Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Pippin" Revisited


I hate to say goodbye to PIPPIN, unexpectedly one of my favorite productions of the last few years.  Having seen Fosse’s original, I was dubious about the reinterpretation, but was happily blown away by almost every aspect.

Long-run-itis takes a heavy toll on some shows (it did on the original CHICAGO, NINE, and many other shows I’ve seen multiple times.) Maintaining the original impact and excitement of a production is hard, if not impossible. One of the few exceptions in my theatre-going career was A CHORUS LINE, which was in as tip-top shape at the end of its fifteen-year run as it was when I saw it pre-opening (I can’t vouch for what happened in between.)

As PIPPIN prematurely ends its Broadway run:

John Dossett remains perhaps the best character-slash-leading-man in New York, playing every role he does with 100% integrity and consistency; he holds down the fort with his Charlemagne, less campy-winky-nudgy than his predecessor, and he brings out the best in his merry compatriot Charlotte D’Amboise (as he did with Bernadette Peters in GYPSY, doing what I call “Acting For Two” and making her performance seem far better than it was.)

Priscilla Lopez is a fine Berthe and I’m thrilled I got to see her do the part, having seen her 39 years ago in the original A CHORUS LINE in the aforementioned pre-Broadway days. The part is served best by a true yakka-yakka-yakka vaudevillian, but they’re in short supply in 2014; we’ll take the musical comedy legends as and while we can.

I greatly miss Matthew James Thomas in the title role; he was gorgeous, sang like crazy, danced like crazy, had a twinkle in the eye, a sense of the offbeat, and a sincere wistfulness that perfectly complemented the wild circus surrounding him.  One Josh Kaufman plays the role now, and he sings pretty well, goes through his scenes pretty well, dances notably less well – he lacks star quality in both his everyday suburban-guy-at-the-supermarket-cash-register appearance, general energy, and acting chops in terms of vividly relating to his stage family.  You know my shtick: far too few musical theatre performers go to acting class, to the tune of practically none.

Unfortunately I saw an understudy for the Leading Player; I have to cut the gal a break, since it was her first performance in the role, and she certainly gave a creditable rendition of the part; but there’s just no way to have PIPPIN without a true star up front, taking the audience by the throat and threatening to strangle them and throw them into the firepit in the Finale with her/his bare hands.

Some of the production choices bother me more now than originally, partly because of my repeat visits, and partly because new surrounding weaknesses accentuate others.  The heavily truncated, mangled, hurried “War Is A Science” seems as if they could barely be bothered to do it at all, and wanted it over with as quickly as possible – unfortunately unaware that the extended original (available on YouTube and DVD) was one of Bob Fosse’s most ingenious creations ever, and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics were well worth the trouble. Likewise, removing the war-statistics context for the famous “Manson Trio” does it no favors, stripping it of exactly what Fosse was saying (people routinely mistake Fosse for a choreographer, when he was above all a writer, sociologist and social critic.) The heavily reduced orchestra is no asset, despite terrific playing by all, and the expert re-orchestration by the always expert Larry Hochman, forced to do a great deal with a tiny group to work with.

I doubt there’s been a director in the house for some time. It’s subtle; a little loose in pace and electricity. Saddest of all is the change in one of my favorite performances in years, that of Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine; where her original characterization was hugely original, hugely funny, risky, on the edge, but just inside the edge, ultimately moving and bordering on heartbreaking, enlivening the potentially dreary “Act Two” – repetition, a long run, and probably the absence of a director’s return has tipped the scales towards a FORBIDDEN BROADWAY pastiche of her original performance, hugely jokey, over-the-top, exaggerated out of all proportion and outside the show.  And yet – perhaps because her incredible original performance is indelibly imprinted on my mind – when Pippin finally turns to see her in the Finale, and realizes what’s important in life, I still felt a huge gulp in my throat and a tear in the eye, same as when I saw the show in previews and fell apart.  So she’s still got something.  And for that type of moment, I say to PIPPIN: Adieu, and thanks for the memories. 

© 2014 Fred Barton 

Monday, December 29, 2014

"On The Town"

I used to get into all kinds of trouble with the theatre reviews on my website, back in the 1990’s, before the hideous word “blog” had even been invented.

I miss all that.  It was fun.  Let me roll up my sleeves and get into some trouble again.


There is a school of revivals in which the perpetrators do something to the show – rather than that antiquated concept called: Doing The Show.

I love ON THE TOWN.  My first exposure was the 1971 revival, with a bunch of pros named Phyllis Newman, Bernadette Peters, Marilyn Cooper, and Kurt Peterson, directed and choreographed by Ron Field, only five years after his triumphant greatest success, CABARET (which people forget he choreographed long before Bob Fosse adapted it.)  I turned thirteen the night my parents took me, so I’ll defer to some older experts who say that the 1971 production wasn’t all that; but I loved it – and it was ON THE TOWN, straight up, no cherry.

The second revival was an atrocity and richly deserved its ignominious fate.  First of all, the geniuses decided to re-orchestrate the shattering score for a run-of-the-mill big band.  Now I love big band more than just about anything, but the dimwitted thinking (“It’s WWII 1944, let’s do big band!”) was an idiotic, utterly tone-deaf mishearing of that rich, largely symphonic score, young Leonard Bernstein’s little warm-up for WEST SIDE STORY (some of which it resembles) thirteen years later.  The cast was barely memorable between one scene and the next, there wasn’t a laugh to be had from curtain up to curtain down, and the questionable Lea DeLaria’s aggressive, acting-free mangling of Hildy, and her “I Can Cook Too” song, is still referenced in any discussion of ON THE TOWN past and present.

So maybe third time’s the charm?

But how can you do a successful production ON THE TOWN if you don’t really admire or appreciate it to begin with?

Here’s how I know the current people don’t, and it’s sad, since there are so many positive assets on board.

You can just hear the chatter at the production meeting.  “This will be New York City seen through the eyes of bumpkins.”  So the set is a fantasy New York depicted by a shimmering, garish, plexiglass-and-projection contraption colored like a pack of Starburst candies.  I loved it for a while; the last time I saw terrific dancing reflected from behind in plexiglass was the original CHICAGO in 1975.  It’s a stunning effect.  But as ON THE TOWN wore on, I began to weary of Fake Exaggerated Cartoon New York.

Fake Exaggerated Cartoon is the modus operandi of the production – it’s big and bright and blue and red and dazzling, but it ain’t New York.  And ON THE TOWN is about New York – not a fake one; the real one. And this is important for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that the centerpiece fantasy ballet of Act Two takes place in a fantasy version New York (“Coney Island, Playground Of The Rich,” in Gabey-the-sailor’s mind.)  We lose a lot if the whole show already takes place in an exaggerated fantasy.

