So What’s in a Closet?
Wilde and Woolley continues in development. As I was saying in my August 28, 2014 blog entry (below), this project explores the effects of “the closet” on the creative lives of Cole Porter and his inner circle, focusing on Cole Porter’s relationship with mentor, colleague and best friend, Monty Woolley. What’s that to me? Well, It should be noted that as an actor, I’m a Monty Woolley type. To say I identify with him is an understatement.
As a pre-Stonewall gay person I have personal experience with the disapprobation heaped upon gay people in much less accommodating times. Through much of my life being homosexual was clinically regarded as a sickness. It wasn’t until 1973 that the psychiatric establishment declassified our orientation as a mental disorder. In many places acting on gay impulses was illegal and dangerous. Sodomy laws weren’t finally struck down until 2003. We were simply forced to make adjustments in our private lives out of self-defense. These adjustments are popularly known as being “in the closet”. And, in my day many gay people like me grew up wondering if they were alone in their orientation.
I remember the hunger that I had as a young person to understand myself through the creative works of other gay people. I read gay literature, sought out gay movies and plays and listened to musical theatre on record and tape. The first time I read the song title “Kling-kling bird on the Divi-divi Tree” I knew I had found a rare bird indeed. I devoured the works of Cole Porter along with Noel Coward and Rodgers and Hart and sought out every Painted Smiles release I could lay hands on, because I wanted to explore “The Decline and Fall of the Entire World Through the Eyes of Cole Porter.” Later in New York after I made my debut off Broadway in a Cole Porter revival I sought out and befriended Painted Smiles’ Ben Bagley. He was the producer of the Shoestring Reviews in the 1950’s and 60’s and his records celebrated the off-center (and often gay) material written for the musical stage and fabulous fodder for cabaret.
The place that putative gay artists found in the theatre was a precarious one pre-Stonewall. It was often commercial to be edgy or provocative, but to be publically gay (with few later exceptions) was simply not possible. Still we know that many gay artists thrived in the world of theatre. The subjects of my project, Porter and Woolley were special cases because of their places within the Eastern establishment. Both were darlings of the upper-crust. High society was much more tolerant of gay lifestyles if the gay person, as Mrs. Campbell said, “didn’t frighten the horses”. Our boys created public personas that were outrageous without actually being out of the closet. There was a game that cognoscenti played gossiping about who was gay in show business: nearly everyone playing this game had Cole Porter and Monty Woolley near the top of their lists.
It is my contention, that the material associated with them, might very well have been a successful cabaret piece concerning their closeted gay lives had they lived into the 1970’s. We know Monty Woolley often performed the “party songs” that Porter wrote for his private friends. I propose that he could have had such a success in cabaret in the age of gay liberation! Compare their somewhat younger gay contemporary, Noel Coward. He had notable success as a cabaret artist when his act revived his career late in his life in Las Vegas and on television. My show seeks to give “Monty” his chance and Cole and friends their just desserts.