BY MICHAEL MUSTO | Pride month is partly about giving props to your icons, so I’m currently reveling in the indelible accomplishments of three biggies that we lost in recent months—playwright Mart Crowley, who died in March while recovering from heart surgery (as I broke on Facebook); playwright Terrence McNally, who left us in March due to COVID-19 (he had battled lung cancer and lived with COPD); and activist/author Larry Kramer, who had HIV since the 1980s and died of pneumonia in May.
These three were out, loud, and fearless in the way that they moved the needle forward for the whole community. As comic/writer Frank DeCaro said on Facebook, “Each broke new ground, putting genuine queer sensibility and real gay lives on stage and screen. They were white men who could easily have lived discreet lives of privilege, but they refused to stay closeted. They ‘opened a mouth,’ as my mother liked to say, and forced the world to listen.”
I loved Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play, The Boys in the Band, and appeared on a 2009 Theater Talk episode about it, and also showed up in a related 2011 documentary called Making The Boys. In 2009, Mart sent me a copy of his collected plays and signed it, “Dear, dear Michael. You’ve been so good, so kind so generous, and so supportive to me. I can never repay you.” But his play was already remuneration enough.
Though the queer community has gone through stages of being embarrassed by the dramedy—because it deals with a gay birthday party that turns bitter—I always found it (and the 1970 movie version) witty and vibrant, showing a group of successful and funny gay friends back when that world was simply not explored by the mass media. When the lead character, Michael, drunkenly demands that each party guest call their secret love, he’s basically forcing them to confront hard truths and come out into the open.
For that reason—plus the fact that a married but probably not straight character arrives at the party and gets violent—I found the play a blistering attack on the closet, though Mart didn’t necessarily envision it that way. Whatever the case, I’m glad he lived to see the all-star 2018 Broadway revival and win a Tony for it. (The movie version of that production will be released sometime later this year.)
Another out playwright, Terrence McNally, was never afraid to tackle topics involving gay life or AIDS, from the Kiss of the Spider Woman musical to Love! Valour! Compassion! to Mothers and Sons, and beyond that. When I told McNally that I hadn’t seen that last named play yet, he quipped, “Better hurry.” (it was doing spotty box office).
But while he didn’t always hit home runs (I found Corpus Christi, his controversy-flaming modern take on biblical characters, to be surprisingly blah), he always kept slugging and never shirked from presenting bold, colorful characters in pressure cooker situations, resulting either in farce (the bathhouse romp The Ritz), campy biography (Master Class, about opera diva Maria Callas), or probing drama. His blazing intelligence is sorely missed.
And finally, Larry Kramer also dabbled in theater. (His semi-autobiographical 1985 classic, The Normal Heart, is a wrenching look at a writer/activist’s fight against AIDS complacence.)
But whether as a writer or a rabble-rouser, he’ll always be best known for staying true to his anger. Larry was angry at everything. He was mad at the homophobes who made life difficult for LGBTQs, with their relentless bigotry. He was furious at LGBTQs who sometimes acted in self-defeating ways. He was always pissed at the new generations of gays, whom he felt were simply not doing enough to stand up and fight for their rights (he would have kvelled over the massive protests over the killing of George Floyd, if not the looting). And as Trump rose to power and started taking away protections that had been put in place by Obama, Larry was horrified, and called on all of us to be way more vocal about our insistence on equality. What’s more, poor Larry, who had endured AIDS for so many years, now had to watch as a new plague killed so many people, again with terrible leadership making things worse.
Larry wasn’t even cheering in 2011, when gay marriage was approved in New York State. In fact, he was angry at those who were celebrating this as a triumph. Larry felt that until DOMA—the Defense of Marriage Act—was repealed, the gay marriages would only be “feelgood ones” which were not on an equal footing with hetero marriages. (DOMA was repealed two years later.)
Feeling celebratory was simply not in the man’s DNA. I saw his sweet side and was thrilled every time he complimented me on an article, but it was his rage that I’ll miss the most. And while I’m mad that he, Mart Crowley, and Terrence McNally are gone, I choose to honor them this month with a big, gay toast to their trailblazing work.
Follow Michael Musto on Twitter, via @mikeymusto.
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