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A longtime theatregoer recalls a life-changing realization he had at a production of Oklahoma!
"Did seeing theatre when you were a kid make you gay?" I've been asked that question—both seriously and in jest—more times than I can count, by strangers and loved ones alike. The answer is no, of course not! And yet, an early theatregoing experience is what made me realize I was gay.
I grew up in Riverdale in the 1960s in a small two-bedroom apartment with my mother, father and younger brother. When I was 5 and my brother was 2, my parents apparently decided it was often "too much" to have both of us at home on weekends, so they started taking me to matinees of musicals, alternating who got to accompany me to the theatre. One of our first outings was the 1965 City Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!. I already knew the score from my parents repeatedly playing the LP of the original 1943 Broadway cast, so I was incredibly excited. However, I wasn't prepared for the feelings the show would arouse.
When that production's Curly—a muscular, blond-haired, super-handsome actor named John Davidson—came on stage to sing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,'" my heart began to pound in an unfamiliar way. It wasn't that I wanted to be Curly—as a nerdy Jewish kid from the Bronx, I had zero interest in pretending to be a cowboy in the Old West. But on some level, I knew that I wanted to be with Curly. He was all that I could focus on for the next two and half hours and, decades later, he's pretty much the one thing I remember about that performance.
I was only 5, yet even at that young age I knew that what I was feeling couldn't be discussed with anyone. I was confused and a bit terrified. But over the next year as I continued to see shows, no other man piqued my interest the way Mr. Davidson had. I was far more into Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun than Bruce Yarnell, or Florence Henderson in South Pacific than Giorgio Tozzi. (It wasn't until years later that I came to understand that gay men love their divas.) Back then I figured maybe I only fixated on Davidson because he looked so different from me, with my dark hair and Eastern European features.
Soon enough though, TV and movies confirmed my sexual orientation as a slew of young male heartthrobs stirred up longings. And my gaydar was strong—my next big crush was singer-actor Bobby Sherman, who eventually admitted to being bisexual.
Over my decades of theatregoing, I've seen scores of handsome men take center stage, and I've often wondered if young audiences of subsequent generations had epiphanies similar to mine, especially as LGBTQ characters (and actors) have become more prevalent. Did seeing M. Butterfly or Falsettos or Love! Valour! Compassion! spark important coming-out moments? Did watching Matt Bomer in The Boys in the Band, Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal, Aaron Tveit in Moulin Rouge!, or Oklahoma! Curlys Patrick Wilson or Damon Daunno cause the same flutters and questioning that I experienced in 1965?
Recently, as I sat through both parts of Matthew Lopez's brilliant seven-hour epic The Inheritance about multiple generations of gay men in New York, I occasionally looked around and thought, are there any men sitting nearby who are struggling with their identity? Did they purposely take their parents to this show as a way of igniting a conversation they're scared to have, or to gauge their family's receptiveness?
The theatre has always been about more than just entertainment, but for some of us, it is literally life changing.
Not only was I lucky enough to eventually come out to my accepting family, I also got to come out to the person who first opened my heart. I got to know John Davidson casually over the years thanks to my work as a theatre journalist. A while back, I was at Feinstein's/54 Below to review a show and spotted John and his lovely wife Rhonda sitting by the door. I stopped for what I imagined would be a quick hello, but they invited to me to sit and chat. For whatever reason, I decided the time was right and blurted out my truth. Without hesitation, John said he was "flattered" and Rhonda laughed heartily, explaining this wasn't the first "confession" of this type she had heard.
Oh, what a beautiful evenin'.
Brian Scott Lipton has been covering theatre and the performing arts for 30 years. Follow him on Twitter at @bsl1436. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: A photo of the author as a child. Photo courtesy of Brian Scott Lipton.
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