Cover image for Something for the boys : musical theater and gay culture
Something for the boys : musical theater and gay culture
Clum, John M.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
vii, 317 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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ML1700 .C58 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
ML1700 .C58 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating

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Clum provides a smart, affectionate, and frequently hilarious book about gay men and the musical theater. 12 illustrations.

Author Notes

John M. Clum is Professor of English and Professor of the Practice of Drama at Duke University.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

In this entertaining book, Clum (drama and English, Duke Univ.) answers the age-old question, Why do so many gay men love musicals? He links musical theater to gay culture through an analysis of music, lyrics, and plot (or lack thereof) as well as the personal lives of composers (from Noel Coward and Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim and other contemporary artists) and divas (like Judy Garland and Ethel Merman, whom he links to the history of drag performance and heroine worship). Mixing personal anecdote with scholarly analysis, Clum takes his readers into a world where, despite homophobia and plots that seemed basically heterosexual, life could be fabulous. Also included are lively endnotes and a lengthy, annotated discography of cast recordings. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries, particularly those with theater or gay studies collections.--Lisa N. Johnston, Sweet Briar Coll. Lib., VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Author of Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama (1992) and editor of Staging Gay Lives: An Anthology of Gay Theater (CH, Nov'96), Clum (English, Duke Univ.) examines gay men's attraction to musicals along with gay themes in selected shows. He proposes that gay men find refuge and comfort in musicals on both stage and screen because these performances possess a heightened sense of theater and make believe. The characters on stage to whom gay audiences principally relate are the women stars, the divas (Garland, Streisand, Channing, Merman), and these divas assume principal roles throughout Clum's book. In looking at gay themes, Clum considers both the explicit (e.g., William Finn's Falsettos) and the hidden (e.g., Sondheim's works). Autobiographical elements loom large, as the author describes personal encounters with specific shows (e.g., seeing Gypsy with a college friend on whom he had a crush). Offering perceptive comments about gender roles on stage and alternative ways of looking at shows, Clum admits this is not a systematic overview, but rather "a series of related essays." The volume cries out for many more illustrations; Clum provides four. Endnotes give bibliographical references, and Clum supplies a short selective discography. For collections supporting gay and lesbian studies and for large performing arts libraries. R. D. Johnson; SUNY College at Oneonta



Chapter One OPENING CHORUS * * * LINE DANCERS AND SHOW QUEENS What do you do with queens? Stand them around a piano and play selections from Gypsy. --The Nanny In this chapter, I want to focus on the gay men in the audience at musical theater and on the relationship of the stereotype of the "show queen" to gay self-definitions at the end of the twentieth century. I don't want to suggest that all show queens are alike or that no show queens are "straight looking and acting." I will suggest that show queens predominated at a moment in gay history when the closet was still an operative principle for gay men.     Like most current mainstream representations of homosexuality, the NBC sitcom Will and Grace demonstrates television's anxieties about presenting homosexuals at all, but something else is going on that is pertinent to my project. Will and Grace sums up some of the tensions gay men now have about their relationship to codes of masculinity. Will, the gay lead character, has no identifying sign of gayness other than the assertion that he is gay. He even lives with a (particularly irritating) straight woman, his college pal, Grace. Both have the genetic upper-middle-class professions of current sitcom characters: he's a lawyer; she's an interior decorator. Will is generically good-looking, no more flamboyant than most sitcom straight heroes. Compared to the Crane brothers on Frasier or supposedly straight Richard on Caroline in the City , he's super butch. Will is, of course, played by an openly straight actor. In the coding of the show, Will is a "normal" gay, "easily assimilated" as the song goes, "straight looking and acting," and, like a good gay boy, sexless and uninterested in the gay "scene." Will has no love life and only one gay friend, Jack, whom he mocks mercilessly. Jack (played by the wonderful Sean Hayes) is a real queen. He's cute rather than handsome, flamboyant, and a tad bitchy. He also is unemployed, reinforcing the old stereotype that queens can't fit into the bourgeoisie. You laugh at Jack--he has the lines--but wonder at his friendship with Will. In the first scene of the first episode of Will and Grace , Will and Jack are playing poker with straight friends of Will's. Will mocks Jack's obvious gayness, to the amusement of the straights.     Jack is important so that viewers see what Will isn't. The show would be funnier and more real if it were about Jack (though humorless gays would scream "stereotype"). It's OK to be gay like Will, but part of being gay like Will is that you "dis" queens like Jack. Will and Grace represents a current tension in gay culture, particularly among younger men. On a recent string on Duke's lesbian-gay-bisexual e-mail list, gay fraternity boys spoke of how it was all right to be openly gay in a fraternity as long as you played by the rules of gender appropriate behavior. No sissies or queens, please. Give me Jack any day! Jack, by the way, plays the piano and sings show tunes, including Sondheim. Among other things, he's a show queen.     In his history of gay culture in New York City in the first half of this century, George Chauncey notes that effeminacy was for many men an empowering and identifiable sign of gayness. A "fairy culture existed in New York from the 1890's and came to represent all homosexuals in the public mind." In the twenties, this culture centered in and around the theater district. This fairy or pansy stereotype made it possible for less flamboyant gay men to "pass" more easily. Though the battles at Stonewall Inn were fought by drag queens, the post-Stonewall period has been marked by gay men's discomfort with signs of effeminacy. However, effeminacy and its sister, aestheticism, were connected to the gay man's identification with various aspects of high culture and with camp, the common language of pre-liberation gay men. In the period George Chauncey treats (1890-1940), even "queers" who eschewed the fairy image were connected to fairies by their investment in the arts: The boundaries between the styles of fairies and queers were permeable, not only because both groups sometimes engaged in similar forms of behavior, but also because queer culture encouraged a style of dress and demeanor and an interest in the arts, decor, fashion, and manners that were often regarded by outsiders as effete, if not downright effeminate.     