The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up gets a constant makeover
by Katharine Mayk, Artistic Assistant
Peter and The Starcatcher is a prequel to the beloved classic Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Since his creation by the pen of J.M. Barrie in 1904, Peter has become one of the world’s most beloved characters.
Charming, callow, and clever, Peter Pan has become a household name.
Although Peter never ages, we watch as he is reincarnated and reimagined as we grow and mature. With every trip to Neverland with a new Peter, we are reminded that we can stay young at heart with “faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
So come with us “where dreams are born and time is never planned” as we take a look at Peter through the years.
Nina Boucicault originated the role of Peter in London in the West End 1904–1905. Boucicault was both a well-known actress of the time and the director Dion Boucicault’s sister.
Maude Adams, 1905–1907 originated Peter in the original Broadway play and is credited with having started the ‘Peter Pan collar’ fashion trend.
The first live action film of Peter Pan (1924) featured Betty Bronson in a silent film adaptation. The female tradition continued with well known Hollywood stars taking up Pan’s pipes including Eva Le Galliene (1928), Jean Arther (1950), and Veronica Lake (1951).
Disney’s animated feature Peter Pan in 1953 was the first time a male portrayed the role of Peter with Bobby Driscoll as the voice. The feature utilized the voice actors as physical models for their animated counterparts.
Mary Martin (1954) originated the title role in the musical Broadway production Peter Pan.
Many more women have donned the famous green tights over the years playing the role in revivals of the Broadway show including Sandy Duncan (1979), Mia Farrow (TV Movie, 1976), Kathy Rigby (1990), and most recently Allison Williams (TV Movie, 2014).
In Hook (1991), Robin Williams brought a childlike wonder to the imagined sequel of what would have been if Peter left Neverland and chose to grow up. Peter is forced to return to Neverland and face his past when his children are kidnapped by his old nemesis James Hook.
2003 marked the first live-action version of Peter Pan with a male lead, Jeremy Sumpter.
“Finding Neverland,” the 2004 movie starring Johnny Depp, delved into J.M. Barrie’s life, relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her sons, and his inspiration for writing Peter Pan. The movie was subsequently developed into a musical of the same name originating in Boston at the American Repertory Theater and moving to Broadway in 2015.
Peter and the Starcatcher plays May 20 — June 25, 2016 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. It chronicles the adventures of Molly, a girl charged to protect a cargo of stardust from falling into the wrong hands, and an orphan named Peter who eventually becomes The Boy Who Never Grew Up.
Peter and the Starcatcher is a swashbuckling grownup prequel to Peter Pan that will have you hooked from the moment you let your mind take wing. As the NY Times raved, “this show never stops flying!”
One of the Year’s Most Produced Play Comes to Boston
What should you except from Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play?
There is no other theatre space like the Lyric Stage in Boston.
The front row rests their feet on the stage, and no one is more than 35 feet from the performers at any time. The audience is always part of the action, but for Mr. Burns, we have specifically built an immersive experience, so the audience is complicit in the events of the play.
From the moment you walk into the theatre, you’ll be entrenched in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. As the most-produced play in the country this year, many theatres have put their spin on this funny, dark, and theatrical show.
Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play(playing April 8 — May 7, 2016)is a theatrical exploration on the nature of story-telling and art follows the evolution of an episode of The Simpsons from camp fire memory to high art. For those of you who have never seen the episode (or can only dimly recall it) here is a synopsis of “Cape Feare,” season 5, episode 2, a parody of the Robert DeNiro film, Cape Fear.
The episode starts with Lisa receiving a letter from her pen-pal and Bart receiving a death threat written in blood.
Bart and Lisa watch an episode of the grotesquely violent “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” which Lisa finds hilarious, but Bart is too distracted by the death threats.
Bart tries to figure out who wants to kill him and has a number of initially threatening but actually harmless interactions with his mother, his neighbor Ned Flanders, and his teacher Edna Krabappel.
Marge complains to Chief Wiggum who is of no help. Lisa decides the threats are probably coming from Moe, the bartender, for their years of prank phone calls. When she calls to confront, he assumes she is referring to his panda smuggling operation.