And Fake Exaggerated Cartoon is clearly the approach taken by the misguided director and most of his unfortunate cast, with some notable exceptions listed below.  See above, vis-a-vis YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and nailing the fine line between madcap and heart. The former without the latter is superfluous.  The dead giveaway is the ubiquitous presence of Jackie Hoffman, whom consensus (if not the audience) has anointed New York’s perennial cut-up. Is a broad Jewish comic appropriate for Madame Dilly, opera-diva, dubious alcoholic grande dame, dispensing strict vocal training and imposing moral (and financial) ethics on her unfortunate student? This part is not just for laughs – she’s the critical fulcrum of the romantic plot of the show. I know the Broadway insiders think Hoffman is the funniest woman who ever lived, but I prefer Comden & Green’s satire on the Madame Dillys of this world (one of their classic creations – remember “Round tones, Miss Lamont?”) to Hoffman’s insane, anything-for-a-laugh-every-three-seconds drunk shit, which occupied twice the stage time of any Madame Dilly I’ve previously seen, to no added effect and some imbalance, over-dominating the two young lovers’ precious little stage time together.  Hoffman is likewise inappropriate casting for the nightclub torch singer (twice) – unless the goal is to burlesque what is already a satire.

I tremendously admire and admired Elizabeth Stanley, one of the great underutilized talents of our age. She sings better than just about anybody, looks like a million, and she’s a wonderful actress. For these reasons, I regretted the decision to turn her Claire DeLune pretty quickly into a burlesque comic, with all kinds of vocal exaggerations and lowdown deliveries; under a different production team, she could have been stellar. Picture Betty Comden originating that role; hers was a refined, urbane comedy, and didn’t need lowbrow shtick to draw her characters, already written with a keen eye and ear for classic Comden & Green satire without burlesque on top like chocolate sauce on chocolate. 

That’s really the point here; I don’t believe Comden & Green need the help; this production team does.

I admired Alysha Umphress’s direct, unadorned reading of Hildy, the taxi-driver, although we can vividly imagine the added dash of urgent comedy Nancy Walker probably featured, since she sold that commodity her whole career. But when “I Can Cook Too” reared its ugly head, the hackles rose for both my guest and me (ardent musical theatre and Bernstein fans spanning countless decades) – and our hostility spread like a virus all over the evening.  What is it about this song that so utterly defeats condescending revivalists, same as in the previous revival with the inappropriate Lea DeLaria? Listen, people.  Use your heads and your ears.  It’s a largely symphonic score depicting both Big City and a forlorn romantic tale (that’s the show in a nutshell, plain and simple.) Then along comes this nymphomaniac picking up a nerdy, dopey sailor.  Bernstein wrote a surprise swing jazz number, and Comden & Green wrote a double-entendre lyric. The writers did the job, kids.  Just sing the fucking song.  It’s ALREADY jazz, it’s ALREADY hot, it’s ALREADY dirty. Turning this undersexed, eager comic broad into some kind of Harlem sophisticated Ella Fitzgerald scatting nightclub performer is completely unnecessary, and an extremely unwelcome intrusion; it’s not in period, not Bernstein, not Comden & Green, not the character, not the show. Stop it and stop it now and sing the fucking song and let us hear what they wrote and let us react as they wanted us to react. Do your club act at 54 Below and I’ll buy the first ticket. Do it in the middle of ON THE TOWN and I’ll recommend no one buy a ticket.

Before I get to the good stuff, one more little bone to pick.

Phillip Boykin is one of the finest voices and performers in New York City, as anyone who saw PORGY AND BESS can attest. He does ON THE TOWN a heroic favor right off the bat with his electrifyingly terrific rendition of the first strains of the show, “I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet” (a sure sign in the writing that the show’s creators had something better in mind than just some screwball evening.)  Between this outstanding performance, and the beautiful Brooklyn Navy Yard set, and the full orchestra in the pit, I started the night on a huge high and all kinds of optimistic.

Imagine my shock when the very same performer came out as the Announcer for the Miss Turnstiles Ballet, playing this role as the most effeminate, jokey-sissy-faggotty-faggot stereotypical mincing queen you ever saw on any Broadway stage.

What in the world were these people thinking? In what world of either 2014 or 1944 would this ever be considered an acceptable portrayal or interpretation, and to what purpose and effect on audiences of either era? There is no plot point at issue (this is not THE BIRD CAGE or LA CAGE); this is a completely gratuitous, leering, limp-wristed guffaw-at-how-homosexual-he-is stereotype for cheap laughs (there were no laughs). It makes no sense for this formerly august, authoritative announcer to be a fucking airborne queen, and this kind of gratuitous homo bullshit is fucking offensive – so my hostility was aroused even before the scatting started. And a minority actor performing this travesty at that! I wonder how it would go over if a gay actor was asked to portray the Announcer as a knuckle-dragging Stepin Fetchit. Shocked at my language?  Unclutch those pearls, ladies; I hope you deplore gratuitous, dated, demeaning, cheap, lowest-common-denominator stereotypes as much as I do, and there isn’t one more acceptable than the other.  And that ain’t all; throughout the evening we also had two chorus boys mincing about in ascots and pencil-mustaches, kissing each other, doing a homosexual burlesque of the Flossie-“And-Then-I-Says-To-Him” dialogue, making goo-goo eyes and carrying on, cardboard-stereotype-style. To what end? Other than to earn my disrespect for the production, no doubt to say to the audience: “Look how hip we were at the production meeting, where we decided to jive-ass and hip up ON THE TOWN with all kinds of gay shit and have the principals take off clothes and have sex and stuff, and sing Happy Birthday to audience members in the middle of the show, because the original would be a bore!”

I don’t think ON THE TOWN is a bore and I wish the current team didn’t either.

Hats off to the magnificent Tony Yazbeck, finally getting the chance of a lifetime and his long (young) career, delivering a 100% terrific performance as Gabey, the leading man. I don’t know how he managed to escape whatever cheap stuff he might have been given to do, but he holds 100% to the role and the real show, delivers his songs beautifully, dances like a dream, and stays true acting-wise to the essential romance of the piece – and ON THE TOWN is fundamentally a bittersweet romance (as most people could tell by listening to what Bernstein wrote.) 

Qualified hats off to the gorgeous Jay Armstrong Johnson, cutest guy in New York, who treads perilously close to the notorious line of “Is It Real Or Is It Camp,” tipping over the line a few times, but basically holding it together; a more secure director who liked the piece would have really enabled him to be 100% Chip and nothing but, and less of a jazz-dancing, acrobatic car-jumping, jive enthusiast of Scat Hildy, and maintaining that tour-guidebook-touting simpleton role throughout, growing into the romantic complication – but quibbles aside, he’s something to see (as he was in SWEENEY TODD at Avery Fisher and MOST HAPPY FELLA at Encores.)

Clyde Alves is a stalwart, disdaining the gratuitously goofy in favor of a real guy, and real guys are most welcome in this production (although his admirable straightforwardness does make Elizabeth Stanley’s burlesques seem even more unnecessary than they already are.)

And kudos to Allison Guinn, funny as the saftig reject from the outrageously homosexualized Miss Turnstiles contest, and witty likewise as Lucy Schmeeler – although no one but Marilyn Cooper in 1971 could have gotten the biggest laugh I’ve ever heard in any theatre on a three-word line: “I’m – going – out.”

Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is miles higher than the industry standard today, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins and largely illustrative of story if not always reflective of music. His Pas de Deux for Gabey and Ivy in “Imaginary Coney Island” is the greatest dance on Broadway today, with a striking lighting change borrowed (effectively) from the identical drastic shift in Robbins’ “Somewhere” ballet in WEST SIDE STORY.

And speaking of WEST SIDE STORY, there’s ON THE TOWN’s full orchestra, which unfortunately is now a news headline in those few shows that furnish top-dollar-paying audiences with what used to be a reasonable and unremarkable expectation.  Like the SOUTH PACIFIC revival, if the ferocity and vivacity in the playing of the score is mysteriously a notch or two below the readily-available earlier Broadway renditions preserved for us by Columbia Records, we can still be hugely grateful for the opportunity to hear the score played full-out in the original orchestration.  How I wish the production had as much faith in every element of the actual real show as they did in its orchestration. 

© 2014 Fred Barton

"You Can't Take It With You"

I used to get into all kinds of trouble with the theatre reviews on my website, back in the 1990’s, before the hideous word “blog” had even been invented.

I miss all that.  It was fun.  Let me roll up my sleeves and get into some trouble again.


Terrific shows aren’t as much fun to write about.  So this will be no fun at all.  YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is terrific.

There are three kinds of actors in the cast: dead-on perfect, functionally really good, and pretty damn good.  

An example of the first is Fran Kranz, in the most difficult role of the juvenile; he looks great, a slightly offbeat heartthrob, and utterly and completely sincere and true to every word and every suggestion of the character.  He and Australian actress Rose Byrne, playing his harried fiancée, accomplish exactly the essential thing required in a madcap comedy – they tread with laser precision the fine line of comic foil and sincerity, genuine romance and attractiveness, amidst all the chaos, that makes the audience truly care that all comes out well for them, no matter how far the play veers and careens around them from slapstick to mayhem to literally exploding fireworks and live kittens and ersatz snakes (well, the kittens and snakes don’t explode, but you know what I meant.)

James Earl Jones gives an unlikely career performance, likewise breezily fielding two and a half acts of backseat comedy before stepping forward to still the insane proceedings, and affect the pin-drop-silent audience, with a devastatingly quiet and simple delivery of the play’s moral – a moral that the many decades since the play’s debut in 1936 has raised to religiously epic importance.  Kaufman and Hart weren’t just kidding around here.

Even in the supporting roles written for high exaggeration, the likes of Reg Rogers (as the Russian) and the formidable Elizabeth Ashley (as the other Russian) stay exactly inside the line of “Is It Real Or Is It Camp?” – lesser performers in a lesser production would no doubt have landed in the latter to the detriment of the play’s essentially sentimental, sweet nature.

If Annaleigh Ashford is the play’s standard-bearer for the purely exaggerated Ridiculous, and nothing more, she delivers that choice with aplomb and commitment, much as I would have liked a real sister-daughter character in there as well.  She is blithely treated by her fellow expert cast-members as a moth perennially caught fluttering around a lightbulb too high to deal with, and the production is so fine in every moment that the ensemble’s perfection is undiminished.

Comedy is hard – dying, etc. etc.  Regarding Scott Ellis’s direction, I threw my hat so hard in the air, it flew away and never came back.  Inferior revivals laced with contemporary condescension are the insulting meat-and-potatoes of our age.  A revival absolutely packed with nothing but integrity, compassion, sincerity, true to the best of high comic traditions and supported by a genuine belief in its own crazy world and characters, and ultimately filling the audience with the masterful playwrights’ underlying human concerns, is a very rare bird indeed – especially when generously furnished with a sensational, magnificently detailed set and the best music currently on Broadway (mood-setting rather than the main event).  None of that cheap-shit blackbox bare-stage with a few card tables type of thing here. Full on, full out.

You can’t take it with you, so whip out that cash and buy tickets to this outstanding production ASAP.

© 2014 Fred Barton


I used to get into all kinds of trouble with the theatre reviews on my website, back in the 1990’s, before the hideous word “blog” had even been invented.

I miss all that.  It was fun.  Let me roll up my sleeves and get into some trouble again.


DISGRACED is the sort of crudely schematic play designed to vent the playwright’s message, and he never lets you forget it.  And it’s hard to give a fuck about a play that’s about something you don’t give a fuck about, and which doesn’t make you give a fuck about what it’s about that you don’t give a fuck about. 

Rave reviews and numerous awards, including a little gadget called the Pulitzer Prize, greeted this one-act by Ayad Akhtar.  Less well-known is the raft of negative-to-positively-hostile readers’ comments which greeted Charles Isherwood’s near-total rave in the New York Times upon the play’s arrival on Broadway in October, 2014.

It’s hard to give a fuck about a character who does something in the plot so obviously dumb-fucking stupid that he deserves his fate; the audience doesn’t think, “Oh how perfectly DREADFUL they did that to him!” – they think, “Well, what kind of idiot would do that?”  And the fact that the character is rich and magnificently good-looking doesn’t add to the sympathy factor.

You know, it’s the basic self-loathing Muslim-Pakistani married to an Aryan-from-Darien beautiful WASP-y wife, and the loquacious rich Jew married to the over-achieving black dame (heavily blackted by Karen Pittman, either by choice or direction, with the predictable cheap laughs that blackting always inspires from hip, nearly all-white expensive Broadway audiences.)  There you have it – a merry quartet just screaming “We’re Interracial six ways to Sunday, complications will ensue!”  I don’t believe in coincidences, in life or on stage.  If such an exactly interlocking interracial quartet were the four guests at MY dinner party, you might think I’d planned something weird.  If they show up in somebody’s play, you might think the same thing.

I hugely admired the performance of Hari Dhillon in the lead role, even after he regrettably put on his pants, and he elevated the Erector-Set script to watchable status.  Gretchen Mol is perfect-looking to a fault, lacking distinguishing features in appearance, demeanor, and material as the Aryan-From-Darien; but I feel a strong director and writer could have given her some dynamism.  (She has to deliver the play’s worst line to her former lover, and perhaps the worst line heard on Broadway this season:  “That Monday in London was a mistake.”)  Apparently there is a serious shortage of Indian-looking New York actors, resulting in the importation of Danny Ashok from Britain to overplay the quintessential passionate young Muslim with an author-sized chip on his shoulder.  Josh Radnor is proficient and unsurprising as the quintessential Jewish New York art gallery owner, babbling about contemporary art and Islam (which, COINCIDENTALLY, is what the playwright wants to go on about.)

Not unlike David Mamet’s OLEANNA, the play’s climax features the lead character erupting in the same violent behavior with which he most wants to disassociate himself (the playwright took his daily irony pill) – and for this moment, one can only wish the 16 producing organizations over the title had hired fight-choreographer-par-excellence Rick Sordelet, rather than a contraption called “Unkledave’s Fight-House,” which or who staged the unaccountably silent, remarkably under-powered results you might expect from such a dubiously-named outfit.