One common language for gay men was musical theater, less ratified than opera or ballet, but equally larger than life. Musical theater may be heterosexist, focusing traditionally on female display, but it is also flamboyant and excessive. What could be more camp than the costumes of the Ziegfeld chorines or the androgyny of female musical divas? It is a stereotype that gay men have been particularly invested in musical theater, indeed that love of musical theater is a sign of gayness. Now, when the boundaries between "straight looking and acting" gay acting gay men and queens are much more definite, musical theater itself becomes an area of contention. LINE DANCERS On a warm summer Sunday, we emerge from the Washington, D.C., underground, the Metro, at Federal Triangle, near the new Ronald Reagan Building (how straight can you get!), to confront not the usual Sunday quiet, but crowds, music, tents. Pennsylvania Avenue and a number of the adjacent side streets have been closed, to traffic. It is D.C. Gay Pride day, but this particular manifestation of the annual celebration of gay survival in the face of homophobia and official oppression demonstrates not the celebration of a coherent, separate culture but the lack of one. At the large stage at one end, gay community leaders are introduced, but no one in the crowd seems particularly interested in politics. Entertainers perform who demonstrate a lack of a culture different from the mainstream. A loud girl band plays loudly, and the lead "singer" proudly imitates the foul-mouthed banter of male punk rockers of the eighties. Being able to shout "fuck" seems to be some sort of liberation for her. Since the word is no longer forbidden as it was in my youth, but a staple of film and cable television, her shouts seem only quaint. Janis Joplin did it better twenty years ago. What we see is typical of pride celebrations around the world; they are now a combination of carnival and shopping mall, a far cry from the political events they once were. At this Washington celebration, twice the D.C. Cowboys were brought on the stage to do their sexually suggestive country-and-western routines. They strike a more responsive chord in the mostly male audience, but they're playing out a parody of what is happening down the street.     At the largest tent at the festival hundreds of guys line dance. The crowd thins when the emcee tries to teach a Macedonian folk dance. That's not butch enough and doesn't go with the line dancing drag also being sold at booths around the festival--cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats, fancy shirts. The fact that line dancing drag was also Ronald Reagan's favorite costume as he rode his horse around his California estate is not without its ironies. Line dancing has become a way gay men can perform musical numbers when they re past the age of the buff young dancing boys at the gay nightclubs. More important, it allows gay men to perform musical numbers without entering into the old-fashioned, bourgeois, effeminate (God forbid!) world of musical theater.     I observe the same phenomenon in other cities: giant London, where AIDS charities like CRUSAID sponsor line dancing nights. In cities across the United States, gay bars with names like Stagecoach and Corral bring in droves by having line dancing nights and even on slow nights offering dancing lessons. What can be said of line dancing? It is American, though with European roots. It is democratic--anyone can do it, though you need to be able to afford the costume, which is its own form of drag. It is masculine and built on a homoerotic mythos of the Old West where cowboys formed a male culture that must have had its erotic moments--it was your fellow cowboy or your horse on those lonely, horny nights on the range. Insofar as there is a gay culture now, for line dancers it seems to connect with myths of the manly West. John Wayne must be spinning in his grave! Gay rodeos are extremely popular events all over America. I wish I heard more irony from the folks who attend them.     Line dancing is a recent and no doubt temporary manifestation of participatory musical theater for gay men. Gay culture is built in part on musical spectacle: drag shows, pride parades, disco (the most fabulous musical production number fifteen years ago was a disco full of queens dancing to "It's Raining Men." It put Busby Berkeley to shame!), and the high-techno dance clubs that have replaced disco. In the past, we worshiped the most flamboyant of musical divas. Disco allowed us to believe we were the divas. Why pay to see a musical when we could star in our own? Line dancing, however, seems to contain the most specific political message. Line dancing and western drag say "I'm gay, but I'm no sissy," which is the watchword of the majority of gay men these days.     But, honey, all this is a macho drag act, as real as Oklahoma . Less real, actually. Oklahoma (1943) was a deliberate act of nostalgia for the homespun, simple, nineteenth-century America we were fighting to maintain in World War II. There, in the cavernous St. James Theatre, a block from Times Square, was presented a view of people in touch with nature, a coherent community in which gender roles were clear. Good men were sensitive and could sing "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'." Sexually active women were funny, as always on Broadway ("I Can't Say No"), and the good fella got his girl. This picture of homespun western America was written by New Yorkers. A few years ago, at Atlanta's Actor's Express, director Chris Coleman attempted a revisionist Oklahoma set in a New York rehearsal hall in 1941. A flamboyantly gay director begins a rehearsal when news of the Pearl Harbor attack comes over the radio. In this environment, Oklahoma becomes a show about reinforcing a mythical America at a specific moment in history, a myth that tries, among other things, to erase homosexuality, which, according to historians like Allan Berube, was exploding in port cities like New York during World War II. The worst thing for a character in Oklahoma is not to fit in to a specific code of masculinity that includes sexual repression. The Rodgers and Hammerstein folks told Coleman to cease and desist. Do Oklahoma straight, in all senses of the word, or don't do it at all! They were within their rights, but I would much rather see Coleman's rethink of Oklahoma than a mindless revival of the original. When the lumbering film version premiered in 1956, the war was long over, but Oklahoma had resonance for America in the era of the Cold War and the House Un-American Affairs Committee and the McCarthy witchhunts. A happy, dancing community cheerfully purged out its alien element.     By the time Oklahoma opened in 1943, composer Aaron Copland had already created a nostalgic "western" music for his ballet scores for Agnes de Mille's Rodeo and Eugene Loring's Billy the Kid , and he had done the same for the Shaker world of Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring by combining traditional folk melodies with his sophisticated Stravinskian rhythms and brash dissonances. The Billy the Kid of Copland's score and Eugene Loring's choreography is a strange Freudian creation--the outlaw who loves his mother. He is also, for the early 1940s, an eroticized, one could say homo-eroticized, figure whose fetishizing costume--no shirt, armbands, cuffs, and chaps over tights--is a queerer version of the butch cowboy image than contemporary gay men consume and perform. Billy is an outlaw and a narcissist. He dances alone and he seems to be turned on by his isolated dancing: In his duets, he tends to face away from the woman, and his scenes of violence with other men seem more erotic than his moments with women. Like Oklahoma, Billy the Kid is framed by a vision of a frontier community, but in the ballet it is a line of dour people violently working the land, not happy folk going to a picnic. Billy seeks a space of freedom and pleasure outside that community, in contrast to its harsh, angular, downward-directed movements. Billy the Kid opens up the possibility of gay readings. Billy has a girlfriend, but his strongest relationships are his violent ones with men. Ironically, the score for Billy the Kid , which defines western music and is imitated in the scores of dozens of western films, was Written by a Brooklyn born, Jewish, gay composer in Paris.     