Finally, the threats are revealed to be coming from Sideshow Bob whom Bart put in prison. He is released on parole, and sits in front of the Simpsons family at the movie, smoking a cigar and loudly laughing. When they realize who it is and that he is the one who has been threatening Bart, Marge tells him to stay away from her son.
We then see Bob at home, covered in threatening tattoos, working out. As his threats escalate, the Simpsons join the Witness Relocation Program, and move to a house boat on Terror Lake. We see a new opening credit sequence for “The Thompsons,” The Simpsons new alias.
Little do they know, Sideshow Bob has tied himself to the undercarriage of the car. As Bob steps out threateningly from underneath the car, he proceeds to step on a series of rakes, hitting himself in the face.
That night, Bob cuts the Simpsons’ boat from the dock and it floats away. He ties up the rest of the family, and then bursts into Bart’s room with a machete. Bart tries to escape but the water is full of crocodiles and electric eels.
Sideshow Bob corners Bart and asks him if he has any last requests. Bart asks him to sing the entire score of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore which he does. By the time he finishes, the boat has run aground in front of the Springfield police. Bob is taken away and the Simpsons return home.
an interview with Fast Company playwright Carla Ching
by A. Nora Long, Associate Artistic Director
“To support my playwriting habit, I’ve been a waitress at a beer and wings place, a teacher, a secretary, a teaching artist, and now, I write on a Zombie family drama.” –Carla Ching
The Boston premiere of Fast Company marks the local debut of playwright Carla Ching, a Los Angeles native who began her theatrical career in New York. She very graciously answered a few of our questions by email about her play, her process, and some of her family secrets.
What inspired you to write Fast Company?
Don’t tell my mom, but I wrote this play partially to ask the question, “Why was my mom so hard when I was growing up?” But also, I wanted to investigate how and why people screw over the people they love most.
Being Chinese American, gambling was also a big part of my upbringing. We had a family reunion in Vegas. At family potlucks, we would play Blackjack while the aunties played Mah Jong and the badass adults played poker. It was all in good fun, and it was a way to play together.
It was also learning how to beat people that are your family. And be happy about it.
So, I was interested in what Blue, H, and Francis could do with all the worst things their mother taught them. Would these things destroy them? Or could they transform them into something more?
You were first commissioned to write this play in 2011 — how has it changed since then?
The script has evolved a lot. This Boston production is the first run of this specific script. It took me a while to hone the shape of the play, and the ending, which has changed a few times. The work has been to make it as tight and taut as possible, while making the moments between the characters harder, messier.
I’m lucky, too, in that this is the fourth production of this play, and all of them have had different scripts, directors, design teams, and casts. So I’m getting to see multiple interpretations of the same work, instead of just one.
Is there anything you hope audiences will keep in mind as they watch the play?
If you come from a really well-adjusted family, don’t judge these people. But rather, try to find yourselves in them. Have empathy. A lot of your friends, your spouses, your daughter or son-in-law might come from families like the Kwans.
If you do come from a family with tricky dynamics…well, I wrote this play for you.
What first drew you to playwriting?
I came at playwriting sideways. When I moved to New York City, I was looking for community and stumbled upon the Asian American performance group Peeling the Banana at the Asian American Writers Workshop. I was moved by their autobiographical work and eventually came to join them as a writer/performer. I was really more of a poet back then, so my pieces for them were poetry/performance art hybrids.
I came to really enjoy creating stories for stage. And a lot of young Asian Americans would come up to us afterwards and tell us that they were so happy to see their stories onstage for the first time.
It solidified the importance of the work for me. Made me want to do more and better. But I realized I needed more tools in my toolkit, so I went back to school to get my MFA in Playwriting at the New School. I went to learn playwriting structure, but really learned about collaboration there.
In addition to plays, you also write for television. What’s different about writing for those two mediums?
The first thing is pace. After a story is broken, I have 10 days to generate a first draft. In a time crunch on my last show, I had to write a draft in four days. Plays will take me years to write. Even if I’m writing quickly, it’s a few months.
