Pythio (Peppermint) and their serpentine dancers in Head Over Heels.
When Pythio emerges onstage in Head Over Heels, the audience bursts into applause. That’s partly to celebrate the Broadway debut of Peppermint, the one-time RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant, and partly because there’s never been an Oracle of Delphi quite like Pythio. This prophesier is fierce, instantly captivating, and surrounded by serpentine dancers. When King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) and his servant, Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), wonder aloud if the Oracle is a man or a woman, Pythio asks a question that turns out to be central to Head Over Heels: “How is gender germane to the discussion?”
“Things need to be one thing or another,” Basilius demands.
“My qualities transcend your rude opinion!” the Oracle counters. “Pythio is a nonbinary plural.”
Traditionally speaking, the Oracle of Delphi — also known as the Pythia — was strictly female. But there’s very little that’s traditional about Head Over Heels. The musical is based (loosely) on Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century classic, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Jeff Whitty, who won the Tony Award for Avenue Q, and James Magruder are responsible for the book, while the score comprises songs by the Go-Go’s. Yes, Head Over Heels is a jukebox musical, a genre derided for its use of established songs, but the show as a whole turns out to be one of Broadway’s most original offerings in years.
The transformation of the Oracle into a nonbinary character played by a black, trans woman — the first trans actor to originate a principal role on Broadway — is a radical step forward for mainstream theater. While Broadway has a reputation for being inclusive, queer representation has largely been limited to gay, white men, with some notable exceptions like 2015’s Tony winner for Best Musical Fun Home. Trans and nonbinary representation in particular has been severely limited: Shows like La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots, though certainly progressive at the time, depict cis men doing drag. Head Over Heels is a rarity in its portrayal of the full spectrum of gender identity and in its casting of a trans actor (and drag queen) to play a nonbinary role.
The cast of Head Over Heels.
The plot, as in Arcadia, follows Basilius’s attempt to thwart the Oracle’s dire prophecy — his daughters, Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) and Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), will fall prey to unsuitable suitors, one a liar and the other not a man; he and his wife, Gynecia (Rachel York), will (somehow) commit adultery with each other; and his crown will be usurped by a worthier king. And then things take a turn for the queer. Philoclea finds herself drawn to the Amazonian warrior Cleophila, who turns out to be the shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand) in disguise. And Pamela discovers that she never wanted a man at all, as she and her handmaid Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones) declare their love for each other.
At every turn, Head Over Heels makes the most subversive choices, queering a classic 16th-century text to delightful effect. Mopsa takes a quick trip to Lesbos (yes, really), where she turns “Vacation” into a new lesbian anthem. And Musidorus’s cross-dressing, rather than just being played for laughs, inspires a full embrace of his feminine side.
Head Over Heels is earnestly committed to an accurate depiction of sexual and gender fluidity — Pythio’s pronouns are treated with respect, even spurring some updated Go-Go’s lyrics — while also being exceptionally silly. It is thoughtful but never didactic, a show that cares as much about getting representation right as it does about making sure the audience is having a great time. And with a bevy of Go-Go’s tunes — seriously, every song is a bop — the latter is all but guaranteed.
In fact, part of what makes Head Over Heels so impressive is that it doesn’t need to be nearly as innovative and clever as it is. The jukebox musical has a reputation for being lazy, and for good reason: Most of these shows rest on the audience’s familiarity with an artist’s catalog, which means they don’t feel the need to provide much beyond that.
These musicals are mostly biographical, offering a highly sanitized version of the subject’s life, as in Summer, which glosses over Donna Summer’s late-in-life anti-gay attitudes. When they do feature original stories, like the dreadful Escape to Margaritaville, the plots are flimsy and transparent excuses to shove as many hits into two hours as possible. You go to a jukebox musical to hear (and hopefully not sing along to) the songs you know and love. More often than not, it’s not any deeper than that.
Bonnie Milligan as Pamela.
Head Over Heels could have easily gone down that route. The Go-Go’s collection of hits speaks for itself: “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” and the title song are all crowd-pleasers. Instead, the creative team has given us something fresh and exciting: “a vision of nowness,” to crib the title from another featured Go-Go’s song. The production has also assembled an exceptional cast that reflects racial, gender, and body diversity — not to mention all the amazing vocal chops on display. With her impressive belting and comic timing, Milligan will likely prove to be the breakout star of this show. Her Pamela makes for a stunning Broadway debut. But the entire cast is worthy of celebration: Socha is winsome and deeply sympathetic, Durand displays real versatility, and York has never been funnier. The ensemble fares just as well, especially when guided by Spencer Liff’s addictive choreography.
