Saturday, July 31, 2010

Theatre Review: Desire - the new gay musical

Desire: the new gay musical

Homo Promos Theatre Co.
Music by Peter Murphy
Book and lyrics by Peter Scott-Presland
Based on “States of Desire” by Edmund White

The Albany, Deptford, June 30-July 2

Review by Richard Canning

All credit to Homo Promos, a gay theatre company of 22 years standing, for not taking the easy route. Desire, composed by Peter Murphy, with libretto by Peter Scott-Presland, who also directed, has been ten years in the writing, and features a company of ten singers, four dancers plus full band. Together, those involved in staging this new musical version of American author Edmund White’s pioneering 1980 book States of Desire: travels in gay America all but outnumbered its enthusiastic audience, at one of just three stagings in a very ungay redoubt of South London, on the eve of London Gay Pride.

Scott-Presland had written to White, asking for permission to turn his journalism into a song cycle as early as 1985. He then slowly travelled around the country whose gay subculture White had studied a decade or so earlier – the difference, of course, being the onset of the AIDS epidemic. AIDS – first reported in 1981 - could not even have constituted a footnote in White’s account, though in a 1986 reprint, White added an extensive ‘Afterword’ which reflects on the early, darkest years of ‘plague’ thinking and suffering. Desire draws on this in its final minutes, thus offering a signpost towards the present day; White’s characters inevitably display seventies values, fashions and political positions. This also, rather emphatically casts the hopes, fears, aspirations and plans of its many protagonists into shade. You wonder, and are indeed encouraged to wonder, which, if any, will survive.

Murphy and Scott-Presland have structured their musical largely according to White’s book, which is essentially a collection of unlinked pieces of travel journalism, ordered geographically from West to East. Thus Desire opens on Los Angeles, perhaps a less obvious introduction to the American gay dream than the second city it, and White, tackled: San Francisco. (One curiosity, incidentally, about the recording history of the Village People, was that they racked up songs with pretty much every American city or town of gay repute in the title… It must have been hard, here, to resist the urge to do something with the People, I thought … though, curiously, many of the cast of Desire had VP-style names; there was even a Randy).

The numbers are delivered with assurance and brio throughout. Personally, I enjoyed the comical ones more than the moments of Les Miserables-style earnestness; I’d take ‘Let’s Play Cop’ or ‘Why Can’t I Get Laid?’ (brilliantly delivered by Joe Shefer) over ‘We Can Change Our Lives’ any day. But then I’m a homosexual without the ‘musicals’ gene. Sometimes, too, the ambitious attempt to distill White’s accounts of rather nuanced political questions is not fully realized. A song about the Seattle community’s fights against ‘Initiative 13’, for instance, ended up simply proving confusing – chiefly since police officers were shown wearing gay leather caps.

The middle sections of States of Desire generated the second part of Desire’s first act, and a succession of less likely gay homes is introduced: Kansas, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Houston. This is where the sophistication of White’s approach strikes home. Decades ahead of others, he sought to transcend the clichéd-but-true abbreviations and shorthand of early gay subculture (the ways in which – still today – we can often feel that the bar we are in might be anywhere on the planet) by insisting on gay men’s individuality, singularity and (dare we admit it?) even maturity. In striking respects, contemporary gay culture often felt shallower and lesser than what was being represented on stage, for all the political, social and legal liberalization of the intervening decades (though this is very much an uneven picture in the States, today. Having given birth to gay liberation, America now finds itself trumped by European countries’ legislatures, and those of many other nations too). Of course, you can argue that this largely involved replacing one set of stereotypes with a few more, but, when the cast sweetly partner and sing ‘The Cowboys are Waltzing in Houston Tonight’, who is complaining?

Act Two moves through the South – New Orleans, Fort Lauderdale, Memphis. One of the best vignettes in White’s book relates to a Tennessee-born and –bound couple, Carter and A.J. The best of the night’s songs is generated by their bickering and self-imposed misery in refusing to agree where to move to, though both concede that anywhere would be more rewarding than redneck Memphis: hence, ‘Lord, will we ever get out of here?’

When we hit the East Coast, Desire bucks White’s book’s organisation, starting with the city he closes on, Washington D.C. The tune is decent – ‘Senator, a Word in your Ear’ – but I felt the reorganization a pity. By closing on the seat of government, White was predicting, quite correctly, that the decades to come would find American government perpetually preoccupied, for good and bad, by the question of gay rights, in a way that had never been witnessed or foreseen.
Murphy and Scott-Presland instead progress by way of Boston to Fire Island (which features an accomplished number about a gay houseboy, ‘The Best Job in the World’) and New York City. White’s own love of Manhattan was, perhaps, so acute that he deliberately buried the very long chapter on it before tackling Boston or Washington, to avoid accusations of Big Apple-centrism. However, Desire’s reordering means that New York City – in truth, for the past century, the cradle of American gay dreams, cultures, lifestyles, books, plays, fashions and lives – is musically represented only by Desire’s reflection on the onset of AIDS, ‘Erase the Tapes.’ There’s nothing wrong or inaccurate here. It’s just a pity that the metropolis to which huge numbers of provincial American gay men have moved since time immemorial becomes identified only with the panic, misery, fear and loss of the early 1980s.

Still, ‘Erase the Tapes’ – sung by all the cast – was a moving and bold closing song, very much the equal of material in the small number of AIDS musicals generated to date (William Finn’s March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland; Bill Russell’s Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens - soon itself to be revived at London’s Shaw Theatre) – poignant and welcomingly unforced.

The staging of Desire was… budget-friendly, perhaps, but intelligent in its use of a slideshow backdrop. Excerpts of White’s commentary were interpolated throughout by a narrator-figure. This gave us the virtue of White’s insights, but at the same time distracted from the efficacy with which his journalism allowed each character to speak for himself, in his own idiom and very much on his own terms. Choreography was as broad-ranging and substantial as the show itself – even including a Native American piece.

In a sense, States of Desire, for all its merits, is inevitably a historical tome, and to a degree I share White’s own incomprehension at why anyone would conceive a musical around it today. But Desire did much to justify the premise, odd as it might be. It – and especially its cast, among whom I might single out Michael Woodhams’s superlative delivery - deserve a wider, bigger production – and audience. Do keep your eyes peeled.

Richard Canning’s most recent book is E M Forster: Brief Lives (Hesperus Press. His 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read and Between Men 2 (both 2009), featuring McConnell, are published by Alyson Books.



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