“It’s one of the last fabulous things about New York,” a dark-haired young man nursing a drink at the nightclub Splash, on West 17th Street, said the other night. He was referring to Musical Mondays, a weekly event at which a VJ plays video clips from Broadway shows—plus films based on Broadway shows, films featuring Broadway stars, Broadway tribute shows, and Tony Awards shows—to an audience of mostly gay, mostly young men, and a smattering of theatrically inclined young women.
A clip from the musical Wicked, featuring the actress Idina Menzel, came on. A cheer went up from the crowd. “I’ve been coming on and off since I was 22 or 23,” said a 26-year-old blond named Kevin, who is in cosmetology school. He wants to design wigs for Broadway shows, and, he said, the union requires its wig designers to be licensed hairstylists. “It’s very word-of-mouth. I was working at a press office—you definitely run into people you work with.”
A clip of the actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s January 2007 appearance on Saturday Night Live, when he sings the song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from Dreamgirls, came on. “I knew since I was 7 that I was moving to New York,” continued Kevin, who was raised outside of Washington, D.C., and now lives in Hell’s Kitchen. He is skinny, with spiky hair. He wore an aqua blue T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops. “I moved here two months after I turned 18. I was temping, working in restaurant jobs. I came to be an actor.”
If that sounds like a familiar path, one trod by thousands of young, good-looking gay men before him, it’s nevertheless no longer the gay cliché. These days, the young gays of Williamsburg and the East Village—the ones who wear pointy shoes and tight cutoff shorts, who studied queer theory and dabbled in heroin at Sarah Lawrence or Bard or Wesleyan, hang out at bars like Metropolitan and Sugarland in Williamsburg or the Phoenix and Eastern Bloc in the East Village, and listen to Chromeo and Girl Talk and Le Tigre—get all the attention. Corner one of these young men, and he will profess ignorance of that other scene of youthful gays, the gays of the Friends of Dorothy variety. As one of the New Gays confidently told me, it is a scene made up exclusively of the old and, quite possibly, fat, adding that the only young men who fraternize with this group are those who cannot, in all likelihood and despite their best efforts, get laid.
Of course, to paraphrase Barbra Streisand, they’re still here. One might even say they’re flourishing. Here come the New Old Gays!
To be classified as a New Old Gay requires more than an appreciation of Patti LuPone, though love of somewhat tragic, just a tad grotesque, totally fabulous divas is a requirement. In some ways the New Old Gay can be read as a reassertion of a gay identity that had all but been given up for dead: If gays can be married and have children and live contentedly in the suburbs, or on the other end of the spectrum, do the same drugs at the same loft parties as their Oberlin classmates, and if everyone thinks AIDS is no more serious than diabetes, then, really, what’s the difference between the gays and the straights? By dialing back to and reinventing the old gay stereotypes, they may have the best shot at reclaiming gayness as something actually different.
It’s akin to the ways in which identity politics have played out for various minorities and ethnic groups; everyone makes this huge effort to assimilate, and then, after 10 or 20 years or so, they realize: It’s boring!
And thus, the New Old Gay appreciates and embraces camp and high kitsch, but not ironically; ultimately, the New Old Gay is earnest. He doesn’t even necessarily have to be into musical theater, though he almost always is.
Project Runway Season 1 contestant Austin Scarlett is New Old Gay, Project Runway Season 4 winner Christian Siriano is New Gay. The Scissor Sisters are New Gay. Rufus Wainwright flirts with being New Old Gay, but he’s really New Gay in a Judy Garland costume. New Old Gay is The Golden Girls; New Gay is America’s Next Top Model. New Old Gay is putting together a reading of a Wendy Wasserstein play and singing show tunes around the piano at Marie’s Crisis, the West Village bar with colored Christmas lights arranged in a rainbow pattern on the ceiling; New Gay is karaoke at Sing Sing after a birthday party at Primorski’s in Brighton Beach.
Or take the musical Xanadu, which is, unironically and deliberately, the gayest musical on Broadway, even though it’s technically a straight love story. (There is no lack of perfectly chiseled male ass being shaken at the audience.) At last Friday night’s performance, the audience was a mix of tourists and male couples; in the row ahead of me, a thirtysomething man mouthed the words to every song, a huge grin on his face the entire time. Back at Splash, a video of Xanadu’s hunky, openly gay star Cheyenne Jackson (on loan to Damn Yankees at the New York City Center until July 27) singing a song from the musical was greeted with a huge cheer. For his part, Mr. Jackson, who is 33, says he’s comfortable with his position as a kind of gay theater poster boy. “Being a role model isn’t something I think of myself as, but I understand that I am for others in the community,” he told me. “The bottom line is, people want to be represented, and I am happy to do that for them.”
Gays have participated in and identified with musical theater for over 75 years; theater historians agree that one simple explanation why musical theater was attractive to gay men was in part because it provided them a place where singing and dancing was considered acceptable. In addition, touring companies exposed gays around the country to the possibilities of living in New York, and the story lines of many musicals, even if they weren’t overtly or deliberately gay, nonetheless reinforced certain themes that resonated with the gay community.
