It’s amazing how hysterical everyone becomes when they’re involved with a Broadway musical. It doesn’t seem to happen much with plays. (Plays don’t count.) Yet a form of hysterical blindness overcomes even quite sane people on big musicals, until they reach the frantic point when they can no longer see what’s going on before their eyes.
You will have heard of the mess and uproar involved in the making of Rosie O’Donnell’s $10 million vanity production, Taboo . Now, whether a musical about the drag queens and freaks of the 1980’s London club scene will make it on Broadway is almost beside the point. But this I can guarantee: More or less anyone-including you and me and your mother-could have told Ms. O’Donnell what’s fatally wrong with her show before the curtain went up. Had she listened (which is doubtful), perhaps she could have fixed it and saved herself a bundle.
Risking life and limb, this is what you would have whispered to her by way of tactful advice: “I’m very sorry, but I don’t know what story you’re telling.”
To which Ms. O’Donnell would have replied, “Get lost.”
“You see, Rosie,” you would surely have added patiently, for you’ve only the good of Broadway and Rosie at heart, “when you say, as you did so movingly on the courthouse steps, that ‘ Taboo emits light and yellow and God and love,’ are you O.K.?”
And the lady would have sweetly replied, “Who the fuck are you?”
We’re the public! The central confusion of Taboo for all to see is its serious identity problem. I thought the show was about Boy George, the androgynous, waif-like Culture Club star of 20 years ago who looked like a sweet geisha girl. But, among several, sketchier stories crowding in on the action, there’s also the life story of the notorious fashion innovator and drag-queen performance artist Leigh Bowery, who’s played by the now middle-aged Boy George.
Let’s take stock.
The music and lyrics are by Boy George-the composer, of course, of 80’s bubblegum songs like “Karma Chameleon” and “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” He also co-conceived the show, which comes from a limited success in the West End to its revamped version at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway. It certainly starts out as the Boy George story: He first appears in a London telephone booth looking like Jesus in lipstick or-depending whether he’s wearing the plumed helmet-Brittania. The appealing young British performer Euan Morton, who originated the role in London, is a Boy George look-alike singing wanly:
Someone make me a star ‘cos I sure
Can’t be a man.
Anyway, on the one hand, Taboo seems to be telling the story of Boy George’s life. (Decadent rise to fame, fall from grace as a heroin addict, re-emergence from India as a vegetarian Buddhist.) But then it veers off suddenly into someone else’s life story during the urinal scene. There, the “Lord of the Latrine,” Leigh Bowery, appears on a toilet looking like a Kabuki grotesque dressed in a charming black crinoline frock with rhinestone-studded leggings. I must say, it’s good to see the real Boy George back with us again. He may have been at the burgers and chips since the days of wine and roses, but he’s still fun in his knowing way.
Not so sure about Leigh Bowery, though. As the male chorus members of Taboo take a leak in the urinals, Bowery bursts from the toilet to sing an upbeat “I’ll Have You All”:
I’ve had a man or two
In fact, I’ve had a few
In dark and dingy places
I’ve fallen to my knees.
It isn’t as thrilling as it might seem. Bowery’s demimonde of lust and lipstick seems to leave him strangely incomplete. In real life-as they say-Leigh Bowery was also the scary nude model for some of Lucian Freud’s best paintings. Always the muse; never the star. Taboo makes out that the gay renegade, a fantastic art installation personified, craved stardom as much as Boy George. Perhaps he did. But for all the intended daring of the show’s dated, scuzzy creatures of the night promising rude rebellion, the soft center of Taboo makes it about as shocking as American Idol .
Yet London in the 80’s was the last time street fashion meant anything in terms of libertarian self-expression versus middle-aged, prissily disapproving orthodoxy. The dregs and the dispossessed became the artists! It was their inspired, homemade art-art to be worn and painted on yourself-that created a genuine avant-garde of the streets and clubs. But Taboo reduces the brief, shining moment to showbiz mush like a sentimental video for 14-year-olds. Here goes needy Boy George again, pining behind his geisha mask for the love of a good bloke:
Wanting love so desperately,
Oh so desperately
If you see all the hurt in my eyes
Will you laugh, will you run, will
you carry me … ?
Whose life is it, anyway-Boy George’s or Leigh Bowery’s?-is the unresolved, schizo dilemma of the show. The two of them never meet during the action, incidentally. There’s enough confusion between the real Boy George and the pretend one as it is. But the foggy balance of the show turns in Bowery’s favor when, following his death scene in the hospital, his own muse, Nicola, sings a rousing tribute entitled “Il Adore” accompanied by a photo montage of the real Leigh Bowery.
There are also the stories of street urchin Nicola and Big Sue, her rival for Bowery’s blessing. There’s Boy George’s friend, the ill-tempered drag queen Marilyn, who wants to be a famous singer too, and Boy George’s lover, Marcus, a confused photographer tempted out of the closet. There’s our underworld host for the evening, Philip, the “pied piper of lost souls,” played by a manic Raúl Esparza in a torn frock. Philip, the former queen of the London clubs, looks back nostalgically on the good old days and quotes Jean Cocteau, if you please: “Cultivate whatever people condemn you for, because that’s what’s truly original about you.”
That’s what Cocteau, also truly original, pense . Be that as it may, the book of Taboo is by the well-known intellectual and female impersonator Charles Busch, to whom the whole of life is a Joan Crawford movie. “Making threats, are we?” says brittle Big Sue. “Everybody else may be fooled by your fragile-princess routine, but I’ve always known you were a conniving little toad !”
“Well!” Nicola replies before exiting in a huff. “You haven’t seen anything yet, you overstuffed rhino.”
That’s telling her! Mr. Busch ( Die Mommie Die , Vampire Lesbians of Sodom ), hasn’t found his best drag-queen bitchery in his rewrite of the original, cozier book by Mark Davies. But at least he has a great moment during Leigh Bowery’s death scene.
“I thought you’d be all wasted away,” Big Sue says to the rotund Bowery, who’s lying in a hospital bed with AIDS. “You haven’t lost a single pound.”
“Neither have you!” he snaps back from the jaws of death.
The spastic 80’s choreography is by Mark Dendy with a reported eleventh-hour assist by Jeff Calhoun. Tim Goodchild’s threadbare set adds little or nothing, I’m afraid. The superior costumes are by Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce. The director is Christopher Renshaw, best known, perhaps, for his revival of The King and I , and the sole producer is Rosie O’Donnell.
“I think it’s a beautiful show,” Ms. O’Donnell said proudly after opening night. “You want to know what I am about? Go see the show.”