Two of the brightest stars presently on Broadway are not just bending sex stereotypes, but, in truth, transcending gender.
When a celebrity reaches the exposure and notoriety of Neil Patrick Harris, we become riveted by the whole of the person, his or her uniqueness, talent, charisma or, as in Harris's case, all of the above. As if the razzle-dazzle of his gig as host of the Tonys wasn't evidence enough, here he is commanding the stage in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," larger than life. The wigs and heels, the glitter, the visual pyrotechnics, the bombastic music without intermission: did I have to brush glitter off my lapels upon leaving?
"Hedwig," for anyone exclusively glued to Fox News, is the story of a German drag-wannabe who marries an American soldier, undergoes a sex-change operation to gain passage to the U.S. as his wife, and is dumped by him in a Kansas trailer park as a misfit with his botched reassignment surgery. Any potential tragedy is dwarfed by Neil Patrick Harris in this role, hips and lips blazing with the spitfire of a volcano.
Remember how quaint it was, Robin Williams in a dowdy housedress in "Mrs. Doubtfire?" And Dustin Hoffman dolled up in "Tootsie?" All-American, Fourth-of-July fun and antics. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in "Some Like it Hot" light years before that? No one in those days, Eisenhower America, entertained a shadow of a question about such farce violating our gender boundaries.
"Hedwig" represents such a leap beyond this slice of our past that most folks don't even think twice about the new normalcy; that transgender--the "T" in L.G.B.T.--is here and there's no turning back.
Is Hedwig a man now living as a woman? Is he a thoroughbred female despite the lingering inch because that's how he now sees himself? Is he/she gender-neutral, neither-nor? I suggest that the latter is close to how the ordinary joe--gay or straight--accepts such a character, leavened with a tad of admiration if not envy. He/she is out there, his or her own person, going for it. Good for them. The better part of all of us accepts this diversity in direct proportion to our own self-esteem.
It didn't seem possible to top Harris's bravura, but there we were, shattered the next night by the indomitable Alan Cumming reprising his Tony-winning role of Emcee in the iconic "Cabaret."
Whether grabbing his crotch, batting his ebony-lined eyes, pouting his decadent, black-varnished lips, like Harris as Hedwig he's leaping around the stage, muscles oscillating, like a leopard on the chase. Graceful but explosive, is this energy male or female? Does the laser-wit, whether antagonistic or self-mocking, associate with a man or a woman? Hedonism, flaunting propriety, screwing girls or boys--whatever's at hand: One is bewitched by this craven but lovable character who becomes Everyman, often hovering just off center-stage in the shadows, overseeing the plights and dreams of his cast mates. Incorporating all of us, the Emcee is godlike. We've forgotten ourselves, which is the ultimate beauty of art.
At the conclusion of "Cabaret," however, the Emcee sheds his Nazi prison garb to reveal both his pink triangle and yellow Star of David, doubly doomed. He's all too human after all, consolidating our empathy and identity.
Have we bypassed our gender fixations by now?
These productions are only two of the current fare on Broadway playing topsy-turvy with sex roles.
The illustrious Harvey Fierstein is back with "Casa Valentina," exploring the lives of cross-dressing straight men who cavort as transvestites at a resort in the Catskills, based upon true happenings in the early 60s. The twist is that these men, to belong to their fraternity/sorority, must pledge allegiance to their heterosexuality. We cannot forget this category of gender flexibility since we're all about inclusion...all the while condemning the mindlessness of labels!
And although Idina Menzel is in a state of confusion about her love life in "If/Then," her friends--a lesbian couple and two gay men--are not, and get happily married by contrast to our befuddled heroine.
Terrance McNally who wrote, among so many notable plays, "Love! Valor! Compassion!", surely qualifies as a "male diva of Broadway" given yet his latest articulation of upending sex roles in America, "Mothers and Sons." I remember the storm of picketers greeting theatergoers for his "Corpus Christi" in 1998, metal detector to gain entry, wherein Jesus and his followers are depicted as gay, Jesus even marrying two of his disciples. This new play dissects the confrontation of an anger-obsessed mother, who lost her son to AIDS twenty years prior, with his lover at the time, presently married to a man with their six-year-old son whom they've raised since birth. There's been no communication between them, the mother preferring to energize her life with blind passion vilifying the man who-made-her-son-gay. There's a lot of black humor here, as well, validating McNally's genius for embracing a Broadway audience--from preaching to the choir to Dallas matrons like Ms. Daly's brilliantly recalcitrant mother.
Are the gender wars over, as if "Hedwig" and "Cabaret" have the final say? "Mothers and Sons" makes it clear there is plenty of battleground remaining for bludgeoning into acceptance each of the letters of L.G.B.T.
I live part of the year in Palm Springs where we have an incredible entertainer in Michael Holmes and his "The Judy Show." Michael is not petite. Packed into his black sheath and heels and channeling Judy Garland (probably never in her life a third his size), one is charmed by his spot-on singing, gestures, make-up, wise-ass humor, enthralled all the more by his obvious maleness while thrusting us into the limbo of "suspension of disbelief." We so want to escape ourselves with entertainment this captivating, a "mind-fuck" if you will. No, he's not Judy Garland, a female. But nor at this moment is he a male. He is both and he is neither.
Michael concludes his show belting out a ditty something like "I am a man, like any other man" whereupon he whips off his Judy wig revealing his bald shiny dome. And for a thrilling flash one is floating in an ethereal, natural state, perfectly genderless, the designations of "male" or "female" or "gay" or "straight" or "trans" nothing more than dust motes in the cosmos.