“We weren’t really setting out to make something that would appeal to the gay community,” said Xanadu producer Robert Ahrens, who, like most of the creative team on the production, is gay. “We thought gays would like it—with Xanadu, it’s never like, that’s too much. It was like, let’s go all out and make a musical with no holds barred. That wound up appealing to the gay community.” Once a month or so, the production hosts a “Boys Night,” in which an open bar after the show is included in the ticket price and members of the cast come to shmooze. (“That was the gayest musical I’ve ever seen,” said the gay friend I took to see it.) A New Old Gay goes to Xanadu to actually enjoy it, not ironically hum along to the sounds of the Electric Light Orchestra.
A few nights later, on Thursday, Marie’s Crisis, which is on Grove Street just off Seventh Avenue South, was just filling up at around 11. Perched on a stool next to the piano was a rather portly fellow who seemed to be prompting the cheerful pianist to play medleys from Annie, Oklahoma! and Fame. A blond young man sat in the corner with another blond woman. Were they dating? It was unclear. He knew all the words to every song; she looked miserable.
“I usually come on Tuesdays,” he explained. He said he had moved to New York from Florida less than a year before to work in musical theater, though he wasn’t, currently, employed. The pair had met at a theater district bar earlier in the summer, he said. The girl had just moved here a couple weeks before from Iowa. She had never been to Marie’s Crisis.
The action, such as it is, at Marie’s Crisis takes place on the lower level of the establishment. A bar in the back serves Miller Lite in bottles for $5 each, though most people there seemed to be holding mixed drinks. The vibe is gay American Legion Post. The crowd was a mostly white mix of young and old, though the young and old didn’t seem to be mingling much. Everyone carefully ignored the two guys who walked in and quickly started dancing exaggeratedly, yelling out, “Yeah!” (O.K. You’re straight. We get it.)
Marie’s Crisis is the place that’s a touchstone for both New Old and New Gays—for New Old Gays, it’s probably the first piano bar they went to in New York; for New Gays, it’s the place they maybe have set foot in once. As a joke. The Duplex, across Seventh Avenue, is much larger and doesn’t have quite the same vibe.
BACK AT SPLASH, Jared Owens, a 25-year-old who moved to New York from Ohio last year, sat around a table near the stage with a group of friends. “I always loved theater—I write, I can sing. But I’m not exploring theater as a professional,” he said. Mr. Owens works at the Barnes & Noble near Lincoln Center and lives in Spanish Harlem. The last musical he saw was Gypsy, he said. “Anyone I consider a true friend is into musical theater.” Every week, at midnight, Broadway stars of various wattage perform onstage at Splash; Mr. Owens recently caught Donna McKechnie, the former star of A Chorus Line. “If it’s someone big, it’s on the legitimate theater Web sites.”
KEVIN, THE WIGMAKER-TO-BE, nudged me. “Don’t look now, but that guy with the curly blond hair? That’s Tom Plotkin. Willard in the original Footloose?”
“How old is he?” I asked.
“Oh, Footloose the musical, not the movie!” Kevin said. “Anyway. I got a cat and named it after him.” Kevin’s favorite actors are Idina Menzel, Patti LuPone, Liza Minnelli, Jennifer Holliday (the original singer of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in the 1982 Broadway production of Dreamgirls) and Sutton Foster, whose rise to stardom could be a Broadway show in itself: As a chorus girl in Thoroughly Modern Millie, she was chosen to be the lead during rehearsals, and won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical in 2002. A nearby table erupted in song as “Good Morning Baltimore!” from the recent film version of Hairspray came on the screen.
“I’m glad there’s a forum for the people that need it,” said 28-year-old lawyer Andy Lupin, who was standing somewhat sheepishly by a table of singing men. Mr. Lupin said he had only been to Musical Mondays twice before. “A novice can get into it, too! I’ve been to Marie’s Crisis. I actually know more than I expect to.”
Barbra Streisand was singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from the 1968 film Funny Girl. It was the scene when she gets off the train and the music stops. Everyone at Splash yelled out, in unison: “Run, bitch, run!” Then Ms. Streisand started running.
“It’s our most popular happy hour,” said one of the bartenders, a muscular man named Calli who gave his age as “mid-30s” and said he was from London. He was wearing a teeny tiny pair of Diesel briefs, and said he was an actor—“stage, TV, commercials.” “The designers want us to wear their stuff, to promote it,” he said.
“I got into theater through musical theater,” said Adam Thompson, a 26-year-old actor and director who moved to New York one month ago from Boston, and works as a development associate at Career Transition for Dancers. We met at a Starbucks near his Times Square office. “I’m from a suburban town in Connecticut, and I could go in my room and turn on Phantom and be in my own world. From my experience within the past 10 to 15 years, there’s lots of oppression you deal with without even realizing it. Through musical theater, you have the opportunity to be larger than life. It’s like you’re overcompensating for the fact that you can’t ever be yourself. All of the being yourself gets pushed down.” Nonetheless, Mr. Thompson, who runs an ensemble theater company called the Deconstructive Theatre Project, said he’s focusing on darker, more political theatrical material these days. “I’m more interested in confronting the world than running away from it,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, the audience had just settled into their seats for the matinee of Gypsy when a voice came over the speakers instructing the audience members to turn off their cell phones, unwrap any hard candies and so on and so forth. And then: “Patti LuPone has injured her foot.” Collective intake of breath. “And so she will be performing today wearing Isotoners.” She got a standing ovation.