There were postwar versions of the western musical. Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon (1951) in which the chorus men sing the haunting hit "They Call the Wind Maria" as well as the exuberantly silly "Hand Me Down. That Can of Beans." Or Harold Rome's Destry Rides Again (1959) with Andy Griffith in the Jimmy Stewart role and Dolores Gray in a brassy, more innocent version of Marlene Dietrich's diva of the saloon. Or Cy Coleman's Wildcat (1960) with Lucille Ball and the chorus boys digging oil wells. Gay Viennese Loewe and New Yorkers Rome and Coleman actually have a better handle on Coplandy western sounds than Rodgers. The western musical was an Eastern urban fabrication killed by the proliferation of westerns produced by Hollywood for the big screen and for television.     The most successful recent western films have been about urban Jewish guys (the type that might have written a western musical fifty years ago) going out West and finding out that they are "men" after all, worthy of Jack Palance's respect. To test one's manhood, one must leave one's women in the city and go into rugged terrain and confront nature and one's own wussiness. Only by connecting to the old western mythos can middle-class men, straight and gay, avoid being sissies.     Howard Crabtree's hilarious gay musical revue, When Pigs Fly (1996), opens with Howard appearing in his high school guidance counselor's office dressed in his "Dream Curly" costume--not the Curly who sings the love songs, but the Curly of the Agnes de Mille dream ballet. Howard dreams of a show created by all the guys who wanted to be Dream Curlys, guys who were too sissy to play the faux macho Curly, but who could dance the dream ballet (real men don't dance). The opening number is sung by five Dream Curlys in flamboyant versions of cowboy drag. This is an old-time, outrageous vision of gayness: flamboyant, effeminate, ironic, and mocking of straight icons and values. Above all, When Pigs Fly defies the anti-sissiness of many contemporary gay men--the anti-sissiness at the heart of gay line dancing.     I'm a kid from the suburbs who dreamed of getting to the city and got instead to Durham, North Carolina, where country-and-western dancing was definitely a heterosexual ritual that smacked of Jesse Helms and the Religious Right. For some reason, I had never worded about whether or not I was a sissy. I had built my self-image and my life on the certainty that I was. And a six-foot-five sissy to boot! The Big Bad Bullies knew I was a sissy before I did. They knew I wouldn't want to get in trouble with the teacher by fighting back. But if one got really good at something sissy, if one knew more about opera than anyone else and did theater really well, it didn't matter. Then one discovered kindred spirits and discovered that at least a few of them were also gay: There's a place for us, Somewhere a place for us. I never dreamed that place was the Wild West. No irony there, darling. Nor is there any irony in line dancing. These guys are serious. They aren't even smiling. I did dream the place for me might be musical theater.     Recent Pride celebrations I have attended have been more like frat parties than gay gatherings. There has been little outrageousness beyond some water-pistol fights. There were a lot of pierced nipples and navels, a bit of leather, but mostly buff young guys in T-shirts and shorts showing off their well-sculpted bodies. There were also a fair amount of middle-aged men looking at but not interacting with the buff young men. Age is their greatest fear. There were lots of booths selling gay paraphernalia--gay pride T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, rainbow tchotchkes. There was a booth offering gay matrimonial planning. United Airlines was giving away discount coupons and brochures for gay trips. Various gay and gay-friendly religious organizations had booths. The Log Cabin Republicans were there--their booth was manned (personned?) by the dourest looking guys I saw, but that seemed appropriate. In the age of Trent Lott and Jesse Helms, it takes either a surfeit or a total lack of irony to be a Log Cabin Republican.     The most interesting little drama I saw at this Washington Pride celebration involved a young family of tourists; blond mother and father and their blond children. They had somehow gotten lost in their sightseeing and had found themselves in the middle of Gay Pride. The looks on their faces showed that they knew they weren't in Kansas anymore. The father had his back to the festivities on Pennsylvania Avenue (not that anything obscene was going on, but he simply didn't know how to process the event). The mother said to the gay man who gave them directions how to get out of there: "If there are this many gay people in this one city, how many must there be in the country?" And numbers were the point of the whole affair--to show ourselves and any tourists who strayed upon the scene how many of us there are. But it showed no more of a "community" or a "culture" than any shopping mall. Folks talked to the people they came with and with friends they ran into. They didn't talk to strangers. They bought things. D.C. is a predominantly black city, but this was a very white gathering. A separate Black Pride had been held a few weeks before.     Feeling outside of groups is usual for me, and I certainly felt outside of this one, partly because I didn't see an inside. Assimilation seems to have won. We're just like everybody else. Not that I am a Radical Queen Their difference is not mine either. But I look for some irony, some wit, some flamboyance, some theatricality.     The western end of the D.C. Pride festival was right in front of the National Theatre where a touring company of Chicago was playing. Even in its 1996 pared down, black-box revival, Chicago is a grand blend of real life and flamboyant theatricality. The show captures brilliantly the self-promotion and cult of celebrity that travesties even justice. What an irony that Madonna, the ultimate self-promoter, is rumored to star in the movie. She may be gay-friendly and a gay icon, but it is too much a case of typecasting. In the decade of O.J., Jon Benet Ramsey, and Jerry Springer, what could be more timely than Chicago? But the marquee for Chicago seemed like an artifact, a surreal detail in the backdrop for this non-carnival. It was specific but irrelevant. Musical theater, once central to gay culture, is now a remnant of the past.     I remember Pride celebrations in the early 1980s when there were hundreds there, not thousands, and the rousing moment came when some cabaret divo sang "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles . The hymn of gay pride came from a musical! In the late 1990s, we get the D.C. Cowboys doing a dance that looks like a mad Agnes de Mille dream ballet made out of the raping of Ned Beatty in Deliverance . Whahoo!     