Broadway’s No Drag Today, Thanks to a Ton of Drag

Also: Watch out, Evan Hansen, here comes Jeremy Heere.

The Great White Way has become the Great Drag Way. Go see a Broadway show and chances are you and your date will leave pulling bits of feather boas out of your wigs.

Kinky Boots, with cross-dressing Lola looking fierce as she changes lives and inspires people, won the Tony for Best Musical and has been running for over five years. Also, Summer—the musical about disco queen Donna Summer—has some of the male roles played by women in a touch that’s very contemporary, while the male Alex Newell plays Asaka, Mother of the Earth, singing “Mama Will Provide,” in the Tony-winning revival Once on This Island. Even the Lincoln Center retread of My Fair Lady has caught the cross-dress fever. The rousing “Get Me to the Church on Time” number, sung by Norbert Leo Butz as Eliza’s frisky dad, Alfred P. Doolittle, has both drag queens and drag kings kicking their heels and flirting with and kissing Doolittle, who actually does a lot. And in SpongeBob SquarePants the Musical (which is closing next month), Squidward performs a big, fantasy tap number backed by males dressed as feather-topped showgirls.

Clearly, Broadway has caught up with drag mania the way TV has, along with the entire world, it seems. The critics are drooling for it, the locals are restless for it, and the tourists are dying for it, as explorations of gender-play become way more popular and accessible.

Soon there will be Tootsie, based on the 1982 film with Dustin Hoffman as an unlikable actor who finds work as a woman and discovers that he improves as a person whenever he’s contoured and dolled up. For years, the feeling was that this film couldn’t be done as a stage show because the lead actor would have to go through so many quick changes between male and female, but apparently that’s all been ironed out along with the dresses. The reliably good Santino Fontana (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella) has been cast as Michael/Dorothy, and David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit) is writing the score, fresh off that show’s Tony triumphs. The plan is for Tootsie to roll out in Chicago this year and go to Broadway next spring, so get ready to surrender to Dorothy.

And if that’s not enough tucking for you, there’s also a musical in the works based on To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, the 1995 road trip flick about three drag queens headed to Hollywood. Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the movie, is penning the script, with a score by his husband, Lewis Flinn, and Julie Newmar should be pleased.

What’s more, Some Like It Hot, the 1959 film classic about two guys who witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and go on the lam as part of an all-girl band, is being musicalized—again. The same idea was fairly well received as Sugar on Broadway in 1972. Many years later, in 2003, Tony Curtis took a different role than the one he played in the movie and starred in a revised version of Sugar called just Some Like It Hot. (I saw a performance of the show in New Jersey and thought it was meh to okay.) But now, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (Hairspray on Broadway, Mary Poppins Returns on film) are doing the score, having already written Marilyn Monroe songs for Bombshell, the show within Smash. (There was talk of doing Bombshell on Broadway, but I guess the guys decided to tackle this Marilyn musical instead—for now, anyway).

As with Tootsie, the Some Like It Hot characters are hiding out as (or pretending to be) women, which is a funny device, but I’m glad the above-mentioned bevy of shows doesn’t only include that gimmick. In real life, drag is usually an open form of expression and celebration, not a way to fake people out, so, thankfully, shows are honoring that tradition as well as the “Nobody’s perfect” type of gag.

Genders will be switched once again when an all-female version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross comes to Broadway next May. Drag kings have traditionally poked serious fun at swaggering machismo, and this play—about an office full of real estate sharks at each other’s throats—should provide brilliant fodder for that kind of satirical comment.

Of course, the drag doesn’t have to end there either. Starting in October, Torch Song—a streamlined version of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy—moves from off-Broadway, with Michael Urie as Arnold, a drag performer full of pride and pathos. And when producers want more lacquered nails and flailing arms, there can always be revivals of: Victor/Victoria, based on the 1982 movie that had Julie Andrews pretending to be a man in drag; La Cage aux Folles, the 1983 show based on the ‘78 foreign film in which a drag performer and his husband play it straight for their son, his fiancé, and the in-laws. The charade leads to comic results, but also a prideful resolution. (Hollywood redid the same property as The Birdcage in 1996); and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2011), based on the 1994 Aussie film about three drag queens going through all sorts of tears and guffaws on a road trip to a gig. Yes, that came before To Wong Foo. And if Tootsie is a hit, can a musical version of Mrs. Doubtfire be far behind? Or maybe M. Butterfly on ice?

Joan Marcus
Michael Urie in Torch Song.

And if Broadway wants a trans role, I’m sure a revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch will happen soon enough. Also, the makers of The Cher Show—from what I hear—should correct that musical’s lack of a focus on Cher’s relationship with son Chaz before it hits Broadway in November. That would be the most interesting plot twist of all! Meanwhile, the new comedy Straight White Men features gender-nonconforming writer Kate Bornstein and Two Spirit performer Ty Defoe as very nouveau narrators. (A woman in the audience recently heckled Bornstein by saying “You don’t belong here.” I hope Bornstein replied, “Excuse me, but you happen to be in New York, on Broadway, and in the midst of an artistic community of accepting, creative people. YOU don’t belong here.”)

Also, Head Over Heels, the gender-licious Go-Go’s musical which features the male lead in drag as an Amazon, has trans star Peppermint as a non-binary character—but that’s a different article. In fact, I already wrote it. But do you know what I’m really living for this season? Glenda Jackson as King Lear. Truth. Bravo…I mean brava.

The Big Chill

Maria Baranova
Will Roland and the cast.
Off Broadway is pretty enlightened too these days. There’s no drag in Be More Chill, but there’s a bi character and one who responds to taunting that he might be gay by saying “My mothers would be thrilled.” Alas, though it’s based on a 2004 novel, this brassy musical—whose cast album got millions of streams from excitable young folk—has the misfortune of arriving in New York after Dear Evan Hansen. The award winning Hansen is also about an unpopular teen’s fraudulent way of becoming more accepted, but it happens to have way more texture and subtlety, though, of course, it goes for a pretty naturalistic approach, whereas Chill dares to take on the supernatural.

A student in a New Jersey high school, Jeremy Heere (Will Roland, who played Jared in Dear Evan Hansen) feels like a geek, an outcast and a loser, as he’s constantly reminding us by loudly singing that to the audience. He has the requisite best friend (George Salazar) and crushes on a performing-arts-driven girl named Christine (Stephanie Hsu), all of which is gossiped above by three other divas (yep, think Mean Girls). But into his life comes the Squip, a mystical Keanu Reeves-type (Jason Tam) who emerges in his mind after Jeremy takes “a grey, oblong pill from Japan” that he washed down with Mountain Dew at a Payless, in perhaps the weirdest product placements of the year.

The Squip guides Jeremy through various situations, to make him more of a winner, which leads to complications and more loud singing. The show has the courage of its wackiness—almost making you believe that today’s teens reference Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and listen to Bob Marley—but it’s at times overacted and always over-amplified, throwing almost constant stimulation at you as if it had the ADD Christine admits to experiencing. And when Jeremy sings, “The loudest [voice] is mine,” you totally believe him.

Joe Iconis, the man behind the music and lyrics, has a few interesting songs, like “The Pants Song”—about the importance of wearing the pants to go to bat for someone you care about—but a lot of the score is sunk by “moon/June” type lyrics, and there are two self-pitying numbers pretty close to each other. The second one (“Michael in a Bathroom”) is way better, until it becomes screechy too. (And its main hook sounds a bit borrowed from “Tom Thumb’s Tune” to me.) When Be More Chill is clever, it’s fun, but in general, it needs to chill out.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.