“With the same peremptory familiarity did many of us who would become gay men feel addressed by the Broadway musical, which hailed us as directly as if it had been calling out our names, and met us so well that in finding ourselves called for, we seemed to find ourselves, period.”
– D.A. Miller, Place for Us; Essay on the Broad way Musical
Two days ago I defended a dissertation several years in the making that focused on the figure of the queer fan, that all-too earnest & knowledgeable person in the crowd who not only wishes to be those glittering stars he adores but who wants to inhabit their world. Ben Rimalower’s Patti Issues, which I caught the day after my defense functioned like an apt coda to my own work on queer fandom focused as it is on the failed but necessary identification to one Ms Patti LuPone. A queer fan, as I argue in what ended up being a 250+ page tome (!) exists at the intersection of shame, transgressive notions of desire, and the necessary invocations of performance and audience engagement. Patti Issues fits all of this to a tee; after writing and talking about queer fans for four years here was one in the flesh! belting out EVITA! EVITA! at me and throwing shade at Bernadette while excavating dark and clearly cathartic memories about his family’s past.
Much like every chapter in my dissertation, Ben’s one-man cabaret show begins with “the scene”: that moment where he fell head over heels for Ms LuPone’s vibrato while listening to her rendition of Evita. But of course, as with all originary queer fandom stories, this one is tinged with familial shame. No sooner has Ben been hypnotized by Patti’s brassy (and bossy!) voice that he’s cowering from a potential run-in with his estranged not-closeted-anymore father.
The title of the piece, which presents such a neatly mirrored pun (Patti is both “m-m-momma m-m-momma!” and daddy all rolled up into one) sets the stage for a hilarious and affecting tour-de-force that reminds us — as Miller’s book does so expertly — how crucial our imaginative identifications with stars can be: Ben’s quite frank about this, his show — with his brash reprises of Patti’s signature hits — all but shows us how wanting to become a diva can be both analgesic and palliative for our lives. And, much like the various authors I studied in my dissertation, Ben’s queer fandom becomes a way to motivate (and engineer) artistic production. Patti’s Les Mouches show is both inspiration and haunting presence in Patti Issues.
It’s also almost hilariously apropos that Ben’s show ends with a climactic scene with his father during a performance of Gypsy, a show that Miller points out is precisely an allegory of the gay boy/monster mom dynamics that so structure much of gay male self-fashioned histories, and that for Ben represents the fraught gay boy/gay dad relationship that’s vexed him for years. Miller points out that the very form of the Broadway musical depends on a gay sensibility premised on its very exclusion in the name of, and because of, the figure of the mother; a figure one cannot help but curse and admire at the same time. Rose, the true star of Gypsy achieves this very feat by overshadowing and casting aside the gay boy stand-in that is Louise. Read as an allegorical gay family romance, the fraught relationship between Louise and her mother emerges as one framed in terms of fleeing the mother’s domain into the space of the stage. It’s no stretch to see why in his transference from his father to Patti (and back again; they’re distinct yet intertwined), Ben finds a minefield of a anecdote to milk for this funny & touching one-man show, one that finds him embodying and exorcising Patti & daddy alike, and making us fellow fans in the process. At the end, despite spending time with Patti’s Mrs Lovett, it was her Evita that still echoed in my head:
Have I said too much? There’s nothing more I can think of to say to you
But all you have to do is look at me to know that every word is true
When Ben Rimalower was eight years old, his father came out of the closet and embarked on a drug-fueled tear that left his family in tatters. Amid the chaos of his young life, Ben found comfort—like so many gay boys before him and after—in musical theater, and specifically in the transportive voice of Broadway star Patti LuPone.
Patti Issues marks Rimalower’s debut as a playwright and performer, after serving as the director of numerous Off-Broadway plays, concerts and all-star benefits (and blogging for the Huffington Post). With a mix of comic irreverence, stark candor and show-biz bravado, Patti Issues poignantly explores the challenges facing LGBT parents and children while shining unique light on gay men’s time-old obsessions with divas.