Oh, note to adulterers: when you’re going to steal a kiss, you might not want to do it when your respective spouses have gone out for a few minutes and are about to walk in the door on you and freak out.  People might think you’re idiots in a badly-written play.

© 2014 Fred Barton

Saturday, December 20, 2014

AudioBlog: The Cy Coleman Concert

Twice a year, I present concerts of classic show music with terrific Broadway singers accompanied by The Fred Barton Orchestra. The series is called "American Showstoppers," and the concept is simple: great classic Broadway songs, played by a great Broadway orchestra, and performed by great Broadway performers who know how to stop shows with them.

On October 18, 2014, I presented the fifth concert in the series:  "American Showstoppers: An Evening of Cy Coleman." Here's a sample, and it's my idea of a showstopper.

I orchestrate the concerts from scratch, all 25+ songs, sometimes doing a new version of my own, and sometimes (as in the example above) emulating the original Broadway sound.

It all began in the summer of 2011, when I learned of the death of Tommy Brent, the legendary producer of Theatre-By-The-Sea in Matunuck, Rhode Island. He took a chance and gave me my start when I was 18, and I worked for him for five summers. I felt that "attention must be paid to such a person;" and I organized a memorial concert at the theatre, featuring 21 performers whose careers Tommy had launched over the previous 40 years. Great show tunes, great performers, and a great band (including many players who had been in my orchestra 30+ years before at the theatre.) It was a smash, and a haunting occasion, our own real-life version of "FOLLIES," as all of us, now in our later years, stepped back into that theatre to meet our 20-year-old ghosts.

It suddenly dawned on me: shouldn't we be doing this kind of thing in New York? It is New York, after all; why are we all messing around with little sketchy piano club acts and garden-party musicales? And I launched a new series of evenings at the Metropolitan Room, cheekily entitled "Fred Barton Presents, And Thinks You're Gonna Love It!" I guess they did, since on the opening night there was a line all the way down the street to 6th Avenue. Every month, I rotated terrific singers, doing a random collection of our favorite Broadway and standard songs, accompanied by the 9-piece Fred Barton Broadway Band.

My dear friend Nora Mae Lyng (with whom I had launched a little skit called FORBIDDEN BROADWAY in 1981) brought Martin Kagan, Executive Director of Cultural Affairs at Pace University, to see one of the performances, and the rest is history. With his blessing, I upgraded the whole affair into a larger-scale full concert format, expanded the orchestra, and for the last 2+ years, my "American Showstoppers" series at Pace's Michael Schimmel Center has become a destination for those who love and miss classic show music as much as I do (I knew there had to be some people out there who do.)

The next concert takes place on Friday, March 6. "American Showstoppers: An Evening Of Irving Berlin" will feature Karen Ziemba, Brent Barrett, Lee Roy Reams, Karen Murphy, Damon Kirsche, David Elder, and NaTasha Yvette Williams, with feature performances by Jesse Luttrell, Bruce Landry, and Hannah DeFlumeri, and an orchestra of 14. The concert will be repeated the next night, Saturday, March 7, at the Leon Goldstein Performing Arts Center at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Little Christmas Music

All right, time for some Christmas music. Gag. Choke. But these might float your boat, even if you hate Christmas music as much as I do. 

First, one of the very few of my symphonic arrangements I'm allowed to post online: Tony DeSare (singer-pianist par excellence) singing my arrangement of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." He asked me to work out one of my Magic Modulations™ and I obliged:

And then this wacky piece of special material, "Santa Won't Sell" (Music-lyric-arrangement-vocal by moi.) I wrote it some years ago for a well-known Broadway actor to perform at Martin Short's legendary annual Hollywood Christmas party – hence the sleazy Hollywood scenario. It proved to be too complicated for the performer to learn in a hurry, but I've been spreading it around annually every since. That moment has struck: 

Meddy Clistmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Furniture Mike


(excerpt from I LOVE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS, a memoir by Fred Barton)

Funeral Mike phoned me at the hotel Friday night, shouting over disco music and raucous gay-bar hilarity.  “Fred?  Come out and par-TAY with us!”

Even if he hadn’t said “par-TAY” – no fucking way.  I had already gone to bed early, after the riotous Halloween party the whole CABARET company threw ourselves; no way was I going to drag myself up, get dressed all over again, and head into the night to party with the locals – especially the two I had the least interest in, out of the Buffet De Gay that had unexpectedly presented itself during that jumped-up week in Detroit.

I was still pouting from the romantic wipeout the day before; and I knew I had a “hot date” for the next night, Saturday, with Terry (I love it when that happens!)  So – sorry, Funeral Mike; I suspected you wanted me, or maybe you boys just wanted more glamorous hob-knobbing with us dazzling New York theatre people, but I just wasn’t in the mood for any more slumming and gay-barring with the locals.  All of us New York national-tour show-gays look down on the local boys, while skulking around the country trying to land as many as we can.  On top of that, I’m a lifelong snob with a massive inferiority complex; if I want you, I’m two inches tall, and if you want me, I’m Goliath ready to crush you ever so gently with a lofty bon mot and a nice-to-seeya and a skedaddle.  Poor Funeral Mike.  Unlike the other night, now I was no fun at all, and nothing he could say could drag me into clothes again and out of the hotel.  Maybe they reached my best friend in the show, whom I’ll call Paul P., who had mysteriously not shown his face at our Halloween party.  He was always up for trouble.  Let him go out with Les Boys.

Earlier that day, I was electrified to get a call from Terry Feinstein.  When God closes a door, he opens a window, and other pertinent quotes from THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  Terry had been there at the Woodward, Wednesday night, when it all started.  By Detroit standards (that’s my New York snobby thing again), he was all kinds of handsome, with the exaggerated biceps of the overcompensating gay work-out junkie.  He was a little older than me (I was exactly 30), and we actually had some smart-ish conversation at the bar, as opposed to the silly-gay-local-faggy blather of the others.  The glam touring show-folk from New York make a splash in these gay bars around the country, but glam I am not, and I’m perennially the Cheese Stands Alone and the first one left standing in the corner in Gay Musical Chairs, so I was astounded and thrilled when Terry actually called me on Friday.  According to my diary:  “He couldn’t have been nicer and arranged a date for tomorrow” – Saturday.  So I might actually have a swell time before the Detroit week was up, after all.  Terry was so nice on the phone, which was notable considering it was by the cold light of day and away from the irresponsibly silly, dirty-flirty nonsense of late-night cocktails in a dive Detroit gay bar.  So.  No need to drag out of bed Friday night to par-tay with Funeral Mike and his blond friend, whatever his name was.  I could hear at the end of the phone call that they were disappointed and probably mystified, since I had been such a barrel of gay laughs Wednesday when we met.