In many ways, Head Over Heels might prove to be a tough sell — the jukebox musical is played out for die-hard theater fans, and the show’s unapologetic queerness could alienate more close-minded audience members. But Broadway shouldn’t be catering to the latter so much as forcing them outside their comfort zones. The more shows like Head Over Heels that exist, the more opportunities there are to expose people to the full breadth of sexual and gender identities, and the beauty therein. If Broadway wants to be at the forefront of inclusivity, this is the kind of work it needs to be doing.
It’s heartening that Head Over Heels arrives alongside the play Straight White Men, which interrogates cis, white, male privilege and features, despite its title, two nonbinary actors, Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe. These shows are transgressive and that makes them risky, but these are risks worth taking.
Head Over Heels presents a world where the key to paradise is accepting people for who they are, including their sexual and gender identities. That is a powerful message to portray eight times a week, and it’s one that everyone, both queer and not, could stand to be reminded of. This show isn’t just a blast: It’s a stirring reminder of why theater matters.
Castle Rock, Hulu’s new Stephen King–inspired series, isn’t based on any one King novel or story, but on the small Maine town that gives the show its title. Castle Rock is a setting the prolific author has turned to again and again throughout his career. It’s where a rabid Saint Bernard went on a rampage in Cujo, where Johnny Smith got a vision of the apocalypse in The Dead Zone, where a group of kids went to search for a corpse in The Body (adapted into the film Stand by Me), and where a mysterious man who may have been Satan himself set up shop in Needful Things.
But while Castle Rock, which premiered its first three episodes July 25, isn’t a direct adaptation, there are tons of references — both big and small — to some of King’s most famous works. Here’s a list of everything we’ve spotted so far.
When President Trump reportedly asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” during a rant last March about his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, chances are he wasn’t thinking about the character in Angels in America.
It’s true that Roy Cohn is one of the most memorable figures in Tony Kushner’s plays Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, performed together as Angels in America and currently enjoying a widely praised revival on Broadway. But before Kushner’s version of the character debuted in 1991, Roy Cohn was a very real person — a lawyer who rose to prominence during the McCarthy era, was eventually disbarred for unethical conduct, and died of AIDS in 1986. He was also the one-time mentor to a young Donald Trump.
The social media accounts for the current Broadway production, which stars Nathan Lane as Cohn alongside Andrew Garfield as the reluctant prophet, Prior Walter, latched on to Trump’s offhand question, incorporating “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” into an ad campaign. The tenuous connection between Angels in America and Trump — which was there, however subtextually, from the beginning — was suddenly overt. If you want to comprehend Trump, the ad might have been saying, see this nearly 30-year-old play.
There might be some truth to that: Although Trump’s name is never mentioned in the play, Angels in America’s dissection of the Republican Party — its isolationist, individualist policies and strong personalities — provides a sort of road map toward our current political moment. But while Kushner concedes the associations, he’s wary of how some audience members might conflate Trump and Cohn. Cohn, he argues, was deeply loyal, forming a lifelong attachment to Joe McCarthy, the notorious anti-communist senator. Trump, he counters, is loyal only as long as the other person is useful. By Kushner’s account, he dumped Cohn as soon as he learned that Cohn had AIDS.
“I found myself in an odd place of wanting to defend [Roy], because I don’t think that they’re the same person, and I was nervous going in. Are people gonna read the play through that kind of Trumpian mirror?” Kushner told BuzzFeed News. “Are they gonna try to turn the Roy in my play into a borderline psychotic narcissist like Donald Trump?”
“I think there’s really very little that’s worse than Donald Trump.”
“Not all villains are equal,” he continued. “Some really bad people are worse than other really bad people. I think there’s really very little that’s worse than Donald Trump.”
Get Kushner going on Trump and he will hold nothing back — he speaks in thoughtful, impassioned monologues that reflect a deep engagement with US political culture. At times, he sounds like a gentler, more self-aware version of Angels in America’s Louis, Prior’s neurotic, diatribe-loving boyfriend, played in this production by James McArdle. That current runs throughout the plays, which serve, among other things, as a searing indictment of Reaganism. (Though first performed in 1991, the plays take place in 1985 and 1986.)
Of course, there’s much more to Angels in America than that — how else to account for the seven and a half hour runtime of the combined plays? The “gay fantasia on national themes,” as it’s subtitled, follows a series of characters, including Prior, who begins to receive celestial messages as he’s battling AIDS; Roy Cohn, who tries to mask his AIDS as liver cancer; Louis, who abandons Prior when he needs him most; Roy’s closeted Mormon protégé, Joe Pitt (Lee Pace); and Joe’s pill-addled wife Harper (Denise Gough). The characters converge and fight for survival as the play asks grand questions: How do we become the people we are meant to be? And what is the responsibility we owe to ourselves — and to each other?
