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Drag Queens Can't Just Lip-Synch Anymore! That Isn't Enough!

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In the old days, it was enough for a drag queen to just stand there in a wig and a dress and mouth along to a Britney Spears or Whitney Houston song. Yes, there was an occasional queen who could actually sing live (like Shequida, who built a career on a Juillard-trained voice that spanned R&B and opera), but you certainly didn’t have to; you could just work those lips and hips and get a response that made you feel stellar.

But things are different now. The success of RuPaul’s Drag Race has upped the bar so that being a garden variety drag queen aping Madonna or Gaga isn’t good enough—you’ve got to have some serious vocal talent of your own. In 2017, if you want to stand out in the crowded field of men in shmattes, it’s important to be a well-versed entertainer, like a Peppermint or Alexis Michelle (both stars of the current season of Drag Race), who can do a song and a synch. Drag queens regularly release music now, from Adore Delano to Aja (yes, rapping counts); it’s just considered to be part and parcel of being a drag entertainer. Charlie Hides—also on season nine—has a strong vocal belt, which fills most of his live act (along with lots of banter), and the legendary types who’ve kept going, like Sherry Vine and Flotilla DeBarge, also know how to carry a tune, and then some. There are so many drag queens to choose from nowadays, and they’re all angling to be famous and go on tour, that if you don’t incorporate live singing into your routine, you might very well fall through the cracks like a discarded compact.

And it’s not just the TV show that‘s changed the drag landscape. There’s also a plethora of talented—and game—Broadway performers running around. Quite a few of them find that, with gay bars always searching for drag entertainment to feed their cross-dress-hungry patrons, they can put on a dress, sing a show tune, and get lots of bookings. A New York-based drag queen named Cacophony Daniels can sing and high kick with the best of them, and it’s no surprise to learn that in male drag, he’s Courter Simmons, who has been in Jersey Boys and other big musicals.

Meanwhile, the singing queens still have to also be adept at lipsynch, but for years now, performers like Tina Burner know that just mouthing off to an old pop standard won’t suffice. As a result, they do mashups, with snatches of various songs interspersed with campy dialogue and other schizo antics that make for a potpourri of mad fun. It’s all good because the better and more diversified drag queens get, the more enriched our lives are—because they are everywhere, honey!

OLDER STARS COME OUT—OR DON’T

Schlock singer Barry Manilow spent his whole adult life being gay—according to my sources, he had no problem with it—but he kept it from the public for fear of losing the mighty dollar. There’s no law that he had to come out sooner, but there’s also no law that we have to throw a pride parade about it now either. Now that Barry’s finally gotten a few headlines by coming out at 73, I’m surprised that some celebrity ass-kissing gay organization hasn’t given him an award for courage. Meanwhile, the deeply conflicted Richard Simmons is suing the Enquirer for saying he transitioned. Well, in terms of sexuality, Richard seems to even be behind Barry. But while erroneous reporting shouldn’t be encouraged, I’m disturbed by Simmons’ outrage over the trans reports, as if that would be so horrible. This is a slap in the face to trans people everywhere. In my opinion, he should send the tabloids flowers!

HANGING OUT WITH THE DESK SET

The Drama Desk nominees reception (at the Marriott Marquis) has become a much more fun event for me than the Tony nominees’ reception, which is now a press conference situation, with no choice of who you’ll interview and no exclusivity. At the Desk reception, I caught up with Laurie Metcalf (who’s brilliant in A Doll’s House, Part 2) and asked her about the Roseanne reboot she’s part of. “I have no idea where they’re taking us,” Metcalf admitted. “I haven’t read the scripts. I signed on blind. Trust!” she added, smiling. The acclaimed Bobby Cannavale, nominated for O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, told me the play was done in a fascinating place, the Park Avenue Armory. “And it’s about rich people fucking over the lower class,” he noted, wryly, “and tickets cost $200!”

I told playwright Paula Vogel (Indecent) that there was a lot of lesbian presence at this event, including her, Cynthia Nixon, and Jenn Colella (who’s “mostly gay”). “It makes me very happy to be living in this place and time,” she replied. Vogel said she’s also gratified that female playwrights she’s taught—like Lynn Nottage and Sarah DeLappe—have been getting honors. “You taught them well,” I remarked. “I asked them for 10 percent,” she laughed. Vogel also cracked that “It’s a good thing I never had my hair colored or I wouldn’t be getting these Lifetime Achievement awards.”