Oh, dear, this is turning into a lament, one of those "whatever happened to the good old days" things. I am aware that my good old days were supposedly days of oppression, though I didn't feel oppressed. Daniel Harris tells us in a very camp sentence: "The grain of sand, our oppression, that irritated the gay imagination to produce the pearl of camp, has been rinsed away, and with it, there has been a profound dilution of the once concentrated gay sensibility." Camp is a language of the closet, we are told, and most great gay art came from closeted gay men. I don't want the closet back, but I want some fabulousness. I guess I want gay culture, if there is such a thing, to be more like a musical and less like a shopping mall or a gym or the Nashville Channel.     I know folks on the queer left hate it, but I loved Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! I loved the ad for the movie with the eight guys in their Swan Lake drag, with its link of gay culture and high culture. These guys weren't just watching Swan Lake . They were dancing it. It was lovely, camp, ironic, wistful--fabulous! Since then we've had an even more fabulous Swan Lake with sexy male swans and homoerotic pas de deux in London, L.A., on Broadway; on the BBC as Christmas entertainment and even broadcast on ever-cautious-about-gay-stuff PBS.     I ponder recent Pride celebrations I have attended and wonder what it means to be gay now. It meant something very specific to me (beyond the sexual stuff). Does it now mean only the sexual stuff? Or a masculine image to be consumed with the tiniest dash of irony: buff gym boy, leatherman, line dancer, bear? "Straight looking and acting?"     In 1998 The New Yorker ran an interview with brilliant American countertenor David Daniels. The writer, Mark Levine, was interested in the queerness of the countertenor voice, a female-gendered voice emanating from a male body. Daniels grew up imitating the sopranos of his youth, Leontyne Price and Monserrat Caballe, though he aspired to be the next Franco Corelli, the most flamboyant tenor of the 1960s. However, according to Levine's article, Daniels seems most concerned with projecting a masculine image. The article notes: Offstage, Daniels, who is thirty-one, turns out to be comfortably and unmistakably a guy . He is polite to his elders, but out of their presence he can discharge a stream of raunchy comments. He wears jeans and gym socks almost everywhere he goes, and he likes dining out at Burger King. During a week of opera performances in Miami, he invited me to his hotel one evening to watch college basketball--fortified by warm beer and pizza from the box. However much Levine found Daniels to be a guy , his article presented himself and Daniels as two men deeply conflicted about masculinity and gayness. Daniels does not want to be read as a eunuch (a stereotype about men with high voices), so he sports a growth of beard. He is very cagey about his gayness and the assumption (often correct) that countertenors are gay: Inevitably, Daniels must contend with other questions about "masculinity." "The only expectation people have of a countertenor is that he's gay," Daniels tells me over breakfast one morning. The subject was bound to come up, and when it does, Daniels's charming professional manner becomes edgy. "Straight countertenors are few and far between, but they do exist," he says. Is it Daniels or Levine who sees masculinity and gayness as opposites? Later, Levine reluctantly admits that Daniels is gay but "remains guarded about his private life." Clearly David Daniels above all wants to be seen as "straight looking and acting." Heaven forbid that this countertenor who spends his professional time singing falsetto, and does imitations of star sopranos at parties, should be thought a sissy! I found Levine's article on Daniels a fascinating study of an extreme case of the anxiety about masculinity contemporary gay men feel. "'I'm a man,' Daniels says, sounding weary from having to insist on the obvious." And we get weary from listening. Recently novelist John Rechy, longtime chronicler of the darker side of urban gay life, wrote: The physical appearance of gay men is determined by considerations of sexual attraction. A new breed of gay men is being shaped by its aversion to "femmishness." The trend is toward a body with tight muscles formed by machines that will not disturb hairstyle. The walk is becoming a strut in equal parts Madonna and Clint Eastwood. Hands increasingly cling to the wrist in horror that idle hands may relax into a limp wrist, that hips may swish.... If that direction is pursued, there will emerge a figure of effeminate masculinity, a new, conforming "stereotype" as identifiably gay as drag or leather--created to avoid looking gay. Before one starts lamenting current trends, it is important to note that the history of the majority of post-Stonewall gay culture has been one of avoiding looking like a sissy. The clone look of the liberated 70s--T-shirt, jeans, work boots--was an attempt to look straight but be recognizably gay at the same time. In his essential study, Gay New York , George Chauncey notes about turn of the century relations between fairies and other men: Becoming a fairy offered men a way to make sense of their feeling sexually different from other men and to structure their relations with other men. Because the fairy was the central pejorative category against which men had to measure themselves as they developed their gender and sexual style, all men had to position themselves in relation to it.     Now gay men, as well as straight men, have positioned themselves against the image of the fairy and its tamer form, the sissy. If the fairy and the sissy allowed straight men a model of straightness--being not sissy--it also allowed gay men a version of gay normalcy and the possibility of assimilation. Non-sissies can be doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers. Sissies remain in the traditionally gay occupations that give them less resources for consuming the American dream.     In McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! , Buzz, the show queen, is the most flamboyant of the gay men, the one who wears a "Nancy" T-shirt or an ensemble consisting entirely of an apron and high heels. Buzz is the most negative of stereotypes for the play and film's detractors. Yet musical theater is in the best sense the queerest of art forms, the one in which gender is most clearly a performance that can be exploded or radically altered, the form in which everything can be seen as drag. It is the most openly flamboyant of art forms. It may be the art form of choice for the few courageous enough to be sissies at the turn of the twenty-first century, who are willing to be other than "straight looking and acting." SHOW QUEENS An exhilarating moment. It is a couple of minutes before a rehearsal of Twelfth Night . I am talking to one of my student cast members who is playing Fabian, who in my production is the flamboyant hairdresser to Olivia. For some reason, this twenty-year-old goes into a perfect imitation of Ethel Merman doing "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun." He is enthusiastically joined by a heretofore quiet freshman sitting twenty feet away. Ethel Merman was not on television or film during these kids' lifetimes, but they can do Ethel Merman imitations and know all the lyrics to the song. I know one of these kids is gay and assume from this performance and other clues that the other is as well. In fact, this joint Ethel Merman imitation is a kind of signaling and