“It’s about being true to yourself and, once you are true to yourself, how to be true to the people around you and find a community,” said Marianne Elliott, the director who first took on Angels in America at London’s National Theatre last year and has now transferred the production to Broadway. “It has a political statement to make about [the 1980s] but it’s very similar to now, I would say.”
Change — and how difficult that is to achieve — is perhaps the play’s most prominent theme. The epic arcs of Kushner’s characters reflect a conception of change as an arduous, at times unbearably time-consuming process, but one that is ultimately achievable. That notion — that real change doesn’t happen overnight but rather through sometimes tedious work — runs in contrast to the quick fixes championed by politicians, like Trump, who promise to shake things up.
Sounding eerily like the character he plays in Angels in America, McArdle spoke candidly about the current state of affairs in these terms. He’s not American — his Scottish accent is particularly striking after you’ve heard him employ Louis’s nebbishy New York voice — but he’s studied his history. And he believes that, along with racism and xenophobia, the rise of Trump and of people like him in the past is tied to a disenfranchised working class eager for change.
“At any point in history where fascism takes flight is when people’s backs are put against the wall and that’s what I feel has happened here,” he said. “But the actual truth is, if we do want change for the future, it’s gonna be hard. [Trump is] giving them the sort of easy way out, and I think that’s what the play talks about — there’s no easy way out for change. If you want proper change, you’re gonna have to go into the storm.”
“If you want proper change, you’re gonna have to go into the storm.”
The themes of change, progress, and how we connect to one another are certainly not linked to any singular political phenomenon, and the timeless quality of Angels in America underscores that. At the same time, there is an uncomfortable prescience to so much of the play in terms of where we are now. It’s not just the age-old debate over the role of government in taking care of its citizens — one could read Kushner’s heaven, with its absent god, through that lens — or of how much personal responsibility those citizens bear when it comes to taking care of one another. The play also references climate change (Harper’s concern over the hole in the ozone layer is treated as a symptom of her mental illness by Joe) and immigration (America, a country built by immigrants — among other groups — refuses to embrace them).
That relevance to the current conversation is especially impressive when you consider the specificity with which Kushner infused his work: The characters talk at length about their contemporary politics. Kushner admitted that he was nervous about writing such detailed references, fearing they would one day be archaic, but he now considers their inclusion “one of the only genuine innovations of the play.”
“There’s a tendency to sort of want to avoid making a play dated by being not precise about the historical moment, but politics has a lot to do with specificity and you can’t really talk much about politics if you only deal with abstractions,” he said.
As Elliott put it, “If you’ve got really great writing, the more specific it is, weirdly the more universal it becomes.”
But while it’s hard to imagine a time in which Angels in America wouldn’t feel relevant, it’s impossible to ignore the unique timeliness of doing this production under the Trump administration. It’s not just the Roy Cohn of it all, but also that so much of what the play warns about — the estrangement between people across stark political divides and what Kushner calls “anti-government incoherence” — hasn’t gone away. “He kind of saw what was going to happen with the Republican Party,” Gough said. “It just feels like the politics of the play are more prevalent now than they were then.”
“I do think that there’s an obligation to hope.”
Despite the progress that has come to pass, for many people things feel worse than ever — or at least worse than anything they remember. That makes the play, by Elliott’s estimation, “very, very alive.” “The problem about period pieces [is] you look at them through a kind of haze of Vaseline and think, That was then, but it’s OK; we don’t have to worry about it because it’s not now,” she said. “Whereas actually what’s horrifying, electrifying, and inspiring about this is that that was then — it was in living memory — but it’s the same if not more extreme now. Because of that situation then, it only created a world that’s even more like it was then.”
Framed that way, Angels in America sounds awfully depressing. Yes, there is something semi-tragic about viewing it from a modern perspective: The characters sometimes sound painfully naive, their fears for the future both accurate and, in retrospect, restrained. When Joe tells Harper, in so many words, that Reagan will make the country great again, it’s difficult not to cringe. When Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) says he hates America, he sounds like the only sane person onstage. And then there are these prophetic words from a homeless woman (Amanda Lawrence): “In the new century, I think we will all be insane.”