Secondly, in TV, we write as a team. The show runner is our lead for the vision of the show. And then we all throw out ideas together to come up with the stories for the whole season, and even break out ideas for specific episodes.
With plays, I’m all alone writing the thing until we get to a workshop or production phase.
With plays, you might get notes on how to improve. In TV, it’s the show runner’s prerogative to actually rewrite you. That took some getting used to because with plays, there’s never a word I put there that I didn’t write.
How was writing for TV influenced for your plays, or vice-versa?
The one thing that television writing has helped me with is structure. It has always been a challenge for me. And I think the way we talk about story arcs and season-long storytelling, I’ve been able to get a little bit better about how to build a story. I’m also going to say something that many people might disagree with, but I feel like in theatre, I’ve been discouraged from thinking about audience too early. “Just tell your story.” “Just let your voice come through.” But, in television, we’re encouraged, mandated really, to always keep the audience in mind. To know who we’re writing for. And to make sure we give them footholds to go on the journey we want to take them on. I’ve found that useful too.
Being a playwright has helped me with TV because I always come from character. And that’s kind of a rare thing in TV.
But I’ve learned how to stand in their shoes and hear the characters, so hopefully, what they do and say comes from a truthful place. And spending so much time workshopping plays, I’m happy to work with actors on the spot, right before we film, so that something feels/sounds more accurate to them.
What drives you to write now?
I still write to change the world in whatever little ways I can. To disturb and expand notions of who Asian Americans are. To tell human stories that make the audience question how they interact with the world, with the people they love.
I feel like plays at their very best change people’s minds. Or get them to investigate the world, their neighbors, their communities, their families in new ways.
I try to do that.
Fast Company is the story of a group of con artists, breaking code and busting ranks to win the score of the century. They also just happen to be related! Fast Company is a fast, funny, and dangerous crime caper that will keep you guessing until the very end whether the family that cons together can stay together.
Playing March 4–27, 2016 at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Tickets available at www.lyricstage.com.
The Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) Awards were founded by Beverly Creasey of the Journal Newspapers and Larry Stark of the TheaterMirror in 1997. The IRNE Awards recognize the extraordinary wealth of talent in the Boston theatre community.
Update: all winners are marked. Congrats to everyone #myLyricStage
Compiled by A. Nora Long, Associate Artistic Director
Fast Companyby Carla Ching (playing at Lyric Stage March 4–27, 2016) tells the story of a family of con-artists. Beware the flim-flam man! These famous cons may have been around forever but, in the words of P.T. Barnum, “a sucker is born every minute.”
Do you recognize any of these famous frauds?
Pig-in-a-Poke: dates from the Middle Ages, and refers to being offered an item in a manner that conceals its actual value (which is probably very little). The original scam involved selling an unsuspecting mark a bag (poke) with an alleged suckling pig inside. Once money changed hands and the buyer got the bag home, he would discover his dinner was actually a cat, or other less valuable meal. This con gives us the idiom “let the cat out of the bag.”
The Spanish Prisoner: “One of the oldest and most attractive and probably most successful swindles known to the police authorities,” or so said The New York Times in 1898. An advance-fee scam, the mark is implored either directly, or through a known party to bail a wealthy remote relative out of a Spanish (or other foreign nation) prison, for the promise of a larger reward once he is freed. Of course, complications arise, and the reward never arrives.
The Badger Game: is an extortion scheme in which a man is lured into a compromising position, usually by a woman, only to be “discovered” and blackmailed by her accomplice. The term either originates from sport badger-baiting, or from the cons origins, Wisconsin (the Badger State).
The Glim Dropper: relies on the greed of the mark and an accomplice with one eye. The one-eyed man claims to have lost his glass eye (the “glim”) and offers the mark a significant reward if returned. Later, an accomplice claims to have found it. The mark is set-up to “con” the accomplice, offering him a smaller amount of money than the promised reward in exchange for the lost eye. Of course, the one-eyed man will never be found again, and the mark is out money with only a creepy eye to show for it.