bonding ritual for the two young men. This, too, is gay culture, the maintaining of a flamboyant tradition of musical theater and musical divas these kids have never experienced first hand, but somehow know. Perhaps Billy in the 1998 film Billy's Hollywood's Screen Kiss is right. Perhaps some gay men do have a show tune gene. At the dress rehearsal of Twelfth Night a gay student not in the cast comes backstage in full Carol Channing regalia to wish the cast well. Some young gays are not line dancing, nor are they buying into the cultural assumptions of line dancing. They're doing musicals, and for them doing musicals is in some way part of their gayness. Predictive sign: a fondness for musical comedy. I worried, listening to records of Darling Lili, Oklahoma, and No, No, Nanette, that I would end up gay: I didn't know the word "gay," I knew about homosexuality only from Time feature stories about liberation, but I had a clear impression (picked up where?) that gays liked musical comedy. For Wayne Koestenbaum, musical comedy was a way station to opera. Musical comedy evoked a closeted boy's fear of something for which he had no word but homosexuality, though even that word was linked to liberation. Like the progression from marijuana to heroin, listening to Carol Channing and Julie Andrews would escalate to listening to Renata Tebaldi and Koestenbaum's beloved Anna Moffo. Opera and coming out are equated for Koestenbaum, but musicals were the sign that one was gay. Where did the young Koestenbaum get the idea that a fondness for musical comedy was a symptom, an early warning sign, of gayness? It was, as one of my professors used to say about certain prevailing cultural patterns, "in the air." Even D. A. Miller, in a book-length essay on the subject, has to accept the link between musical theater and gayness as a given: "it is impossible to describe the appeal--let me insist: the organized appeal--made to gay men by the post-war Broadway musical," which addressed gay men "as directly as if it had been calling out our names." Gay men and the musical was a stereotype so prevalent and, for some, so true that a source becomes undetectable. One cannot possibly find patient zero.     In Paul Rudnick's script for the 1997 film In and Out , Howard's love for musical theater is, along with his tidiness and limp wrists, a sign of his closeted homosexuality. Howard plays the Merman cast album of Gypsy in his private moments at home and worships Barbra Streisand. He only gets physically violent when friends say Streisand was no good in Yentl . The audience laughs in recognition. Musicals = gay is a stereotype. To exist as such, it must have some familiarity for an audience. Where do such stereotypes come from? In and Out was written by a gay satirist, and for the film's iconography to work for a mass audience, its stereotypes had to have some popular currency, but it is not necessarily true that the stereotype has been imposed from the outside as a means of defining and marginalizing gay men. It could be that the currency of the stereotype came from gay writers in the popular media. Recently I saw a rerun of a classic Golden Girls episode. Blanche's brother has come to visit, and, in the course of the episode, he comes out to his sister and her housemates. Earlier, Sophia announces that she is sure he's gay: "I heard him singing in the shower. He's the only man I know who knows all the lyrics to `Send In the Clowns.' The guy's as gay as a fruit basket." In the days before the proliferation of gay characters on sitcoms, few shows were as gay-friendly or as open to gay readings as Golden Girls , which is still in syndication on Lifetime , the cable channel a Saturday Night Live skit called "the channel for women and gay men." Golden Girls was, after all, Battling Divas, starring an aging butch diva with a monster Jewish mother masquerading as an Italian, an aging Blanche Dubois, and an aging dumb blonde. Sophia's quip about Blanche's brother ties gayness generally to musical theater and specifically to Sondheim. Sophia's stereotype is defining, limiting, but not demeaning. It does tie the gay man to an artistic, esoteric milieu different from that of the characters or many of the viewers. Like In and Out , it suggests that knowledge of musicals, or of some musicals (what if Blanches's brother had sung a number from Cats? ) is a signifier of gayness. On an episode of the sitcom Will and Grace , flamboyant Jack sings "Nothing's Going to Harm You" from Sweeney Todd .     Is this a valid signifier? An informal survey of my gay students who are most passionate about musicals would seem to support the stereotype. Not all gay men are show queens; not all men who love musicals are gay. But there is a phenomenon, the show queen, for whom gayness and musical theater are connected. One student of mine wrote: I think among gay actors, musical theater is definitely a cohesive bond for various reasons. First, I think many gay men simply grew up listening to, and sometimes impersonating, musical theater greats, such as good ol' Ethel. I became interested in musical theater before the ugly stick of puberty smacked me across the face. Throughout childhood, you could find me prancing around in my briefs singing "Look at me I'm Sandra Dee" at the top of my lungs whenever I was home alone.... It is strange to note that coming out coincided almost perfectly with my involvement in musical theater here at Duke ... hmmm ... INTERESTING.... On the flip side I think musical theater for many gay men is so stereotypically gay that they shy away from it. I've had numerous gay friends of mine say, "Oh, you do musical theater ... that's so GAY! I would never be in a musical." This kid is from a small town in the Deep South, not New York City. His comments demonstrate both the importance of musical theater to him as a gay man and the power of the stereotype for those who prefer to be "straight looking and acting." It could be that show queens are liberating themselves by consciously asserting a form of flamboyant theatricality instead of accepting traditional masculine codes of appearance and behavior. Reintegrating the show queen could be a means of locating the possibility of joy. BUSSING TO JULIE At 9 A.M. on a chilly, sunny Saturday a few years ago, two busloads of gay men leave from a parking lot in a northern suburb of Baltimore for a trip to New York to see Julie Andrews in the musical Victor, Victoria . The trip is arranged by a gay couple who run a local theater-party service. Many of the people on the busses know each other from Baltimore gay social life or from other excursions planned by this couple. It costs $125 for the orchestra seats and the three-hour bus ride to and from Times Square. The bus is equipped with a VCR so we can watch a tape of a PBS documentary on Julie Andrews and selected films. Light refreshments are served. My partner and I are part of a mini-party of half a dozen close friends who have arranged to have this day together. We're even going to squeeze in a matinee before seeing Julie. We gather a bit early so we can sit together on one of the busses.     One of our party is a doctor whose avocation is seeing, listening to, and reading about musical theater. He is a true show queen. As am I. As are at least half of the men on the busses. The rest are friends or partners of show queens. My friend the doctor read Theatre Week religiously (is it coincidence that Theatre Week was published by the same company that published the New York Native , the city's major gay newspaper?) before its demise and has seen all the hit musicals multiples of times. His partner, a stockbroker, is a more casual fan. He still hasn't warmed up to Sondheim, but it's OK, he feels guilty about it.     