We Of The Theatre have a tradition I call the Front Row Cruise.  99% of musicians aren’t gay, but the Front Row Cruise is not just for the gay folk, and not just for the musicians in the pit.  Sometimes the chorus boys can see through the lights and catch the eyes of the handsome patrons in the front row, and you know they’re always bored enough to be trying.  And a successful Front Row Cruise can mean more than just a local roll in the hay.  Donald Chan, the conductor for whom I was Associate-Conducting CABARET, had struck up a flirtatious conversation with an attractive lady right behind him in the front row of the Jackie Gleason Theatre in Miami, and he and Susan were inseparable for the rest of the whole tour, and beyond, and for all I know they’re still together.  And then there was Joey Gomes sitting behind me on the opening night of THE SOUND OF MUSIC at Theatre-By-The-Sea when I was 20, a Front Row Cruise which led to the summer-long, sole extended pseudo-affair of my life (34 years later, Joey just sent me his wedding announcement, so I can die happy – for someone, if not for me.)

Wednesday night at Detroit’s Masonic Temple Theatre, I took my seat at the pit piano at 7:50PM, did the nightly scan for a Front Row Cruise, and what so rarely happens happened.  Directly in front of me, overhead in the front row of the orchestra section, was a Gaggle of gay men – three handsome young ones, and one of the least attractive elderly men I’d ever seen (see above, re: snob. Sorry, Andy – just describing the perceptions of my judgmental youth.  Now I’m probably approaching your age.)  I got the picture – the old guy paid for the tickets and the young ‘uns are his gay brood of some kind.  Whatever; – three handsome men right in front of me?  I love it when that happens!  And I love watching audience members watch the show – and if they’re handsome men, well, my tough luck.

Immediately, the eyes of the youngest of them fell upon me, in all my (dubious) glamorous New York pit-musician glory.  The kid was stunning – maybe 21, a very fine-featured, beautiful young man, with an interestingly sophisticated and intelligent face, marred only by a notably Italian nose of some kind; but with my pre-surgical misshapen jaw and orthodontic braces, I wasn’t about to hold it against him.

He locked eyes with me, this young man – for the next two and a half hours.  Hal Prince’s production of CABARET, starring Joel Grey, may have unfolded on the stage overhead, but for this young ‘un, I was the show.  Every thirty seconds, while his oblivious friends watched the stage, this young man’s eyes wandered down to mine, drilling right through me with a meaningful, intense, shy smile, and an impressive repertoire of flirtatious, sophisticated, subtly romantic head tilts and finger hints.  (I had done the same to a Broadway pianist once from my front row seat at the Mark Hellinger when I was his age.)  And I had a ball, returning all his loaded stolen glances soaked with the clichés of the romance novel, while the rest of the Gaggle next to him watched Joel Grey.

“You may see a stranger – across a crowded room, and somehow you know, you know even then – that somehow you’ll see him again and again.”

Oscar Hammerstein, you ruined my life.  Unaccustomed to being the object of attention from anyone remotely attractive, I spent nearly three hours starring in my own remake of Of Human Bondage, with a heavy dose of Lost Horizon.  And I was a sitting duck, a rare bird in the zoo cage, insistently stared at by the young man, stuck without the slightest way to communicate with this person or slip him my hotel number, with his friends and the 25 pit musicians sitting right there.  At intermission, I ran backstage to my best friend Paul P.’s dressing room, and told him what a sensational night I was having, with the most beautiful young man in Detroit actually making eyes at me every thirty seconds from the front row.  Paul was unimpressed; but he was the company’s gay all-in-one combination of Joan Blondell, Joan Crawford and Clara Bow, and surely in the two days since we arrived, he had already had five hot encounters, an orgy, and was no doubt expecting the handsomest man in town to be waiting that night at the stage door. My footsie-playing and eyeball-locking with some Front Row Johnnie was not bound to impress the likes of Paul. He mentioned that all of us were invited after the show to the local gay bar, which was hosting some kind of cast party.  Fun town, Detroit – who knew?

Back in the pit for Act Two, my remake of Brief Encounter continued – Handsome Young Audience Man and Lonely Pit Pianist locked in a world of their own mutual admiration-slash-crush society, an entire unspoken affair and decades of marriage and life together unfolding, while 2000 oblivious mere mortals around them watched and performed a Broadway show.  The unfortunate-featured old guy, host of these young men, looked down at me at few times.  No flies on him.  His little My Favorite Martian radar picked up something going on between me and his little acolyte; he looked amused, in the sardonic, gay-bitchy way of the been-there-done-that elderly queen smirking at the young uns’ attempts at subtlety. 

The three-hour show ended, and the spell was broken; the pit pianist was just a pit pianist, the young guy was just some young guy out with his friends. The Gay Gaggle got up to leave.  I was desperate to communicate SOMETHING to my paramour – but there was just no way.  Zoom in on my doomed face as they put on their coats and slowly shuffled across the front row to the aisle; Quick Cut to the young man, looking back at me one last time, dreamy-eyed, star-struck, and bereft, as he hesitantly followed his friends and disappeared up the aisle into the night, into history and into my diary.

Sing it, Judy Holliday!  “And I’ll never meet him; and he’ll never meet me.  No, he’ll never meet me.”


Plunged back into dreary reality, off I went with Paul P. and the other gay cast members to some local gay bar hosting a “cast party” for us.  I hate gay bars and I hate these locally hosted things, but it beats a lonely hotel room.

The Woodward, dating from 1951, is the oldest gay bar in Detroit – and by “oldest,” I could refer to the building, the décor, and the clientele.  It was a classic Mob-style joint (gay bars of the 20th century were exclusively owned and operated by the Mob, who could pay off the police and do all the things required to maintain an establishment catering to people with historically illegal predilections and behaviors) – a crummy joint on a crummy street (which would describe most of Detroit, of course) – with a grubby entrance on the back of the building.  The joint’s atmosphere inside was a 1951 time capsule, all ancient wood paneling and gayer-than-gay statuary and fru-fru, buzzing with the lurid hubbub of a déclassé speakeasy.

I immediately picked out the handsome Jewish guy sitting at the bar, pumped-up biceps, strikingly picturesque, a real stand-out from the other locals.  Giddy from that three-hour crazy silent-movie romance with the young stranger at the show, I felt untypically confident enough to strike up a conversation with the handsomest guy in the bar.  Terry Feinstein.  Nice guy, with a dash of smart New York-ish attitude that made me feel right at home.  Way out of my league, with that face and the exaggerated biceps, but he didn’t seem to be with anyone else, and I was feeling strangely competent enough to carry on a merry, flirty conversation.  Sort of like the normal people I’ve heard about. 

A hubbub at the door, and in came our host for this “cast party,” the owner or manager of the bar (one can presume a Mob middleman.)  He was a locally popular character named Andy K., an unfortunate-looking, obese, decrepit guy… with three young men in tow.  Andy K. was, of course, none other than the gnarly old man from the front row of the theatre, and his sycophants now striding into the Woodward were none other than the three young men from the front row, including the stunning young paramour to whom I had tragically bid a silent adieu as he disappeared into the night after our Affair To Remember.

“You know even then – that somehow you’ll see him again and again.”  Oscar Hammerstein, shut the fuck up; do you always have to have the last word?

