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The Broadway Season Seen Through Its Cross-Dressing

It is not too shocking that a half dozen of the shows during the 2013-2014 Broadway season prominently featured men wearing women’s dresses—nor that they have been among the most honored, including recognition by the Tony Awards. In a way, cross-dressing is nothing new for Broadway. One Julian Eltinge was such a popular female impersonator at the beginning of the twentieth-century—best known for his starring role in The Fascinating Widow, which had only a brief run on Broadway but toured the country for years—that they named a Broadway theater after him. The Eltinge Theater, built in 1912, still exists; renamed the AMC Empire, the landmarked theater on 42nd Street houses one of the highest-attended movie multiplexes in the country.

What’s intriguing about all the current cross-dressing on Broadway is how various it is. Indeed, I think it possible to focus just on the different ways men dressed as women in the plays and musicals that opened since September as a way to analyze the major trends of the Broadway season as a whole.

Two actors on stage
Samuel Barnett as Viola and Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night.
Photograph by Joan Marcus.

In the splendid productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III performed in repertory by Shakespeare’s Globe, the all-male casting was part of an overall effort at re-creating the original productions of Shakespeare’s plays as authentically as possible. The costumes were made entirely of material that was available in England during the Elizabethan era and even the musical instruments were all specific to the period, many with names as lovely and unfamiliar as their sounds: recorders and lutes but also rauschpfeifes, sackbuts, shawms, cittern, and theorbo. And, as in the sixteenth- century, male actors played the women characters.

Twelfth Night received more Tony nominations for performance than any other play; three of the four nominated actors portrayed women characters. It’s a tad more complicated than that: Samuel Barnett portrayed the first Viola I’ve ever seen who looked persuasive when she disguised herself as her brother Sebastian (which she does for the bulk of the play.)

These two productions are part of what is surely the most satisfying Broadway trend of the season—the critical and commercial success of the classics. There were more productions of Shakespeare on Broadway last year than at any time since 1958. But this season featured not just Shakespeare but modern classics by Pinter and Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett as well.

Multiple actors dancing
Jefferson Mays, center, in A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder.
Photograph by Sara Krulwich.

In A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which seems destined to have a big night at the Tonys, Jefferson Mays plays eight members of the aristocratic British D’Ysquith family, each of them a nitwit in some way, two of them women—all of whom are killed off one by one by their disinherited distant relative, Monty (Bryce Pinkham.)

The musical is adapted from the same novel that brought us the 1949 Alec Guinness black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, and the women characters are another opportunity for Mays (like Guinness before him) to exhibit his versatility as a performer. In the case of the musical, the quick-change artistry is as much a triumph of the dresser and the costume designer as the performer and, if there is any virtuosity on display, it pales beside that not only of Guinness in the film but of Mays himself in better vehicles.

The best was I Am My Own Wife, written by Doug Wright, in which Mays portrayed Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a real-life cross-dressing (and, as it turned out, double-crossing) German who lived through both the Nazi and the Communist eras. Mays persuasively embodied Charlotte, and also some forty other characters, from SS and Stasi officers, to American soldiers, reporters, a television talk show host, and reporters from around the world. That play and Mays’ performance were not just impressive; they were thought-provoking, paradigm-shifting.

By contrast, A Gentleman’s Guide is…entertaining, trafficking in high spirits and irreverence—the latest of a long-time trend in Broadway shows. It’s fun and clever and showy. But I don’t share in the general enthusiasm for this show, because it also lacks a moral center, only pretending to have one. Such satirists as Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan drew blood by engaging in the important issues of their day. Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, the creative team behind A Gentleman’s Guide, are clearly inspired by the earlier satirists, but their aim is just as clearly not to draw blood but to amass profits. What’s safer for a twenty-first century American audience than targeting out-of-touch British aristocrats from a century ago?

The low point for me is the story of Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, whom Monty tries to kill by shipping her to “a particularly noteworthy tribe of cannibals.” Lady Hyacinth is delighted:

We’ll civilize a village in the jungle,

It can’t take long to learn their mother tongue,

Of words they have but six,

And five of them are clicks, 

And all of them are different words for dung

Who or what exactly is being satirized here? It is hard to make a distinction between Lady Hyacinth’s bigotry and the creative teams’ choices. A later song, “It’s Better With A Man,” is full of double entendres and apparently based on the premise that homosexuality is hilarious.

