted for “The Threepenny Opera,” huskily bemoaning the commercial forces which critically lambasted her anti-capitalist show, while exhorting everyone to “enjoy your Donald Trump bottled water.” “She’s the new Tammy Grimes,” I whispered, and then, sure enough, right after that, Tammy Grimes herself took the stage to honor “Drowsy Chaperone’s” adorable Bob Martin.
The final sighting of Minnelli came this past Saturday at Rubyfruit Bar and Grill on Hudson Street, where she was the judge of the Pet Pride Pageant, held in honor of Gay Pride Weekend and a benefit for the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals. And don’t you know that Gay City News’ own Troy Masters and partner Arturo Jimenez had the grandest bitch of all, Lilly the schnauzer. Miss Lilly was already a prize winning pooch, taking home first prize as the Pet in Costume at her social club. We don’t want to take away anything from their pooch’s pride, but we should add that Liza’s late canine love was also a Cairn Terrier named Lilly… she also has a miniature schnauzer named Emelina.
Liza Minnelli is said to have the most devoted fans of any entertainer. Now they have banded together to get Minnelli a Kennedy Center Honor. Many of Minnelli’s pals such as Chita Rivera and her songwriting team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb have already be feted by the Washington DC arts center which salutes 5 giants each December in a lavish ceremony. Minnelli’s fans have been bombarding the Center’s head Michael Kaiser with letters and emails imploring him to include the Oscar winner in this year’s ceremony. If you’d like to see this great gay icon honored send an email to Michael Kaiser at [email protected]
Contact David Noh at [email protected].