I reached into my trusty Bipolar Toolkit, rummaged around, and planted in my head that ever-dependable gadget:  Euphoria.   Mystery Man had vanished into the impenetrable forest of the countless never-to-be-seen-again, who-knows-what-might-have-been individuals who have tormented me by checking in, flirting, and checking out of my life for fifteen years.  Now, twenty minutes later, he was standing before me, in a smashing suit (all decked out for a night at the theatre) – making an apparently habitual effort to seem more mature and sophisticated than he was (I did the same at his age) – and after that three-hour baroque silent-movie romance during the show, Jolson Talks!  Let there be dialogue.

I introduced myself to the merry quartet, and thanked Andy K. for hosting the party for us, and gushed about the coincidence of them having been in the front row right in front of me all that time at the show, and, well, here we are!  Andy K. moved away and took his apparently customary seat at the end of the bar, and My Future Husband and his friends introduced themselves to me.  The blond: I can’t remember his name, and didn’t, five minutes after I heard it.  But the dark-haired guy, and his friend, my paramour – those names I remembered, for the next 26 years.  They were both named Michael, and I was presented with one of those typical little cutesy in-joke gay gags that one finds in the small towns.  Since these two Mikes were friends, and hung out together with all the same crowd, they gave each other nicknames to keep things straight: The one who worked in a funeral parlor was known as Funeral Mike; and my paramour, who worked in a furniture store, was known as Furniture Mike.  What a gag!  Funeral Mike and Furniture Mike.  And whatever the blond’s name was.

Maneuvering Furniture Mike away from the others, I launched into an extroverted riff about the ridiculous miracle of the coincidence, and told him how happy I was to actually meet him, after being so sure I never would; and how this had all just made my night.  His young, keen, trying-to-be-sophisticated eyes flashed and we laughed and fumbled around to find real-life conversation after that kooky, three-hour eye-romance.  One definition of “pathetic” might be “two people trying to live up in conversation to each other’s previous visual fantasy versions of each other.”  But we pulled it off and chatted happily, albeit haltingly, adjusting to being real people actually talking to each other, as opposed to Oscar-Hammerstein-across-a-crowded-room strangers.  Pumped up by the reassurance of those three hours of ocular foreplay, I pounded away at conversation with that rarest of items in my life, the Sure Thing, this Furniture Mike, four eyes flashing and flirting with nine million megawatts of electricity in the air.  I love it when that happens!  What could go wrong?

My best version of Auntie Mame effervescence couldn’t hold him forever, and eventually he moved away from me to stand with the aged owner of the bar, and I kept him in eyesight while pretending to wander randomly around the party.  My antennae immediately picked up something funny going on over there, where he was talking and laughing with the bar owner: what is that – a little inside rapport, some hint of familiarity?  Returning to the side of Terry Feinstein, the handsome Jewish muscle guy, I asked offhandedly about Furniture Mike.  Terry replied in my ear, with the amused smirk of the gay gossip, gesturing surreptitiously towards Furniture Mike and the aged, gnarly bar owner:  “Can you believe he’s sleeping with that old SACK OF SHIT?”

I’m from a gay-free small town and was always dopey-green, even after eight years in New York.  That old guy – with that gorgeous young man?  What the fuck?  What could that possibly be about?  (I know, it’s hard to believe I had gotten that dumb in only 30 years.)  In my idiotic romantic haze, I thought:  “Oh, that poor boy.  No wonder he sees in me some New York glamorous alternative to some kind of weird, fucked-up, whatever-that-is situation.”  But I recoiled.  Everyone worth taking’s been taken.  Bad enough I’ve spent my life being shamelessly flirted with by the handsomest men in the world whose invariably gorgeous boyfriends and husbands suddenly pop up like Jack-In-The-Boxes over their shoulder, joke’s on you!  (Handsome partnered guys like to flirt with hapless single guys so they know they COULD still land a little prey if they wanted to.)  But to compete with someone three times my age and with a hundredth of the attributes, as paltry a list as I possessed?  Ah, the Eighties, when being gay was fucking torture, if you were still alive to enjoy it.  What could possibly lead a stunning young personable guy to be involved with some ancient and (to be as polite as I can be) unprepossessing, unfortunate-looking guy like the owner of this Mob bar?  Duh.

I never got much more conversation out of Furniture Mike; I never got his undivided attention again, and was turned off by the revelation of his… situation, or whatever it was.   Besides, everyone else has more fun the more they drink and carouse; the more I drink and try to party, the quieter, duller, stupider, and eventually just morose I get, until a little voice sings in my head: “Time to go home.”  Funeral Mike and Blond Guy talked of plans for us all to party again Friday night, two nights away.  I heard that second chorus of “Time to go home” in my head and bid them all au revoir: handsome Terry Feinstein, and Funeral Mike and the Blond.  And just as I was leaving, that haunting, mysterious paragon known as Furniture Mike confidentially pressed his business card into my hand, the essential magic key to our next encounter, thus carved in the stone of certainty.


Thursday morning:  By the cold light of day, the first thing I heard in my head was Terry Feinstein’s lurid whisper:  “Can you believe he’s sleeping with that old SACK OF SHIT?”  The night of zany fun and the small-town Peyton Place scenario suddenly seemed not so zany and not so much fun.  What was I into here, with this kid and “that old SACK OF SHIT?”  What am I supposed to do with that card he gave me?  Clearly he was reaching out from whatever his situation was, and I’m cursed with empathy for those who reach out, even if I’m not sure I want to pursue the involvement.  My diary entry of the day:  “I decided to be thoughtful, despite reservations – and called Mike the Furniture Store Person who had been so aggressively fascinated last night.”

Furniture store number dialed.  Pick-up.  FAB:  “Hi, is Mike there?”  Voice:  “Yeah.”  FAB (pause):  “Uh… is this Mike?”  Voice:  “Yeah.”  FAB (up an octave):  “Oh, Hi, Mike, this is Fred Barton, from last night!”  Voice:  “Oh.  Hi.”  (Long pause.)  FAB:  “Uh, well…. I just wanted to say hello… great to meet you last night.”  “Voice:  “Yeah.  OK.’  FAB:  “Uh… So.  Hope all’s well at the store.  Are you going out later?”  Voice:  “No.”  FAB:  “Uh…. well… I’m leaving town on Monday, so I hope we can get together and talk some more.”  Voice:  “OK.”  (Long pause).  FAB:  “Well… I think it would be fun to do some talking away from the crowd and the bar music and all.”  Voice:  “Oh.  I guess.”  FAB:  “Uh… OK.  Tell you what.  I’m at the Hotel St. Regis next to the Fisher Theatre.  Maybe you can call me later, if you have time and feel like it.”  Voice:  “Yeah.”  FAB:  “Oh.  OK.  Well, you know where I am, and I hope I’ll be talking to you.”  Voice:  “Oh.  OK.”  (Long pause)  FAB:  “OK.  Goodbye.”  Voice:  (Click.)