And yet, there is an optimism to Angels in America that provides some relief to the audience after hours of watching these characters go through hell. It’s encapsulated in the final two monologues of the play. First, there is Harper, who has left Joe and is traveling to San Francisco. “Nothing’s lost forever,” she says. “In this life, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.” Then there’s Prior, who ends the show with a speech that includes his vision of a brighter future: “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens.”
When Prior’s speech was first delivered on Broadway in the early ’90s, there was reason for hope for those who felt beaten down by the past decade: New protocols for treating AIDS were extending lives, and the arrival of Bill Clinton in the White House seemed to signal the end of Reaganism and with it, the government’s refusal to respond to or even acknowledge the AIDS crisis. But hope was still a tenuous concept, and fear persisted. “It was the moment after the worst of the thing had happened,” Kushner recalled. “The play was talking to an audience of people who were still very raw from the war.”
So much has changed since then, but many of the audience members who see this production of Angels in America may again feel that optimism is in short supply. Kushner, however, isn’t concerned about the message falling flat. After all, Prior’s speech isn’t just a cheerful reminder that things will improve — it’s a call to arms. “I do think that there’s an obligation to hope,” Kushner said. “And to hope is not to just wish that it would get better, but to look for the plausible occasions whence hope might be anticipated, something positive might be anticipated, and then work for those.”
This is the message that the cast and creative team behind Angels in America kept returning to. It’s the message of the play itself. Yes, change is possible, but it requires constant persistence. Kushner cited the gun control activism of the Parkland students, while Pace pointed to the #MeToo movement and the decades of progress made by the LGBTQ community. In Angels in America, Prior has to literally wrestle an angel who demands he stand still instead of moving forward. The angels, Elliott noted, are “quite right-wing”: “They’re the enemies of progress.”
It’s not just about fighting back, however — it’s also about standing together. The play concludes with Prior alongside his chosen family: Louis, Belize, and Joe’s mother, Hannah (Susan Brown). “You look after the group,” McArdle said. “They’re creating a system of being together.”
“The process works. It works. It might take longer than we wish, but the thing actually works.”
That was by intention. “When [Prior] blesses us at the end of the play, what he’s acknowledging is the immense power of human community, and that’s what the enemies of life are most interested in assaulting and destroying,” Kushner said. “It’s all about atomizing, splintering, denying the connections between people and responsibilities that we have for one another.”
While he referenced Trump often, Kushner’s beliefs about the power of community — and the need for resilience in the face of those who would tear it apart — existed long before the current president. So, too, his conception of progress as something that necessitates tremendous effort. The play is not, then, a protest against the current administration: These big ideas had value when he first expressed them, and they will have value long after Trump is out of office.
At the same time, anyone struggling through our current reality will have a hard time not clinging to that brighter perspective on where we go from here, and the message Angels in America imparts might provide a meaningful way forward. Not to mention the fact that the distance from when the play was first performed to now offers something equally useful: perspective. The light at the end of the tunnel seems impossibly far away, Kushner realizes, but then, it did when he was first writing Angels in America. And it does to all his characters — who manage, over the course of an epic emotional and sometimes physical battle, to come out the other side.
“The process works,” Pace said. “It works. It might take longer than we wish, but the thing actually works. It’s frustrating and painful. It rips your guts out and forces you to confront things that you don’t want to confront, as an individual and as a community, but it works. That, I think, is the truth of the play.”
Louis Peitzman is a deputy entertainment editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
When John Krasinski set out to cowrite and direct A Quiet Place, he knew he was in desperate need of a crash course in horror. For years, he had largely avoided the genre, but now that he was going to make a horror film of his own, he had to play catch-up.
“The first thing I realized was how ignorant I was to be so strident about not seeing movies because I thought they’d be scary, because what I did was I realized I missed out on some of the best cinema that’s been going for the last few years,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Get Out, The Witch, The Babadook, Let the Right One In — all these movies are so incredibly well shot, well written, well thought out, that I’m such a lover of genre movies now.”
Emily Blunt, who plays Evelyn in A Quiet Place and has been married to Krasinski since 2010, admired his binge-watching, although she confessed that she’s “terrified” of the genre herself. “John watched every horror film under the sun to prepare for this movie,” she said. “He was like, ‘Do you want to watch It with me?’ I was like, ‘No, I don’t!’”
Krasinski’s horror education seems to have paid off with A Quiet Place, the third feature he’s directed after 2009’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and 2016’s The Hollars. The reviews that have come out since its South by Southwest premiere have been overwhelmingly positive. The film — which Krasinski cowrote with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck — follows a family of four as they live in silence to defend themselves from alien creatures who hunt by sound. Krasinski also stars as the father, Lee, who — along with Evelyn — works to keep their daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and son, Marcus (Noah Jupe), safe. It’s a tight, at times unbearably suspenseful thriller, with some of the most terrifying set pieces in recent horror memory. And because the characters can’t speak out loud or make any noise, it’s overwhelmingly quiet.
