The New Old Gays

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?”

The New Old Gays