About Fast Company
The Lyric Stage loves stories that focus on family, but wait til you meet Blue and HER family in Fast Company. Blue’s mom, Mable Kwan, is a tough cookie and the best grifter who ever lived . . . and she raised her kids to be just like her. Son Francis is the top roper around and H is the number one fixer. But it’s Blue — the outcast of the family — who surprises everyone by putting together the score of the decade. Fast Company is a fast, funny, and dangerous theatrical crime caper that will keep you guessing about who’s on top and who’s getting conned. As playwright Carla Ching wrote, “I could say that Fast Company is about grifts, game theory, and magic. And it is. But at its essence, it’s about family.”
You don’t have to be an assassin, a witch, or a murderous barber to understand one.
Stephen Sondheim revolutionized the the American musical by using rich characters with identifiable emotions as the driving force of the story in each of his shows. Sondheim’s use of intriguing music and lyric, memorable characters, and stories with heart has kept his audience rapt for decades. Sondheim on Sondheimgives us the favorite melodies we love while adding a treat of hearing the thought process behind their conception through the actual words of Sondheim.
Musicals transport us.
There is nothing like a story of romance backed up by great dance numbers, singers with soul, and toe-tapping music. The change in the way these songs have been written has shifted over the years marks the evolution of the musical form. Writers like Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Jerome Kern each shook up how a composer writes a song. No longer merely expositional, or simply supporting a spontaneous dance number, lyrics became a means to greater understanding and empathy.
These composers revamped musicals by rooting them in a stronger dramatic tradition, or “theatre that sings,” as Producing Artistic Director and director of Sondheim on Sondheim, Spiro Veloudos, refers to it. “No longer did we walk out of the theatre just humming the songs but we were also thinking about what we just saw,” he says.
Sondheim has a very cerebral way of writing lyrics. He said in an interview,
“Lyrics go with music. Music is the richest of the arts because it is so abstract…It is always a juggling act to get the lyric just rich enough, just full of idea enough, and just full of surprises enough and just full of images enough.”
It is through the richness of those lyrics that Sondheim weaves stories and characters that audiences identify with. Sondheim uses broad archetypes when shaping the outward trappings of his characters but it is the emotions they experience that make them relatable.
Jealousy, revenge, love, desire are all emotions we can identify with even if we aren’t the demon barber of Fleet Street.
Sondheim asserted that his mentor and surrogate father, Oscar Hammerstein,
“ [Oscar Hammerstein] believed that songs should be like one-act plays, that they should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They should set up a situation, have a development, and then a conclusion . . . exactly like a classically constructed play.”
The key of any well-constructed play is well-developed characters that draw an audience in.
In Sondheim on Sondheim we are introduced to a bevy of characters from 19 Sondheim shows. Veloudos declares in an interview,
“I am thrilled to do Sondheim on Sondheim because of its structure. Listening to Sondheim talk about his work and then [hearing] it through the voices of eight incredibly talented actors is certainly entertaining. His music is challenging.”
Sondheim on Sondheim uses story and the characters from the Sondheim canon in juxtaposition with one another. “Sondheim on Sondheim has a unique structure even though it’s a musical review,” explains Veloudos. “It’s not the ’and then he wrote’ format of most reviews. Here he turns to us (through video and film) and TELLS US why he wrote something and why it’s still relevant.”
Throughout the production the audience is privy to Sondheim’s inner thoughts on his work.
For example at one moment inthe show, he talks about the difficulty of writing love songs and specifically “torch songs,” in which the singer grieves an unrequited or lost love. What follows are tandem performances of “Losing my Mind” from Follies and “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along.
We hear a conversation between the pieces — two women’s stories about a love that consumes them. The character Sally sings about an unrequited love and being trapped by the hope of what could have been. The other character, Beth, mourns the loss of her marriage. Sondheim illustrates here that a torch song is often about being haunted.