But A Quiet Place also has a rich emotional core and resonant themes of parental anxiety and the endless challenges of communication. Monsters aside, it’s about the lengths a mother and father will go to to protect their children in a world of constant danger. And then there’s Regan, who is deaf and sees herself as a burden on her family, when, in fact, her disability proves to be one of her strongest assets. Her fractured relationship with her father (and herself) provides a critical through-line to the film. That deeper level recalls the similar thematic richness of the modern horror films Krasinski cited, and it’s what elevates his movie past being just a tense creature feature.
One of Krasinski’s major takeaways from his horror binge was that the standouts of the genre never rest solely on scares. But then, that was never his approach to A Quiet Place. He was first offered the movie as an actor; at that point, it was a 70-page treatment that Woods and Beck had written. Once he saw a way in beyond the surface-level horror, he signed on as a writer and director. “It was terrifying and I could see that there was a potential for this giant allegory for parenthood, and that’s what I put into the rewrite of the script and I really tried to go for it,” he said.
While he was nervous about taking on a new genre, he thought back to advice he received from Greg Daniels, the showrunner of The Office, on which Krasinski starred as Jim Halpert for nine seasons. Daniels told him that it wasn’t his job to be funny or to make sure his scenes with Jenna Fischer’s Pam were poignant; he just had to deliver the lines and leave the rest to the audience.
“I thought of Greg because I said, my job is not to try to make a scary movie, my job is to make a movie about a family that you care about and if you care about them enough, you’ll be scared to go through what they’re going through,” Krasinski said. “Yet again, I owe everything to Greg Daniels.”
Krasinski’s approach to A Quiet Place grounds the film in family drama without sacrificing any scares. It’s what drew Blunt to the project despite her reservations about the genre as a whole. She was moved by the script and its focus on a mother and father’s fiercely protective devotion to their children. A parent herself, Blunt said she identified with Evelyn more than most of the characters she’s played.
“It felt very close to home for me, as being a mother of two young children, feeling like I’m worried about exposing them to this brutal world,” Blunt said. “It’s a fragile world we’re in anyway, and wanting only happiness for my children, and their health and happiness and their safety, it’s like, this mother and the way she operates was so — it was a no-brainer for me.”
A major reason why A Quiet Place succeeds as well as it does is that the family unit at its center feels cohesive and real. There’s a bit of an unfair advantage, of course: As real-life husband and wife, Krasinski and Blunt were able to use their own relationship to give a bit of unspoken backstory to Lee and Evelyn. “John and I have that immediate shorthand obviously because we’re married and we have a whole lifetime of memories together to sort of draw from when imagining what life must have been like for this family before hell ensued,” Blunt said.
The film even includes real photos of the couple and their children as stand-ins for family photos. Given that built-in intimacy, there could have been some concern over privacy, but Blunt was unfazed. “Something that would have been more intimate for us would be a drama about marriage — that’s not what this movie is,” she said. “What’s been so cool about the reaction is that people talk about the film, they talk about [John] as a filmmaker, and then they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, they’re also, like, married in real life.’”
But it’s not just the parents who anchor the fictional family in lived-in honesty — it’s also the kids. Simmonds and Jupe are accomplished young actors who are able to convey the fear and frustration of their situation without ever opening their mouths. Simmonds, who earned acclaim for her breakthrough role in Wonderstruck last year, is especially compelling. For Krasinski, hiring a deaf actor for the role was non-negotiable. “She can give a much more honest and layered performance because she’s actually experiencing it,” he said. “I needed a guide. I needed someone to actually help me talk about the nuance of — or talk to me about the nuance of — what it’s like to be a member of a family when you’re deaf and they’re hearing.”
That authenticity shines through in all the scenes with the family — and it’s part of what makes the peril they’re in as the creatures descend on their farm so stressful for an audience to endure. Beyond their own bond as a married couple, Krasinski and Blunt had the younger actors and their parents over to their home. Krasinski said he learned the most about how to portray those fictional family dynamics by watching their real family dynamics play out in front of him. As a result, the unwavering parent-child bond that he wanted to keep front and center feels impressively organic and holds the film together.
With that combination of high-concept terror and potent emotional honesty, A Quiet Place emerges as exactly the kind of horror film Krasinski wanted to make — and one he was uniquely suited for. It’s also another great reminder of how a genre that has historically been dismissed and maligned can actually offer rich storytelling while still scaring the crap out of audiences.