In front of my partner and me is a nineteen-year-old who works in a fastfood restaurant in downtown Baltimore and whose coming out is linked to his adoration of musicals. I am told by others who have been on previous trips with this young man that he has had a hard time coming out in his working-class, Catholic section of Baltimore. He has saved up for months for this trip. His mother is with him--the only woman on the bus--but she seems to be having a ball. She also seems to understand the culture her son has joined and supports him in it. This is a lonely boy who does not have the support system the gay boys his age that I teach have. He does not have a musical-comedy club to perform with and socialize with. He gets the phone numbers of the men around him on the bus and calls them, not for sexual assignations, but for conversation and companionship. His fellow workers and neighbors aren't into musicals. How did this kid get to be a show queen? How does his love of musicals and his gayness connect?     Everyone on the bus has seen the film of Victor, Victoria . For us older folk, it was, for its time, a rare glimpse at a sympathetic gay character, played brilliantly by Robert Preston. Preston's Toddy was shamelessly, proudly gay and, unlike most early gay representations in film, he didn't remain unattached. He got Mr. Bernstein, played in a delightfully deadpan style by former football star Alex Karras. The film begins and ends with Toddy, the gay entertainer who becomes Victoria's best friend and her impresario. The final musical number in the film is Toddy hilariously sending up the dull Spanish number we have twice seen Victoria perform, and the film closes on Toddy receiving the rapturous applause of Victoria and Toddy's new beau, Mr. Bernstein. An audience who supposedly came to see Victoria is even more pleased to see Toddy. During the ovation, Toddy throws a rose from his bouquet to Mr. Bernstein who, with tears of joy, catches it.     Preston's performance--his last on screen or stage--was brilliant. The former Hollywood supporting player had, like Angela Lansbury, had a second career when he starred in a musical ( The Music Man ). Unfortunately, he never found another successful vehicle and bravely appeared in flop after flop, some of which died on the road before they ever reached Broadway. Show queens treasure the cast album of Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel starring Preston and Bernadette Peters, but a recent London revival proved why the show didn't make it--great tunes, but an incoherent bummer of a book. Victor, Victoria was another comeback for Preston, and the greatest joy of the film is watching the fun he is having. Is it Toddy or Preston howling with delight during his final drag number? Preston played Toddy without any stereotypical mannerisms; no limp wrists, excessive swishing, or eyeball rolling. In Victor, Victoria, it is the straights who insist on playing stereotypes. Still, Toddy is the film's show queen.     Meanwhile, King, the stolid hero (played by James Garner), like Shakespeare's Orsino and Orlando, has to come to terms with the fact that the object of his desire was pretending to be a man, thus making his desire a matter of confusion of sexuality, but raising important questions about gender identity. To love Victoria, he must love Victor. To gain the female object of his affections, he must not be ashamed to love a man. The beauty of the movie is its critique of American conventions of masculinity and their attendant homophobia. Victor says to King, "You're one kind of man, I'm another." "What kind are you," King queries. "One who doesn't have to prove it to anyone." King already knows that Victor is Victoria, but he has to learn that there's no tragedy in being thought to be gay. The contrast between the men lovingly dancing together in the gay bar and the violent bonding King prefers in the waterfront dive shows the silliness of macho violence. King challenges a boxer at the gym to a fight to prove his heterosexuality. His opponent is both middleweight champion and gay. King loses on both counts.     For those of us old enough to have seen the film when it was first released, Victor, Victoria was a rare affirmation from cautious Hollywood. Critics praised the film and Robert Preston, but a number of critics felt that Andrews's performance was too chilly for the farce surrounding her. She was Mrs. Blake Edwards and that's why she was at the center of a Blake Edwards film. I read Andrews's stolidity as integrity. She was the still center of the farcical world. The androgyne, the character who embodied the gender instability, was the strongest, most stable character in the film. Victor, Victoria was as much Shakespearean comedy as farce. Andrews's Victoria was Viola and Rosalind, self-aware while others are deluded. In Victor, Victoria, it's the men and women, straight and gay, who believe in stable, conventional definitions of gender and sexuality who are the targets of the comedy.     A musical of Victor, Victoria was bound to be a hit with show queens. More than La Cage aux Folles (1983), the previous hit gay musical, the subject matter offered the possibility of deconstructing stereotypes of gender and sexuality. One could worry that, unlike La Cage aux Folles, Victor, Victoria was being written and directed by heterosexuals. Still, it was a show that seemed to be aimed at us.     Part of that "aim" was a knowledge on the part of the producers and makers of the show that gay people are a sizeable core audience for theater and that this audience of gay theatergoers will go to any show with gay subject matter and characters. There is a significant body of serious gay theater and, as with mainstream theater, a significant amount of gay fluff. For every Love! Valour! Compassion! there are a number of plays like Making Porn and Two Boys on a Bed on a Cold Winter Night, which seem to exist for the nudity. But gay folks didn't have, until recently, television shows about us, and even now when we do the gay characters have to be sexless. Our appearance in movies is still rare. Gay people are the only core audience left who need theater to see ourselves, which is why many small theaters across the country attract their largest audiences for gay-oriented plays. Seeing ourselves on Broadway at $75 a seat (if you want to see anything but Lilliputians) is a luxury gay men are willing to pay for.     