While the two characters are singing about a similar emotional state, their stories are incredibly different. One song builds and burns with rage and intensity; the other is slow and melancholy sung by a woman who will always be dogged by the memory of her loss. Sondheim on Sondheim puts these two songs next to each other to illustrate that although dealing with a similar emotion the characters’ different takes on the song is what makes Sondheim’s work so distinct each time. This type of song still resonates with audiences and listeners as evidenced by Adele’s newest chart-climbing hit, “Hello.” We can all relate to a love that we’ve lost.
The common thread throughout Sondheim on Sondheim is the range of emotions and the characters grapple with.
Veloudos explains, the themes “become leitmotifs: time, relationship, regret, moving on,[etc.]”. This show revolves around the idea of exploring connections between characters, what they want, and how they express that through song in Sondheim show. The Lyric Stage’s unique space enhances the feeling of intimacy both in proximity to actors and the way in which the show delves into Sondheim’s innermost thoughts.
Bobby, a character from Company (a show that will open the Lyric Stage’s 2016–2017 season), comes to discover, “… alone is alone, not alive.”
Like Bobby, and so many of Sondheim’s characters, we long for affinity.
Sitting together in a darkened theatre, at its best, should provoke us to think about ourselves and those sharing that space and moment with us. As each new song in Sondheim on Sondheim unfolds, we perhaps recognize ourselves and our own desires onstage, echoed in beautiful song.
Aimee Doherty returns to the Lyric Stage after performing in One Man Two Guvnors, On The Town, Animal Crackers, Grey Gardens, See What I Wanna See, and Adrift in Macao. Previous Sondheim roles include Into the Woods (Lyric Stage and New Rep), Follies (Lyric Stage), A Little Night Music (Huntington Theater), Company (Company Theater and SpeakEasy Stage), and the review Marry Me A Little(New Rep). Television and radio credits include The Makeover(ABC) and The Making of a Monster: Whitey Bulger(Discovery) as well as various radio spots for D’Angelos, Papa Gino’s and the Museum of Science. Aimee received Elliot Norton Awards in 20013 and 2014 for Best Actress in a musical for Hairspray(Wheelock Theater), Far From Heaven (SpeakEasy Stage), On the Town and Into The Woods (Lyric Stage) and an IRNE Award in 2011 for Best Actress in Nine(SpeakEasy Stage). Next up: Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play with the Lyric Stage opening April 8.
Christopher Chew returns to the Lyric Stage having appeared in Sweeney Todd, Working,Man of La Mancha, Urinetown: The Musical, Shakespeare in Hollywood, A Little Night Music(IRNE Award, Best Actor), Sunday in the Park with George, It’s All True, Side Show, and The Spitfire Grill. Other Boston area credits include productions at SpeakEasy Stage, Wheelock Family Theater, Hanover Theater, Stoneham Theater, Worcester Foothills Theater, the American Stage Festival, North Shore Music Theater, the Huntington Theater, CentaStage, and the Village Theater Project, of which he was a founding member. Christopher earned his B.F.A. in Drama from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.A.T. in English from Fitchburg State University, and an Ed.D. from Northeastern University.
Leigh Barrett has been seen at the Lyric Stage in City of Angels, Grey Gardens, Souvenir, Nicholas Nickelby, Big River, Animal Crackers, Follies, A Little Night Music, Mikado, Nuncrackers, and Sunday in the Park with George. Recently, Leigh directed and starred in Closer Than Ever at the New Rep where she also appeared in Ragtime, Threepenny Opera, Indulgences, Side by Side by Sondheim, The World Goes ‘Round and Wild Party. Other local credits: Passion, Great American Trailer Park Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Drowsy Chaperone, Elegies, A Class Act, Adding Machine(SpeakEasy Stage), Marry Me a Little, Jacques Brel (Gloucester Stage), Alice, Sound of Music (Wheelock Family Theater), Company(Moonbox Productions), Gypsy, Picnic, John & Jen, You Never Know, Pal Joey (Stoneham Theatre), and the long-runningCar Talk, the Musical! (Central Square Theater). She is the proud recipient of two Elliot Norton Awards and two IRNE Awards. She is an independent vocal/acting coach and vocal wellness consultant in Reading.