“It’s a genre with sort of endless potential and possibilities,” Blunt said. “You’ve got a heightened reality, or a slightly heightened reality, and you can really actually create a sort of more profound backdrop for it. You can carve out new space for yourself in the horror genre, and I think that’s what films like Get Out and certainly John was trying to do.”
Krasinski is thrilled by the response he’s gotten so far — and somewhat relieved. He admitted that he was nervous going into this experience, particularly as a horror newcomer. But while he’s not sure what the next directorial project he takes on will be, genre fans can rest assured he’s eager to give horror another shot.
“This genre now is something where some of the most complicated storytelling is happening, some of the biggest conceits, some of the biggest ideas, so that’s where I want to be,” he said. “What was so thrilling about this was being outside of my comfort zone. I’d love to do it again.”
As with Levy and Murin, the strength of this cast is in their ability to evoke the feel of Frozen the movie while making sure Frozen the musical emerges as its own thing entirely. Jelani Alladin is Jonathan Groff–level charming as Kristoff, but it’s fantastic to see a black actor in the role, given the dearth of characters of color in the Disney canon, particularly as romantic leads. (It’s worth noting that Anna and Elsa’s father, King Agnarr, is also played by a black actor, James Brown III.) John Riddle is unbearably likable as Hans — like, it’s actually deeply uncomfortable because you know he’s going to reveal himself to be a tool — and he has one of the most powerful voices in the cast. And Greg Hildreth manages to bring a soulfulness to Olaf, who is, you know, a talking snowman. He’s comic relief, sure, but Hildreth makes sure that you’re rooting for him at the same time. Speaking of…
For gay men who grew up in the ’90s, there are two distinctive eras: the time before we saw Kevin Bacon’s full-frontal scene in Wild Things, and the time after.
It’s been 20 years to the day since Wild Things hit theaters. This was two decades before Moonlight, before Love, Simon, before Call Me by Your Name: LGBT representation certainly existed, in indie comedies (1995’s Jeffrey) or the occasional prestige AIDS drama (1993’s Philadelphia), but it was neither plentiful nor especially mainstream. Many of us who were still figuring ourselves out gravitated less toward more overt depictions of gayness, like The Birdcage or In & Out, and more to subtler, subtextually homoerotic representation.
It feels absurd to use the word “subtle” in connection to Wild Things, the kind of steamy erotic thriller that should have been relegated to late-night Cinemax but somehow ended up with a wide release. It is too deliberately over-the-top to be regarded as true camp, although that doesn’t make it any less fun. But whether intentionally or not, there is an undercurrent of gayness that made it especially titillating to all the curious and questioning teens who managed to bypass Blockbuster’s age-restricted rental prohibitions. On paper, it’s a movie that feels designed for straight bros, but in reality, it proved much more appealing to closet queers.
That’s part of what made it such an attractive option: Wild Things was the slightly more respectable version of watching the Pamela Anderson–Tommy Lee sex tape and keeping your eyes focused entirely on Tommy Lee. The only overt same-sex content in the movie is the steamy pool scene between Neve Campbell’s Suzie Toller and Denise Richards’ Kelly Van Ryan, and the threesome involving the two and Matt Dillon as lecherous teacher Sam Lombardo. These aren’t moments of genuine passion between two women so much as a shameless excuse to pander to straight male viewers eager to see two girls making out. And yet, despite the male-gaziness of those sapphic scenes, there is a distinct feeling of true queerness, a wink to those watching Wild Things not for topless Denise Richards but for shirtless Matt Dillon.
Explaining the plot of Wild Things is an exercise in futility: The film is too twisty and convoluted to merit a full synopsis. Suffice it to say, it involves an elaborate con by an ever-increasing cast of players with shifting allegiances — not only Suzie, Kelly, and Sam, but also (spoiler alert) sleazy lawyer Kenneth Bowden (Bill Murray) and corrupt sergeant Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon). And the film has aged horribly: The inciting incident is a false rape accusation that was cringey at the time and is now even more unbearable. But we can acknowledge how deeply offensive a movie is and also how formative its climactic shower scene was to a certain subset of gay millennials.
Near the end of the movie, after Sam has double-crossed Suzie and Kelly, he returns to his beach bungalow to find someone in the shower. The figure emerging from the steam isn’t Suzie or Kelly, both presumed dead, but a fully nude Ray Duquette. It’s a pivotal moment that reveals both Ray’s complicity in Sam’s plot and, also, Bacon’s penis. Given the rarity of full-frontal male nudity on the big screen — particularly an A-list actor in a mainstream release — it’s a fairly shocking moment. But it also feels like much-needed confirmation to those who watched Wild Things suspecting there was something gay about it all along. The major twist is that a movie that seemed all about the male gaze is actually about the male gays.