Victor, Victoria was an event for some of us guys on the bus because it was a return to the diva musical. For show queens, musicals are about divas, about Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Gwen Verdon, Barbara Cook, Angela Lansbury, and a handful of other women who have that larger-than-life quality that the theater demands. Betty Buckley has it. So does Bernadette Peters. The great attraction of seeing Victor, Victoria on stage was seeing diva Julie Andrews return to Broadway at age sixty. My boyhood best friend and I went to New York to see Julie Andrews in The Boy Friend the summer after eighth grade. We thought the show was hilarious. Already at age thirteen, I had an enormous love of camp and The Boy Friend was as camp as they came. The original cast album was the first I ever bought. For me, seeing My Fair Lady was seeing Julie Andrews. The thrill of the show was watching and hearing her sing "I Could Have Danced All Night" from my perch in the balcony of the Mark Hellinger Theater. I wore out my album of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical for television, Cinderella, in which Julie was radiant even when she was supposed to be impoverished. I even suffered through the insufferable Camelot to see her make her way through that mess of Arthurian inanity with charm and dignity. I saw her return to the New York stage the year before Victor, Victoria in the Sondheim revue, Putting It Together, at the Manhattan Theater Club. Somehow she got a stain on the chic silk aqua pants suit she wore in the show. It was so out of character for the immaculate Julie Andrews to be so sullied that it became my most vivid memory of an decidedly unmemorable show. Everything about Julie has a kind of cleanliness about it: the purity of her soprano voice, now a baritone, but memory overrides physical fact; the purity of her delivery. She has her mannerisms, particularly that characteristic expressive slide on and off of notes for emphasis (she shares that with Leontyne Price). But with her crisp BBC diction and a general air of caution, there is an old-fashioned strength and serenity in Andrews's work. When she sang the acerbic Sondheim songs in Putting It Together , one missed some of the cynicism and anger Diana Rigg gave them in London. Rigg can't hit all the notes, but she acts the songs. When Andrews said "Fuck" one laughed at the incongruousness of it. Still, Andrews is a true Broadway diva, the grand, poised Tebaldi rather than the intense, passionate Callas.     Few, if any, of my other companions had seen Julie Andrews live before. A star was going to appear on Broadway, which had become starless in recent years. Few of the current crop of performers have the discipline or desire to give eight performances a week for a year. Starting on Broadway is the exception, not the rule, and it now has an aura of heroism, of sacrifice. The press surrounding Victor, Victoria was about Julie nobly coming to Broadway and signing a long-term contract so that her husband's project would break even. Starring on Broadway used to be the goal of performers, not an act of financial and personal sacrifice. We would be seeing a real star in the flesh sacrificing and working for us.     This star was sixty years old, so starring in this musical was not only sacrifice, but endurance, a sign that one could age gracefully and indefatigably. The remaining Broadway divas are now middle-aged or older. The recent revival of Hello, Dolly offered Carol Channing in her late seventies doing an imitation of a drag queen doing Carol Channing. Not a pretty sight, but an act of endurance. Barbara Cook is over seventy. Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, and Liza Minnelli are in their fifties. Gregory Hines, the one real male musical divo of the past twenty years, is middle-aged and a sitcom star. Like everything else about the Broadway musical, these stars now evoke nostalgia more than raging passion.     For most of the guys on the bus seeing Julie was seeing Maria in The Sound of Music on video, not a film I associate with show queens, though in the 1997 film Kiss Me Guido , it is a favorite of the gay leading character, Warren. Maybe they had seen Mary Poppins on video as well. If they were lucky or true show queens, they had seen a video of the wonderfully camp Thoroughly Modern Millie in which Andrews shares top billing with Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, and Bea Lillie. Thoroughly Modern Millie is a show queen's delight. Like a Broadway musical of the twenties and thirties or the classic postwar MGM musicals produced by Arthur Freed, the plot is simply there to offer the stars a chance to do star turns. Carol Channing was seldom in film and her performance as an eccentric and charmingly promiscuous millionairess here is appropriately wacky. She's game for anything, including being shot out of a cannon or performing with a circus acrobatic team. You see in Millie much more than in later revivals of Hello, Dolly how radiantly off-the-wall Channing could be. Beatrice Lillie, fresh from her last Broadway musical, High Spirits, is more subdued than in her stage appearance, but funny as the part Chinese hotel manager and white slave trader (the racial stereotypes in the film are far from politically correct). In her heyday, Lillie was one of the few divas who acknowledged the existence of homosexuality. Her rendition of "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden," signaling at every line exactly what kind of fairies she was singing about, became her most famous number. Mary Tyler Moore plays the dizzy, soft-voiced ingenue who gets the caricature of the stolid leading man, played stolidly by John Gavin. Julie ends up with Jimmy, the devil-may-care young millionaire, played by the young James Fox, and that gives the film its touch of sexual transgression. Fox is cute and charming and works hard, but in the film he just doesn't seem very, well, heterosexual. Millie (Andrews) discovers at the end that Fox is Carol Channing's son and heir. He acts like he should be Carol Channing's son! I can see why some folks find Thoroughly Modern Millie curiously uninvolving. There is absolutely no sexual electricity between anyone in the film, but it has its own camp pleasures.     In the late 1960s, Julie Andrews presided over the last triumphs ( Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music ) and death throes ( Star ) of the big Hollywood musical while she carved a niche as a film actress. She is videotape, memories, and legend. The T-shirt for Victor, Victoria was not the usual show logo, but a large color photo of Julie in male drag. When Julie was too ill or tired to go on, the majority of the audience asked for a refund or tickets to a later performance. They came to see Julie, and when she went on vacation, they got Liza Minnelli to come in for a few weeks and do her star thing, another piece of nostalgia for a performer who had her heyday over twenty-five years ago. Minnelli is the opposite of Julie, all desperation and total lack of control. For some reason, a number of show queens love her. When Julie finally left the show, the title role went to Raquel Welch, a signifier of nostalgia for a very different branch of show business. Welch may be an aged imitation of her former glory, but she hasn't succeeded in becoming either revered like Julie or camp like Liza. The show closed in a couple of weeks.     Shortly before eight o'clock, we, with the rest of the sold out audience, take the escalators up to the Marquis Theater, ensconced in the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Times Square. Like many of the new theaters built for Broadway musicals in the past thirty years, the Marquis is characterless. At least, unlike the older theaters, it has lobby space to walk around and spacious bathrooms (if you can find them). But the theater itself does nothing to enhance the sense of an event. Entering it is more like entering a nightclub in a Las Vegas hotel than entering the special world of theater. Large souvenir stands flank the doors to the auditorium. Buying an overpriced memento is part of the experience of seeing a musical now. "See, I paid my $75 to see this, plus my $25 to park and the price of dinner." Such cynicism didn't stop me from buying a Julie Andrews T-shirt I will never wear. The young man in front of us on the bus buys loads of souvenirs.     