Stars of Broadway shine a spotlight on under-represented segments of the queer community…
By Noel Hoffman
The new musical theatre album Place & Time shines a spotlight on theys, enbys, transgendered, lesbians and queer people of colour (POC). “We are here too,” says the album’s co-writer EllaRose Chary, a queer woman, “and like everyone else, we experience a range of feelings and circumstances that aren’t all centred on our trauma or our otherness.”
Songs on Place & Time are fun, flirty, emotional, nostalgic and queer themed. They’re sung by an all-star cast of Broadway artists from under-represented segments of the community, including Tituss Burgess, Amber Gray, Telly Leung and Tony Award winner Daisy Eagan.
“Even as a young gay man, I always had problems fitting neatly into the cis and straight culture at large,” admits Chary’s co-writer Brandon James Gwinn, who identifies as queer and gender fluid.
Chary agrees. “There are a lot of us who don’t feel beholden to any one label or identity. We exist on a spectrum. A big part of my coming out has been trying to decipher what part of the LGBTQ puzzle I fit into.”
We spoke with both Chary and Gwinn from their studio in New York City.
What inspired you to create an album of LGBTQ+-themed songs?
EllaRose Chary (ERC): We have so many talented friends who exist in an industry and a system that is very interested in putting people in a box and then only viewing those folks through a narrow lens. Part of the project of this album is to show off our community the way we see it: full of multi-dimensional, complex, beautiful humans who defy the flattening that is often expected of us in a capitalist system.
Would you say that while musical theatre is gay, it is not very queer?
ERC: I have spent a lot of my life in musical theatre, and my love for it has often elicited the comment, ‘You’re such a gay man!’ But I’m not a gay man. I’m a queer woman. The implication that my queerness somehow does not have an affinity towards the form is exhausting. My community is full of wonderful queers who don’t identify as gay, but who love musicals, watching them and making them, as much as I do. So I’m trying to flip the narrative and assert my presence in the space.
Brandon James Gwinn (BJG): On my gender journey, I discovered I existed outside of the cis, male, gay box that I had convinced myself I fit neatly into. As included as I feel in narratives and works like Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, there’s so much more to the LGBTQIA+ story, and I like to think that if we can make room, there’s plenty of room for everyone.
Does Broadway and the theatre community have a responsibility to be more inclusive?
ERC: The whole act of theatre is gathering people in a room and saying something to them and asking them to receive it. It’s about asking folks to see each other, to listen to each other. If we’re only prioritizing a small subset of voices in that or only including a fraction of the human experience in that, we’re fundamentally not doing our job.
The new production of Company [music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim] stars a female Bobby, now Bobbie. Is that a step in the right direction?
ERC: The right direction would be letting women tell our own stories. Giving Broadway-level resources to women writers is better than asking us to map our experience onto something that at its core isn’t meant for us.
On the topic of Sondheim, what are your thoughts on his recent passing?
BJG: Losing Sondheim affected me in a way that was somewhat unexpected. Telly Leung [who sings on the Place & Time album] and I met at a bar and drank and teared up, and then we got on stage and performed Sondheim songs. It was a magical, very New York moment.
ERC: I am one of the people who has come to musical theatre in part because of my early experiences with Sondheim’s work. Two of my formative shows are Gypsy and Into the Woods. I am grateful to have been alive at the same time as Sondheim and to have received his work. I recently rewatched Six by Sondheim and was struck by his advice on how you get better with practice. If you have the resources to try and fail and learn and do the next one, you’re going to be better at this than if you are only ever given one shot. He had that chance and I hope our generation of artists, especially the weird and challenging ones, are also given the resources to have that chance through a more egalitarian funding structure for making new musicals.
Congratulations on winning the 2021 Richard Rodgers Award for your musical TL;DR Thelma Louise; Dyke Remix!
ERC: Thanks! We are so excited to have won this award, and grateful to the Academy of Arts and Letters and the selection committee for trusting our vision and investing in our work. It honestly feels life changing.
BJG: It came at a time when not only the future of our work but, I think, the entire industry was in limbo. No one knew what was next and we still kind of don’t, so getting the news of our win was uplifting and encouraging.
What are you working on next?
ERC: We’re working on a new musical that we have in development called Queer. People. Time. It’s a time-travelling queer rom-com about queer history.
Will you continue to strive for inclusivity in all of your shows?
BJG: Ella and I have been writing songs for 10 years now. It’s really great to have a voice and a style with someone. It’s a voice we have had the time to refine and mould. That style and voice are intrinsically tied to who we are and what we write about. So, if we’re staying true to our voice and ourselves, then we have no choice but to strive for inclusivity. It’s part of who we are and why we write. The Richard Rodgers Award gave us a pat on the back as well as a light kick in the butt. I think we’re more energized to keep creating now, which means Place & Time is just the tip of the queer iceberg.
For more information, visit www.brandonandella.com.
NOEL HOFFMAN is a digital media producer, author and freelance journalist for the Daily Collegian, ElectriCITY and the Los Angeles Times. In another lifetime, he was also an actor, singer and teacher, but today, much of his time is consumed with being a single gay dad of two young children.