Exploring Gender & Sexual Identity Through Musical Theater

By Kevin Assam

Stephen Kitsakos is a theatre writer and librettist with 40 years in the performing arts. His work has been seen across cities including New York, Chicago, Miami, London, Bogota, and Medellin. He was a contributing writer for The Sondheim Review and developed LGBTQ themed courses at SUNY New Paltz as a member of the Theatre Arts faculty for 15 years. His online course, Exploring Gender & Sexual Identity Through Musical Theater, is available through TSKW.org. Registration is free with any donations going towards the nonprofit The Studios of Key West. 

How early into the pandemic did you decide to get back into the role of a lecturer?
I didn’t need any incentive. I had been doing this at The Studios of Key West for the past few years. The organization is multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary. Many adults who love arts and culture are interested in extension learning, but are not called to create visual or performing art. They merely want to experience it by presentation of new or unfamiliar works and responding to challenging questions. I had already adapted the curriculum I developed as a college professor into two classes. One in 2019 — Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Reimagining Greek Tragedy for the 21st Century, and in 2018 — Lesbian & Gay Identity in 20th Century Dramatic Literature. Of course, incentives now were no exams, papers, or presentations. In mid-March when we canceled our programming for the remainder of the season, I developed material for an online course, Exploring Gender & Sexual Identity Through Musical Theater, which would examine three seminal works: Cabaret, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Fun Home. We could still be relevant even if we could not have participants in the same room together.

What makes these three works relevant to the discussion of sexual identity in this new decade?
The increased visibility of transgender and non-binary persons, and the idea that there is a spectrum of identities that are not exclusively male or female, have made it possible to go back and discuss works through this lens. Cabaret, initially presented its male protagonist, Cliff, in 1966 as a heterosexual cisgender male and the emcee as a sort of circus ringmaster. In the 1972 film, the same character is presented as bisexual and in the 1987 revival and revisionist version in the mid-1990s he is homosexual. The emcee is also transformed into an androgynous pansexual individual. Hedwig and the Angry Inch makes a similar journey from 1998 to 2014 and Fun Home explores similar ideas and intentions.

Why focus on the broader gender and sexual identity of musical theater instead of lesbian and gay identities as with your previous course on literature?
The majority of people do not understand that gender identity is separate from sexual orientation. Non-binary persons have a variety of sexual orientations just as cisgender people do. The emergence of those who identify outside the heteronormative is always difficult for some to wrap their heads around. Education, especially through the lens of popular culture, is a great way to educate.

Will we be able to measure the full extent of the pandemic’s effects on musical theater for this and future seasons?
As of now, I’d say firmly, no. There’s no way of measuring anything because there is only uncertainty, ambivalence, confusion, and distrust. It is worst here in the United States because the sense of entitlement and self-absorption, masquerading as what many citizens think are their democratic rights, is immeasurable. I am doubtful that people who normally attend live performance will want to gather, whether in large or small groups, masked or unmasked, separated or unified, indoors or outdoors, for a while. At least until there are proven treatments or a vaccine. Theater art exists as the live intersection between spectator and performer. Without that you don’t have theater. It’s something else. This is not limited to the arts, but also to spectator sports, casinos, political rallies, religious gatherings. Social distancing is, by itself, anti-social, anti-art, and anti-humanity.

Will there be a surplus of pandemic themed musicals whenever the next theater season turns out to be? 
All art is derived from the concept of mimesis — imitation of things both real or imagined. In my lifetime the Vietnam War, the emergence of counter-cultural revolutions, AIDS, the digital revolution, all influenced the creation of art. I am certain the pandemic will be reflected.

For registration and further information visit TSKW.org

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