Our group sits together in the orchestra section. There has never been a hit show in the Marquis Theater, and it doesn't take longer than a few seconds to figure out why. It's a cold space. One not only feels distant from the stage, a problem in many new theaters, but doesn't feel the proper sense of closeness with the rest of the audience. A bit of claustrophobia is necessary for theater. In the old Broadway houses, you are always aware of the rest of the audience as you watch the stage, of the communal experience of theater, which adds to the excitement of the event. The Marquis is built like a mall movie theater, offering distance from fellow audience members so that you can ignore their eating and talking. The old theaters aren't always user-friendly. They lack public space, lobbies, and adequate restrooms, but the auditoria make you feel like you are in a theater. They add to the excitement of the event. From row U of the Marquis, I felt miles away from the stage. From row U of the tatty old Neil Simon Theatre, where I recently saw The King and I , I could see the performers' faces. The Marquis is not a space for a star turn for a real rapport between performer and audience.     What Victor, Victoria had going for it was Julie Andrews and its sexual politics. Unfortunately, the musical was a pale reminder of the film, a lesson in the sort of compromise one has to make to do what shouldn't be done. Songs were added that over-simplified the characters. The first of these, a duet for Victoria and Toddy, "If I Were a Man," moves Toddy from the rich character he was in the film to the Broadway gay stereotype a la La Cage aux Folles . Toddy on stage is not a gay man, but a man who wants to be a woman, the oldest Broadway stereotype of a gay man. Toddy never gets the final star turn he got in the film. The finale is an old-fashioned, everybody-on-stage singing of the title tune. "King's Dilemma," his song about his fears of homosexuality, is no replacement for the desperate macho behaviors of King in the film. The musical, to its credit, waits much longer for King to discover Victor is Victoria. The duet for King and Victoria, "Almost a Love Song," is the most dramatically successful song in the show, though like most of the score, it is a bit too low-key for a stage musical. The lyrics aren't witty enough or the music dynamic enough. I thought Victoria's song, "Living in the Shadows" (by Frank Wildhorn, who completed the score after Henry Mancini died), would replace "I Am What I Am" as the gay anthem to be sung at every Gay Pride occasion, but it didn't happen. It's too sweet, too placid. It's a film ballad, not a rousing show tune.     Like the stars of the good old days, Judy Holliday or Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews bravely stuck with Victor, Victoria through two theater seasons, over seven hundred performances. She and her husband are not only star and writer/ director; they are also producers and investors and they know, no Julie, no show. The show weathered its lack of a Tony nomination for Best Musical and Julie tried to capitalize on that disaster (the Tonys are the best publicity a Broadway show gets) by publicly boycotting the Tonys and refusing her own award. The fact is, by the standards of the 1950s, Victor, Victoria isn't a very good show.     Yet there we were and we wouldn't have missed it for the world. A diva in a gay-affirming musical was enough to draw busloads from as far as Baltimore. A friend told me that when he saw the show, there was a large lesbian contingent in the audience to cheer the tango Julie Andrews dances with Rachel York (Norma). Such moments of female-female contact are far rarer than male-male moments on Broadway.     I would think there is little in Victor, Victoria for what Broadway used to call the "tired businessman," the straight man who comes to the theater for some naughty humor, a few good tunes, and pretty chorines. Norma's number, "Chicago" (also in the film), is a caricature of such a number, an echo of the Hot Box numbers in Guys and Dolls . Throughout the show, Julie Andrews is backed up by a gaggle of hard-working gypsies. Choreographer Rob Marshall is far more interested in placing his male dancers front and center than in spotlighting the chorines, and his aggressive choreography for his male dancers contains more than a "hint of mint." Since Tony Roberts, who plays Toddy with his usual charmless efficiency, makes Toddy straighter than King, the gypsies give the show its real gay presence.     Julie was given a thundering ovation at the end. Our group escalated out of the theater happy, if not overwhelmed. The bus ride back offered us renditions of "Happy Birthday" to my partner and the other birthday boy on the bus. It also offered a screening of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert , that joyous Australian quasi-musical about the trek of a drag troupe across the outback, which has a gay fabulousness totally missing from the show we had just seen. Everyone on the bus knew the film by heart and laughed before things happened. The post-Julie screening of Priscilla reminded me that being a show queen is also being something of an anachronism. The kind of musical show queens love is a thing of the past. Watching a mediocre show like Victor, Victoria only reminds us that we are show queens without shows, left to reminisce or wait for the next revival to rekindle our passion. Priscilla , available on video for repeated viewing, is some solace. Instead of drag queens imitating divas, straight actors imitate drag queens, but there is the tacky joy, the liberation, that we loved in the musicals we remember.     The show queen was adept at the imaginative leap of reading his gayness into the musical, particularly in reading his gayness into the flamboyance of the divas. Why bother reading gayness into a musical when there are gay characters on NBC almost every night? Why dare read gayness into a musical when queer theorists proclaim such a reading is a symptom of the repression and misery of the closet? Why read gayness into musicals when musicals are too gay for comfort for "straight looking and acting" gay men? The true show queen would answer, "Because it's theater!" Because the most theatrical of forms can be an expression of all that is best about gayness in all senses of the word: "keenly alive and exuberant: having or inducing high spirits." Because for some of us gayness and theater are inextricably linked. They are also linked for the line dancers doing their uniform steps and turns, but for the true show queen that's too much like being in the chores. It doesn't compare with the thrill of calling out: "Here she is, boys! Here's Rose!"     I will argue throughout this book that we show queens found more cause for joy, more recognition, in our readings of shows of the past than in more recent, more ostensibly gay musicals. What could possibly be gay about Tony Roberts's dreary impersonation of a gay man? The irony of theater--and of NBC sitcoms--is that there is often more gayness to be read in ostensibly straight characters. Because of that, much of my history takes place in the bad old days before Stonewall.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Musical Theater and Gay Culturep. 1
Chapter I Opening Chorus
Line Dancers and Show Queensp. 27
Chapter II Patter Songs
Gay Lyrics, Gay Iconsp. 49
Chapter III Love Duets
"You've Got to Be Carefully Taught": Heterosexuality and Usp. 87
Chapter IV Show Stoppers
"Here She Is, Boys!": On Divas, Drag, and Immortalityp. 133
Chapter V Star Turns
The Diva Musicalp. 167
Chapter VI Dream Ballets
Chorus Boysp. 197
Chapter VII Fraught Love Duets
Sondheim and Ip. 211
Chapter VIII Different Tunes
Fairy Tales: Gay Musicalsp. 245
A Selective Discography (With Some Videos Thrown In)p. 283
Notesp. 297
Indexp. 309