Same story my entire life.  Sure, you gay bastards, get me all jumped up, flirt with me, romance me, tease me, and once I’m in the bag, kick my lights out.  Good show, boys, I know I can count on you fucks.  A million times.  Goodbye, Furniture Mike, whoever the fuck you are with your 90-year-old sack-of-shit Mafia bar-owner daddy guy, and treating me like shit on the phone after that whole fake hours-and-hours-long bullshit charade of “across a crowded room” and publicly romancing me all over that bar in front of your friends and my friends, and the next day treating me as if I’m some creep you never heard of.

My diary that day:  “Mike the Furniture Store Person was monosyllabic and utterly disinterested, so I closed the conversation and ripped up his phone number.”

Here’s the rest of Thursday from the diary, a perfect characterization of the entire CABARET experience:  “I went to rehearsal – Craig Jacobs forestalled negativity with his usual pep-style talk – and what followed was the usual 2-hour repetitive vocal-dance brush-up, with Don Chan beating everything to death – then Bonnie took over and made us all absolutely crazed with her inane, unnecessary dance break-downs.  We left at 5:00 absolutely a unified lynch mob… I was murderously depressed and dispirited by the never-ending rehearsal intrusions.”  (More on the Bonnie Walker rehearsal psychosis in a separate chapter.)

So now you see, if you’re following this at all, why I was so thrilled, the next morning (Friday), to get a call from Terry Feinstein, the handsome, muscular Jewish guy from the Woodward Gay-Gray bar Wednesday night, so nicely asking me out for a real date on Saturday night.  That Furniture Mike situation was crushing and mystifying – how could he have been so riveted by me by night, and so cold and monosyllabic the next day?  But I liked Terry a lot, and he was more my age and speed, and all kinds of goodlooking, so gangway, world, get off o’ my runway… Detroit, what a town!  Men coming out of the Woodward, er, I mean, woodwork!  I love it when that happens!  And that night the CABARET cast had that brilliant Halloween party, with hilarious show tune performances and outrageous costumes, and one of the first and only times we all had a good time as a company together on that endless, dreary tour.  And that’s the night I went to bed right after the party, and got woken up by Funeral Mike and The Blond and didn’t want to go out with them; besides, if Furniture Mike were with them as usual, I’d had more than enough of THAT.  I had Terry Feinstein to look forward to the next night, and it’s in the bag!  More going on in Detroit than in the last ten cities put together.


The next day, Saturday, after breakfast, the message light was on in the hotel room; the operator read me the curt statement:  “Terry called and has to cancel tonight.”  That’s it?  No explanation, no follow-up, no alternative plan?  Just “has to cancel tonight,” no phone number, goodbye, never see you again?  Good show, boys, I know I can count on you gay handsome bastards.  A million times.  Set me up, get me in the bag, kick my lights out, goodbye, never heard of you.

I also had noted that my best friend in the show, Paul P., wasn’t at the Halloween Party.  I just knew why he wasn’t there; he was where he always was:  having the hottest date in town with the hottest guy in town, because he never failed to be doing that, city after city after city; and he never failed to delight in telling me all about it, time after time, while I ate my heart out.

Paul P. lived near me in the West 80’s in New York, and he knew me (from my FORBIDDEN BROADWAY fame) before I knew him; I really made his acquaintance outside Zabar’s one summer day, when he was sitting on the sidewalk, all gay-tank-top-and-tight-shorts, gay-porn fantasy material with muscles and a head of blond curls, and he flirted with me.  It was never in the cards, Paul and I, although I would have gone there in a hot minute; but unlike the vast majority of gay friends, we got to the friendship part WITHOUT the obligatory introductory sex.  I rarely had gay friends of any description, so the Paul thing was an anomaly.  And like all gay friendships, this one came with a fucked-up dynamic built in:  He was in awe/jealousy of my talent and sort-of-fame, and I was WAY in awe/jealousy of his terrific looks and insatiable, and never unsuccessful, prowess.

The CABARET tour tested the friendship.  It’s a lonely submarine ride, a national tour, trapped with the same incompatible people inside an airtight tube (quite literally, given the number of airplanes and buses involved).  Paul and I were best tour buddies – but the stress began early, as I noticed how much he delighted in telling me in great detail, in inches and centimeters, about every latest fuckscapade (a sure-fire recipe for my insanity, but if he didn’t volunteer, I always asked for the details, masochist that I am); and in any one town, I had barely figured out a route from the hotel to the drugstore before he had already found the handsomest guy in town, or five of them, with a sixth waiting for him at the stage door by opening night.

Never deficient in the article of paranoia, I began to notice something else.  Every opening night party, every foray into the grubby, grim small-town gay bars, I had the weird but distinct impression that if I told Paul I had my eye on someone – within a half hour they’d be leaving together.  At one party I even tested it by picking a random guy I wasn’t attracted to, and telling Paul I had my eye on him; Paul left with the guy fifteen minutes later.

If you’re single, and on tour, you do all kinds of crazy things.  Once in Louisville, some guy “picked me up” at a Waldenbooks.  Once we got back to my room at the Seelbach Hotel, I decided against messing with this one – but, just for fun, I sent him down the hall to knock at Paul’s room; he did, the door opened, and in he went.  Later in Chicago, a handsome room service guy came to my door to pick up a tray, but I had never ordered room service in the first place.  He hung in the doorway expectantly.  I sent him away, like a dope, but suddenly I wondered if he were Paul’s return gift for the Louisville guy.  That’s a national tour.

So, there I was on Saturday, Terry Feinstein having canceled our date without explanation, and Paul mysteriously absent from our company Halloween party the night before.  My mind began to put two and two together.  At the show, I asked Paul why he wasn’t at our party.  “Because I was FOOLING AROUND!!….” he replied, with mock bass-to-soprano dramatic hilarity.  “OK, Paul, I REALLY need you to tell me who you were ‘fooling around’ with, because it will help me figure something out.”  “You don’t want to know!” he assured me, with the same mocking, fake-humorous levity.

Diary entry:  “At the show, Paul’s strange behavior regarding whoever slept with him last night gave me a severe cast of first-class paranoia; I begged him to tell me what happened so that I’d know if that was why Terry Feinstein stood me up tonight; he refused to tell me, making me assume the worst, and I spent Act 1 in utter suicidal misery.”

Everyone worth taking’s been taken; everyone worth having’s been had.  And true to form, I was the Little Match Girl, nosed pressed against the glass, watching all the world have their fun and very explicitly excluded and sideswiped off the road by the dazzlers with whom I’d been dumb enough to throw my lot by going into showbiz.  (That last sentence has been alternately discussed and scorned by a fleet of shrinks for twenty years, but I still think it’s fun to throw out there when I’m in a regressive pre-therapy mood.  I didn’t hit therapy until three years after these events.)

Paul relented at intermission and assured me it wasn’t handsome Terry Feinstein with whom he had been “fooling around” the night before; so now I could relax and go back to my encyclopedia of non-Paul-related reasons why Terry would cancel the “date” with me.  See above, pre-therapy fun things to throw out when I’m telling one of my self-victim stories.  And being on national tour makes every stupid thing seem of huge importance.