Dave Malloy, who wrote Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and who recently stepped into the Josh Groban role (which Malloy had originated), was nominated for writing Beardo, a musical about Rasputin. Does he only write shows about Russia? “Prelude—about Rachmaninoff—will be the third part of my Russian trilogy,” he replied, “and then I move on to a musical of Moby Dick.” No jokes about who could play the title role. In fact, Malloy said it will be approached in an abstract manner, and when I suggested puppeteer Basil Twist for the job, he responded, “We love him.”

And finally, Ed Dixon was superb as British dandy George Rose in a play he wrote called Georgie: My Adventures With George Rose. (He’s up for Best Solo Performance). Did the actor’s open gayness inspire him? Yes, Dixon said, “Meeting George was the first time I realized you could be yourself and be successful. I was about 20, from Oklahoma, from a reverend’s family, so it was a big revelation to me.” But Rose was complicated, and as Dixon told me, “The light side was so light, and the dark side was so dark.” When he visited the actor in the Dominican Republic, is that when he first realized Rose was a pedophile? “I don’t use that word,” said Dixon, looking somber. “To me, it’s ‘the thing that happened in the Dominican Republic.' Like Suddenly Last Summer.” So much for “Trust.”

PLACES IN THE HEART

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Sally Field in The Glass Menagerie

Two-time Oscar winner Sally Field is up for a Tony for The Glass Menagerie and she picked up yet another honor—a Medal of Honor—at the Actors Fund gala at the Marriott Marquis last week. In her speech, Sally said she was a shy, awkward kid who found a release onstage, where she could be spontaneous and feel “utterly, sometimes dangerously alive.” Her first professional job was in 1964, starring in the sitcom Gidget, and she remembered that right before the first shot, the producer leaned into her and said, “Sally, you know you can’t change your mind.” She didn’t. She went on to do a wide variety of projects, always showing new facets, from Sybil to Lincoln and beyond. “I’ve done a group love scene with more than one pelican,” Sally said, “but I’ve also done a love scene with Paul Newman. I’ve worked in mills, picked cotton, and done standup. I’ve been clothed, semi clothed, and totally naked.” And now that she’s stepped into the legendary shoes of Amanda Wingfield in Menagerie (which is closing on May 21), she said, “It has never, ever occurred to me to change my mind.” Brava—and by the way, the pelican love scene was in the 1960s sitcom The Flying Nun, in which Sally’s habit made her airborne, much like so many people in Hollywood.

I LIKE TO BE IN AMERICA

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Chita Rivera & Gwen Verdon in Chicago (1975)

“What are you expecting?” said a man at the next table at the Café Carlyle as we awaited Chita Rivera’s performance. “It’s always a master class,” I replied. And that’s what the fiery Latina Broadway legend delivered. In a tireless show, she brought us through all her greatest hits, from a West Side Story medley to a song from the flop musical Seventh Heaven (this night, Chita was playing all three French whores) to Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink and The Visit. At one point, Chita told us that when she saw Rosemary Clooney perform years ago, she learned the power of just standing still and singing a song. But thankfully, Chita seemed to be totally ignoring that advice. As she rendered these numbers—mostly by Kander and Ebb—she strutted, twirled, sashayed and moved her arms around, kinetically turning the tiny stage into a Broadway house by sheer will and talent.

When I saw her at Carnegie Hall last year, Chita cracked that some of her leading men had higher voices than she did. This time, she told us fun anecdotes, remembering key phone calls from people like Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon and astounding assignments she was asked to carry through. She talked about how Rob Marshall once broke her finger in a show, but how he later made it up to her by giving her a cameo in the Chicago movie, which she loved. But it turned out to be a much quicker cameo than she anticipated, “and I thought I looked like Cher in drag.” Chita also recalled that a few years ago, all in one day, she saw buses with huge ads for West Side Story, Chicago and Bye Bye Birdie revivals and wondered, “Aren’t I supposed to be somewhere at 8 o’clock?”

Highlights from her show included a sensational “Carousel” by Jacques Brel (with Chita growing in frenzied excitement and pathos with every syllable), a striking “Where Am I Going?” from Sweet Charity, and the climactic “All That Jazz.” Like I said, a master class.

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