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Marc Shaiman and Terrence McNally on Musical Theatre and Gay Culture
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Marc Shaiman and Terrence McNally on Musical Theatre and Gay Culture

by John Longenbaugh - Special to the SGN

Traditionally, musical theater and Gay culture go together like sequins on a drag queen. So it's no surprise that the world-premiere musical now in rehearsals at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Catch Me If You Can, features some prominent Gay artists. But the men who wrote the book, music and lyrics for this show are more than prominent, they're Gay cultural heroes. The musical's book, based on both the DreamWorks film and the autobiography of Frank Abagnale Jr., is written by the multiple-Tony-award winning playwright Terrence McNally, whose 40-year career includes a half-dozen of the most important plays about Gay identity in American theater, including Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Corpus Christi and Love! Valour! Compassion! Marc Shaiman, the composer and co-lyricist (with his partner Scott Wittman) of Catch Me, created a media storm of his very own last November with Proposition Eight: The Musical, an internet sensation which racked up more than a million hits in a series of weeks, and included cameos from the likes of Margaret Cho, Neil Patrick Harris and Jack Black as a Jesus who at one point tempts his fundamentalist followers with a shrimp cocktail - according to Leviticus, he points out, shellfish is as verboten as homosexuality.

When I ask Shaiman about the impetus behind Proposition Eight, which was written, performed, and produced in a matter of days, he says it was less about the cause of Gay marriage, and more about his own discomfort with what it revealed about the Proposition's proponents. "I've been very lucky in my own life, and have had to deal with very little prejudice. But I was disturbed by how some people had what perhaps I wouldn't say is hate, but such deep discomfort about me. Not because of who I am, but because of how God made me." His hilarious mini-musical led to a series of attacks from such right-wing pundits as Bill O'Reilly. "Those reactions confirmed me in having made it, and underlined just how far we have to go," he reflects. "How many centuries will it take for people to stop telling themselves that we choose to be Gay? That's mind-boggling to anyone who's actually Gay."

Shaiman's only regret is that he didn't get started on his project before the vote. "I have some guilt about that," he admits.

While Shaiman claims Proposition Eight was his first unabashed agitprop (though he's never shied away from social/political commentary, as fans of both his Hairspray and South Park: The Musical can attest to), McNally's been an unapologetic defender of Gay rights throughout his career, including the early bathhouse romp The Ritz, the thoughtful critique of homophobia in Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and Love! Valour! Compassion!, where eight Gay men on an idyllic retreat away from the straight world confront their gender and identity. His own reaction to Proposition 8 is that of a seasoned campaigner with decades of experience as an outspoken advocate. "Full civil rights for Gays is the next important goal, and Gay marriage is the quickest way to get to it," he explains. "It's a civil contract, and that means it's about owning property together and being treated just the same as anyone else in terms of the law and taxes. Romance, they can't legislate. My partner and I considered ourselves united long before we got married in Vermont. But what we want are the simple advantages of filing a joint tax return. And I want my partner to be taken care of in terms of property if I go first."

Catch Me If You Can, based on the DreamWorks film, is pretty much free of such weighty issues of gender, except for what Shaiman calls "that Dean Martin sexist gold-digger style of the '60s with hot stewardesses." He and Wittman had gone to a drama bookstore to find a script a friend had suggested, and came across a coffee table book based on the film. "Scott pointed at it, and said 'I want to write a musical about that.'" Shaiman agreed, and several years later, here they are in Seattle, deep in rehearsals on a show about a teenage conman prodigy who turns a talent for writing bad checks into the adventure of a lifetime.

Both Shaiman and McNally seem frankly relieved to be working on a piece about another time than our current era of political uncertainty, though both are surprisingly optimistic about the future for Gay marriage, and for Gays in America. "It's like racism," says McNally. "There will be homophobia for a long time to come." But he believes in the capacity of art to change people. "I can't change things for millions of people at once with the stroke of a pen like Obama can, but I can change attitudes, one audience member at a time."

"What I like to tell people, is please don't hate me because of how God made me," says Shaiman. Then he adds, mischievously, "but get to know me, and you'll probably get your wish and hate me."

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