Nudity aside, the scene is as homoerotic as it can be without Dillon and Bacon actually embracing. The men are clearly very comfortable with each other — there’s no hint of awkwardness when Sam walks in on Ray in the shower — and given the film’s relentless sexuality, the idea that these dudes might not just be friends and partners in crime feels more than a little implied. If Wild Things were made today — please, god, without the false rape accusation — it’s likely that the scene would have played out differently, with Sam joining Ray in the shower. (Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking from a former closeted teen who always imagined it ending that way.)
It’s not surprising that Wild Things has emerged as a queer cult classic: It has all the elements of the genre. There’s Denise Richards, whose ’90s work also includes the quintessential Starship Troopers and Drop Dead Gorgeous. There’s the completely batshit plot, including a what-the-fuck incest twist delivered in some offhand exposition. And there’s the endlessly quotable dialogue, most of it coming from Richards: “Where’d she get the shoes, Whores for Less?” What is surprising is seeing, in retrospect, how much of that queerness might have been intentional from the beginning. It would be silly to suggest that Wild Things was a movie made for gay men — but it would be equally naive to dismiss its queer appeal as mere accident.
Thankfully, in the 20 years since Wild Things, we’ve seen major steps forward for actual LGBT representation — including love scenes between women that aren’t clearly designed to excite straight guys. But as retrograde and objectionable as the movie is in many ways, it’s still a fascinating relic of the era. And for those of us who were drawn to it years before we fully understood why, it’s a major piece of nostalgia, a comforting reminder of how far we’ve come and of those early forbidden thrills.
Years before she was in The Band’s Visit on Broadway, Sharone Sayegh was a student at Syracuse University visiting New York City to audition for the tour of Hairspray. According to Sayegh, the audition monitor said there were too many people present and they would have to make a cut: Because the show was about black and white race relations in the 1960s, anyone who wasn’t black or white would not be considered. Sayegh, who is Iraqi-Israeli, gathered her things and left.
“I wasn’t upset,” Sayegh told BuzzFeed News. “I was like, Yeah I’m not. I’m not white and I’m not black, so I probably should only start auditioning for Middle Eastern shows. But I was like, Wait a minute, there aren’t any, so what should I do?”
With The Band’s Visit, which opened in November at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Sayegh has found a show that’s distinctly Middle Eastern, and that actually reflects the duality of her ethnic background in its exploration of two cultures: Her parents were born in Israel but are of Iraqi descent, and she was born and raised in the US. Based on the acclaimed 2007 film, The Band’s Visit follows Egypt’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra as they find themselves stranded overnight in the sleepy Israeli town of Bet Hatikva. There, the locals take them in, and both the Israelis and their Egyptian visitors realize they’re all searching for the same thing — human connection.
While the show could depict a fraught, politically charged conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis, The Band’s Visit is quiet and restrained, more focused on their innate similarities and newly formed bonds than on any larger issues that might come between them. That grounded, slice-of-life approach stands out against the more common portrayals of Middle Eastern life, which often center on terrorism or border conflicts.
“I guess it could be inherently political, but I like to think that it’s not,” said George Abud, who plays Camal, a member of the band. “We just see these strangers meeting and being confused by each other and challenging each other in mostly nonthreatening ways, and just trying to figure each other out and trying to communicate.”
For Abud, who is Lebanese-American, the normalcy of the show is part of what makes it such a significant step forward for representation. Not to mention, of course, that the cast includes so many actors of diverse Middle Eastern backgrounds. Abud was so inspired by the work the show was doing that he eschewed listing credits in his Playbill bio, instead opting for the following message: “I hope young Arabic kids, like I was, see this show, or hear it, or read about it, and know that there is starting to be a place for their expression, their stories and their faces. The Arab voice, rich in history and beautiful music, is vital in American theatre.”
Explaining his choice for the unconventional bio, Abud said that he wanted to “start planting the seed and normalizing the Arab people and the Arab-American people, to show people who have not come into contact with them as much that we’ve been here and we’re part of the fabric.”
That’s part of the work The Band’s Visit is doing, and it’s why — aside from the gorgeous book and evocative score — these actors have been so drawn to the show. Etai Benson, who plays Bet Hatikva resident Papi, said this is the first time he’s really seen himself represented onstage. Half Israeli and half American, he is Jewish but has always felt more of a “spiritual kinship with Middle Eastern culture and traditions,” as opposed to the Eastern European Jewish culture depicted in classic Broadway shows like Fiddler on the Roof.