Sam Simahk returns to the Lyric Stage, having performed in Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Previous credits include: Big Fish (Speakeasy Stage), Miss Saigon (Starlight Theatre, Ogunquit Playhouse), the King and I (Ocean State Theatre), Grease (Seacoast Repertory Theatre), and Carousel, Thoroughly Modern Millie (Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre). Born and raised in Ashburnham MA, Sam is a proud graduate of Emerson College and member of AEA.
Davron S. Monroe is returning to the Lyric Stage after having appeared in My Fair Lady, City of Angels, Sweeney Todd, One Man, Two Guvnors, The Mikado, Avenue Q, and Ain’t Misbehavin’. Musical theatre credits include: Godspell (Moonbox Productions), Hairspray (Reagle Music Theatre), Dreamgirls, Jesus Christ Superstar, Children of Eden, Songs for a New World(premiere, Key West Symphony, Broadway Across America), Smokey Joe’s Café, Cinderella, Streakin’!, a ’70s musical revue, Sweet Charity, Brigadoon, and Show Boat. Cabaret: The All Night Strut. Opera: fully staged or concert/scene productions of Carmen, Treemonisha, Porgy and Bess, La finta giardiniera, Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor, La fille du régiment, L’élisir d’amore, Così fan tutte, Die Fledermaus, The Tailor of Gloucester, The Gondoliers, Aida, and Die Zauberflöte. Mr. Monroe premiered the role of Thomas Edison in Juventas’s New Music Group production of Light and Power. He has also appeared with many orchestral and vocal organizations, such as Boston Landmarks Orchestra (Lost in the Stars — a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and The Chariot Jubilee), the First Church UU, Belmont, the Brevard Music Center (finalist, Orlando Opera’s Heinz Rehfuss Singing Actor Awards), Disney Entertainment’s Voices of Liberty, Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Key West Symphony (young artist), Houston Ebony Opera Guild, the New England Spiritual Ensemble, New England Voices, the Longy School Orchestra, and many other organizations throughout the greater Boston area. Davron is the first recipient of the Bob Jolly Award for up-and-coming local actors.
Mala Bhattacharya was last seen at the Lyric Stage in Man of La Mancha and previously in Miss Witherspoon. Other area credits include The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin(SpeakEasy Stage), and The King and I, Into the Woods (Fiddlehead Theatre). New York City credits include The Ghost Dancers (Stone Soup Theatre), Shakuntala (The Authentic Theatre), Forbidden Office(Turnstyle Theatre). In Atlanta, Mala appeared in Guys and Dollsand Sondheim on Sondheim(Act3 Productions). Mala is an active voiceover artist, most recently lending her voice to projects for Jimmy Choo, Turner Broadcasting, PBS, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She has been a resident artist with Berkshire Opera and the Pine Mountain Music Festival. She holds an M.M. from the Longy School of Music.
Maritza Bostic is returning to the Lyric Stage after being seen in Into the Woods. Her recent credits include Shaping the World (Bad Habit Productions), Creative License the Musical (NYC Fringe 2015), Alice the Musical and Hairspray (Wheelock Family Theatre), A Little Princess (Fiddlehead Theatre), and School House Rock Live! (Boston Children’s Theatre). A Reading, MA native, she participated in the Lyric First Stage summer program prior to attending college for two years. Maritza is a proud member of Salem State’s graduating class of 2014 with a B.F.A. in Theatre Arts Performance. She is also an enthusiastic two-year touring cast member of Speak About It, Inc.
Patrick Varner returns to the Lyric Stage after appearing in City of Angels, and understudying the one-man-show Buyer & Cellar. Recent credits: Human Comedy (Boston University), Assassins (New Rep), Translations (Bad Habit Productions),Brundibar, But the Giraffe! (Underground Railway), Born for This: The Bebe Winans Story (ArtsEmerson Workshop). Other credits: Shining City, Buried Child, Camille (Boston University), Hamlet, Richard II (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts). Patrick received his B.F.A. in Acting from Boston University in 2013, and has also studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, and CAP 21 in New York.