Multiple actors on stage
Neil Patrick Harris, with cast members Tim Mislock on guitar, Lena Hall as Mitzhak,
Justin Craig on guitar, and Matt Duncan on bass in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Photograph by Joan Marcus.

There is at least one person who sees Hedwig and the Angry Inch as not just trumpeting bad taste but blasting it through 1,000-watt amps. Rex Reed in the New York Observer called the musical “a pile of toxic swill…pointless androgynous freak show.” But even Reed couldn’t help praising its star, the universally beloved Neil Patrick Harris, albeit in a backhanded way: “Mr. Harris has many talents, but I have no idea what attracted him to this creepfest, staged by Michael Mayer with a G-string sledgehammer.”

I join the majority in delighting in this first Broadway production of what is essentially a rock concert, a show that began life twenty years ago in a downtown drag-punk club called Squeezebox. Its bad taste (if that’s the right phrase) is authentic. Its in-your-face taste is not pandering to the midtown audience. And it’s on the side of the outsider. In Hedwig, Harris is not just a male actor playing a female character. He is playing a transgender person; Hedwig was a male in East Berlin, and became a woman, an army wife living in Kansas, though the operation was botched (hence the “angry inch”).

This is transgender as transgressive, an outsider—but an outsider who breaks society’s codes not because she wants to, but because she is not given a choice; the show satirizes and criticizes the codes, not the code breaker. The Broadway production has ramped up and amped up the production values of what was a proudly (self-satirizing) low-budget affair downtown, but in a way that works as spectacle. (The Broadway production also plays up the role of Yitzhak, a drag king played by Lena Hall, one of the few instances this season of women in men’s clothing. Another example was k.d. lang as the guest star in After Midnight.)

There is something of the transgressive in the occasional cross-dressing in Cabaret, although it’s more muddled. Without the final clarifying scene, one could sit though much of Cabaret mistaking the decadent habitués of the Kit Kat Klub as collaborators in the rise of Nazism rather than its victims.

With the presence of Neil Patrick Harris on the stage of the Belasco, there is a complex dynamic at play that to me represents two trends on Broadway. First, a celebrity with a popular following can do just about whatever they want on Broadway. Second, given the right set of circumstances, a downtown show can find a happy home on the Main Stem.

Two actors on stage
Larry Pine and Patrick Page in a scene from Casa Valentina.
Photograph by Matthew Murphy.

Casa Valentina is the most richly layered of all the shows this season in what it says about cross-dressing. It is, first of all, a play directly about the issue, based on a real-life resort in the Catskills in the 1960’s catering to straight married men who wanted to dress as women. The characters conduct full-fledged debates, the central one being whether or not homosexuals should be explicitly banned from their national political organization. The funniest line in the debate: “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.”

The play is written by Harvey Fierstein, arguably the theater artist most responsible for dragging drag into the mainstream. Fierstein made his Broadway debut three decades ago as Arnold Beckoff in his play Torch Song Trilogy, portraying a gay man who performed as a drag queen. The play focused on Arnold’s private (non-drag) life, and was humorous and touching and an unveiled appeal for societal acceptance of gay people. 

His next job on Broadway, shortly afterwards, was writing the book for the Jerry Herman-scored La Cage Aux Folles, a musical comedy about a nervous Nellie drag performer and his straight-acting spouse. It was a big hit on Broadway, and has been revived twice since. While the overt message of this musical is tolerance, its not-so-covert message is: Drag queens are a scream; they exist for your entertainment and pleasure. They’re not transgressors; they’re cuddly. Three decades later his book for Kinky Boots seemed to reflect the same dual (if not contradictory?) messages. It also is a big hit, this time with a score by Cyndi Lauper.

In Casa Valentina, Fierstein goes back to his original impulse, which is to forge an authentic connection between the audience and outcast characters. The greatest strength of this play is how it defies the long tradition of cross-dressing as comic shtick and implicitly asks us to respect these characters—some of whom appear awkward in costume designer Rita Ryack’s dresses. If Casa Valentina has its flaws as a work of theater, it is a testament to Fierstein’s writing, Joe Mantello’s direction and above all the acting by the terrific cast that the audience has no problem treating the characters seriously.

The play in this way is part of a persistent trend on Broadway that isn’t made clear enough at Tony time. The Tony Awards show hasn’t figured out how to do full justice to Broadway, leaving the impression that it’s little more than safe shows and TV-worthy celebrities. But there is another side to Broadway—a stubborn willingness, against the odds, to offer risky, groundbreaking work.

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