“This was … a Broadway musical — what I’ve always dreamed of doing in my life — that had Hebrew in it, that had my culture, that had everything that I grew up with represented onstage,” Benson said.
Benson has been cast as Jewish characters throughout his career; Sayegh, on the other hand, has struggled to be seen for Jewish roles despite the fact that she is an American Jew. “I cannot get an audition for Fiddler whenever it’s done, because they’re like, you don’t look Jewish,” she said. “And it’s like, you don’t know what a Jew is!” She has played Latinas and Indians because of a scarcity of roles for people who look like her, although she’s uncertain if she would do that again because “it feels inauthentic.”
“I rarely go into an audition without an accent because people just don’t view me as American or there hasn’t been an Israeli show or a Middle Eastern show,” Sayegh said. “[The Band’s Visit] being an Israeli piece where I didn’t have to learn a new accent and I could speak my language and there’s Arabic music — I mean, it’s just like my whole world.”
For Ari’el Stachel, who plays smooth-talking band member Haled, the show has a particular resonance. He is half Yemenite Israeli and half Ashkenazi Jew: The Band’s Visit reflects a similar convergence of cultures. But it’s also a rare opportunity for Stachel to embrace his ethnic identity, which he admitted was once a source of shame for him. “For a majority of my life I pretended not to be Middle Eastern — anything but Middle Eastern,” he said. “If I wasn’t perceived as an outsider or as a Yemenite kid or some weird kid with a father with an accent, I felt like I had social permission to play basketball, to sing, to act.”
The Band’s Visit, in which the characters’ Arab and Israeli ethnicities are both essential to their stories and not their only defining characteristic, marks a major turning point for Stachel, who only publicly revealed his ethnic background when he was a junior at NYU. “I just didn’t know that there would be roles available for me,” he said. “But I think all the time I spent concealing made me obsessed with my identity and dying to be proud of it, and so this show has enabled that for me.”
But it’s also the story that Band’s Visit tells that makes these actors especially excited about it: They all spoke about having had to audition for heavier roles, sometimes terrorists or refugees. And while they agreed that those stories are necessary, they do not represent the full breadth of the Middle Eastern experience. The simple, human story in this particular play offers a meaningful alternative to what most of these actors have faced throughout their careers.
As Benson noted, “Diversity in casting is very important, and I think our show is very emblematic of that. When you look onstage you see kinds of faces that you haven’t seen before. But to me, what’s just as if not more important is the diversity in storytelling.”
Abud put it more bluntly. “We’re mostly doing frickin’ shows downtown about Syria and the conflict in Syria. I don’t want to do fucking 200 shows about Syria,” he said. “I want to do a Theresa Rebeck [play] about annoying Upper East Side kids who are taking an art class or something. It has nothing to do with them being white. … We want to play with everybody else.”
He said that he sees two forms of progress — one is Middle Eastern actors being cast as Middle Eastern characters in their own stories, and the other is Middle Eastern actors being cast as, well, anyone. And while The Band’s Visit represents the former, its work to normalize and showcase the work of Middle Eastern actors will ideally lead to more opportunities down the line, including roles that have traditionally been played by white actors.
Stachel is already feeling optimistic. “Maybe now people will take a chance on me and let me stretch and play other types of things,” he said. “The sense that I have in meetings now is quite different, because people are able to see me in what I feel is my truth.”
In the meantime, they will continue speaking out whenever possible. Even while celebrating an accomplishment like The Band’s Visit, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done — and for these actors, that means both being grateful for the opportunity and making sure this show isn’t just a fluke.
“It’s my responsibility to help others with my platform in whatever way I can,” Abud said. “I have a very, very, very small platform, but any opportunity I can, I like to try and do something, because even if it just gives somebody a little bit of hope — like I’ve gotten from little things — that’s what the theater is.”
There are plenty of shows that dabble in a variety of musical genres, but SpongeBob really goes for it — hip-hop, emo, gospel, and, yes, even a sea shanty written by Sara Bareilles. It’s not just Bareilles: The show employed numerous big-name songwriters, including John Legend, the Flaming Lips, T.I., and Panic! At the Disco. Amazingly enough, the score isn’t an abrasive mishmash of different styles. While the songs themselves are unique — and often bear the distinctive feel of the artists who wrote them — they come together as a cohesive musical theater score. Despite all the cooks in the kitchen, there is a unifying SpongeBob sound, and it’s like nothing else on Broadway.