Barbra. Bette (and Bette). Bernadette. Beyoncé. Women of stage, screen, and song who live so large in popular imagination they are known by their first names alone (and I’ve just named the Bs). These women have achieved a rarified status with legions of fans world-wide, but their elevation to the divine is often owed to a significant fan base of gay men.
What lies beneath the sequined-surfaces of a diva and her followers?
“The first thing you notice is the skin. It really is luminous, like she’s lit from within.” –Alex More, Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins
“Diva” came to English through Latin (meaning “goddess”), by way of Italian Opera at the end of the 19th century.
The term was often attached to a spectacular first soprano in a company — or the “prima donna.” In her article “Defining Divas” Anne Schlitt notes, “The opera divas took the place of castrati (castrated male singers) as the celebrities of choice after the practice of using castrati began to decline in the 18th century,” implying a shift not only of status but gender ambiguity in the exchange (women were now occupying a station once held by men who sang as women). The term easily transferred to the Hollywood star system of the mid-20th century, and pop music thereafter.
“When I started this job, I was not that big a Barbra queen…I appreciated this stuff as part of my gay birthright, my heritage.” –Alex More, Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins
William J. Mann believes the first plank of a divine ascent rests with a performer’s early influences.
“The greatest gay icons,” he writes, “have been molded early in their careers by gay mentors and collaborators.” Bette Midler started performing in a New York bathhouse while Mae West crafted her stage persona after a female impersonator, for examples. Mann suggests these influences are recognized by gay audiences who in turn take a sense of ownership of the performer.
“My gay audience has been with me from the beginning,” Kylie Minogue said in a recent interview, “they kind of adopted me.” A growing body of scholarship suggests this “shared sensibility” manifests in the combination of a bold aesthetic, a ferocious talent, and a tumultuous personal life.
In the absence of gay representation elsewhere in the mainstream culture for much of the 20th century, women who succeeded not solely by traditional feminine virtues, but by sheer force of will were a logical role model for the marginalized community.
As Jaclyn Geller writes, “The steely Machiavellian personalities of such female film stars as Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich empowered the insecure gay man by offering a vision of power based on verbal facility and psychological toughness rather than muscle.” Divas presented an alternative rise to fame, fortune, acceptance and love from traditional masculinities.
Therapist Joe Kort developed another theory, after being told by several clients that Barbra Streisand saved their lives; divas can act as surrogates for self-absorbed or withholding mothers. “These diva-mommies will never let us down; they are whoever we want them to be.”
“It’s good to be demanding. Because in this world, especially when you’re a woman, nobody just gives you anything. Remember that.” –Barbra Streisand
The careful reader may have quietly observed that terms like “Diva” and “Prima Donna” have other, less flattering connotations, such as being difficult, demanding, and capricious. The reputations of these famous women, earned or not, undoubtedly colored the terms, but the lack of a male equivalent term* hints at the misogyny inherit in the distinction. Rohin Guha writes that to worship at the altar of a diva is in itself an act of objectification.
“It’s ironic because these stars are packaged as demigoddesses, but by making them appear to be more-than-human, they are sold to us as products, as something stripped of humanity.”
The instantaneous rise and fall of a parade of female celebrities suggests a level of scrutiny men are not subjected to. As Michael Musto points out, “part of the diva-fan connection has always been love/hate; when a diva disappoints, she’s loathed.”
In the life of a diva today you may slay, but tomorrow, you are slain.
A. Nora Long is the Associate Artistic Director at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
*For all you classical music lovers who are clearing your throat, while “divo” does exist in Italian and opera, I think we can all agree the term has not leapt to colloquial English the way “diva” has.
Rohin Guha. “The Myth of the Fag Hag and Dirty Secrets of the Gay Male Subculture.” Jezebel.
William J. Mann. “The Gays Behind Barbra (and Nearly Every Other Gay Icon).” Huffington Post.
Andrew Milnes. “Vamps, Camps and archetypes: gay men, the diva phenomenon and the inner feminine.” University of Sydney.
Michael Musto. “Gay Men Betrayed by Their Divas.” The Advocate.
Joe Kort, Ph.D. “Diva Worship and Gay Men.” Huffinton Post.