Sunday, October 30, 1988 – last night in town, a time for 1) packing and 2) reflecting on what turned out to be a helluva lotta drama and hysteria for a week in fucking Detroit.  I don’t love it when that happens.  What an epic series of set-ups and let-downs, and once again, despite all the titillation and near-triumphs, I was leaving a town with nothing to brag about (and Paul was leaving with all kinds of stuff to brag about.)  Time to get ready for Toronto.  But just as I planted myself in bed, a wild thought planted itself into my feverish brain.

Back to Thursday, when I called the formerly entranced Furniture Mike at the furniture store:  I suddenly had a horrible thought: – What if I had been talking to the wrong Mike?  All I said was, “Is this Mike?”  No last name.  There could easily be more than one Mike at any one furniture store.  What if I were talking to a total stranger?  That’s exactly how the conversation went – as if he were a total stranger who had no idea who I was or why I was calling.  There wasn’t the slightest trace of that dashing, crypto-romantic young man of the night before or the slightest acknowledgment of what had gone on.  I suddenly knew I was right – everything made total sense now.  I never talked to Furniture Mike at all, just some completely befuddled guy named Mike who had no idea who I was or why I was calling, and who got off the phone as fast as he could.  And – my heart pounded – poor Furniture Mike!  He had given me his card, pressing it furtively and significantly into my hand the night before, a signed, sealed compact that we would somehow work around whatever his situation was with Creepy Bar Owner – and the whole rest of the week went by and he never knew I had actually called and tried to reach him.  I was horrified and remorseful.  I jumped out of bed, called the Woodward Bar, and left a strong message with whoever answered, telling them to make sure to give my Toronto hotel number to Furniture Mike, who I now realized must have thought the worst of me for not having called him, and been crushed to have been treated cavalierly by some typical fly-by-night out-of-town show guy.  Oh, Furniture Mike – call me in Toronto, and I’ll explain the whole misunderstanding and sing “Some Enchanted Evening” to you at the top of my lungs, and we’ll take it from the top.


Before leaving the Detroit hotel Monday morning, with some phonebooks and some detective work, I managed to locate Furniture Mike’s actual phone number and home address.  At least I could write to him, even if he never got the message I left at the Woodward and called me in Toronto.

At the Customs stop before Canada, I told Paul of my certainty of having spoken to the wrong Mike at the Furniture Store days before.  “No,” Paul said.  “You talked to the right Mike.” 

“How do you know?”

Paul replied:  “He told me you called him.”

OK.  “And when did he tell you this?” 

“When I slept with him Friday night.”

Paul defensively raised his voice, when he saw the doomed and devastated look on my fucked-up face.  “Oh, we talked about you plenty.  He didn’t like you the minute he met you.  You came on way too strong and he had no interest in you whatsoever.  Maybe you shouldn’t talk about yourself so much the way you always do.  Maybe you shouldn’t be so presumptuous and just assume someone wants you when they either haven’t made up their mind, or they HAVE made up their mind they don’t want anything to do with you.  You just made a fool of yourself, when he wanted nothing to do with you three sentences into the first conversation.  It’s not my fault he jumped at my invitation to come over, and we had a gr-r-r-r-r-rreat time!”

It’s the oldest story never told in the Gay World.  Gay #1 wants Gay #2, but Gay #3, best friend of Gay #1, swipes Gay #2 instead – either willfully out of competition, or out of happenstance, or usually a little of both. 

Even friendships of many years’ standing have their hidden stress points, a little hairline fracture that might never see the light of day.  But I audibly heard the “snap,” at that moment as we stood outside the Customs station on our way to Toronto, and though Paul and I made it into Canada, our longtime friendship didn’t.  I knew what I had to do, for my own self-preservation: I switched to the smoking bus for the rest of the trip to Toronto, even though at the time I was not a smoker; and I never spoke to Paul again for the eight months remaining of the tour, or thereafter when we resumed our separate lives in New York. 

Was I petty, breaking a long and generally terrific friendship?  But it wasn’t just over some irresponsible, giddy kid gallivanting around the showfolk in Detroit; it was the dénouement of a long pattern of completely unequal sexual competition, bragging and torment, and my own Achilles’ Heel, the social incompetence and maladjustment which had dragged me down since I was 13.   How much was Paul to blame?  He was just like a million other bragging, swaggering, high-success-rate, ridiculously high-sex-drive, overwhelmingly competitive gay types who make subtle, subliminal sport of diminishing their incompetent tag-along friends; add a dose of his professional jealousy of me, a touch of his barely-masked delight in watching my jealousy of his specialty, plus my own lively neurosis, add water and stir.


Ohfercryinoutloud, it was just some road trash gone wrong, add it to the list of a million romantic-sexual misadventures and wipeouts, fuhgeddabouddit, move on, Toronto is a new town, new Front-Row-Cruises, new gay bars to terrorize, new people to see!  But for once in my life – what if I shot an arrow back across the grand canyon between my Jud’s “Lonely Room” and the frivolous gay world that always drove me batshit – and sent a little feedback?  Ensconced that night in the gorgeous Toronto hotel, I laid out the hotel stationery and pen, and after a practice run, I wrote, in longhand:

Toronto, October 31, 1988

Dear Furniture Mike,

My best friend Paul told me that you and he had a great time in Detroit, and I’m glad to hear that with all of us sweeping in and out of your town with CABARET, the crazy week was not a total bust for you, and that there was fun to be had.

Of course I was disappointed not to see you again, and I’m really sorry I made a bad impression on you.  If I came on too strong, or was too talky or loud, or whatever I did at the Woodward party that made you think twice about me, I really didn’t mean to.  The fact is, I’m so rarely in that position – I’m so rarely singled out by someone like you for special attention, and when you and I had that long “romance” during the show – well, I guess I just felt a rare burst of confidence, and I was really astounded and happy to actually meet you afterwards, against all mathematical odds – so that confidence maybe translated into some kind of entitlement or presumptuous certainty that we were going to have a great time, you and I – which was how I interpreted what seemed like a certainty during the show.  And you were impeccably polite in person, so I just had no idea I had screwed it up with you, and didn’t pick up on your change of heart.  I couldn’t understand why you were so perfunctory with me on the phone the next day, but now I see it clearly.  I really didn’t mean to put you in an awkward position with me on the phone; you couldn’t have known this, but I’m all kinds of a truth-oriented guy, no matter what the truth is, so you could have told me what you were thinking, and it would have been hard for me to hear, but I would rather you had felt you could just tell me the truth, and we’d have laughed it off, hung up, and on with the show.  I’d have understood, and probably had a better few days after that – as I know you did.

I know how it is when the crazy showfolk come into town.  We’re only there for a week, and suddenly you have an army of handsome, interesting guys from flashy, panache-y New York descending on the hotels and on the Woodward, your nightly hang-out.  What’s not to love?  It’s huge fun for us, finding the kind of welcome we got from you and your friends in Detroit, and I imagine it’s tons of fun for you.  But not all us tour-boys are just out for fast sex with the hottest guy we can find, then boom, we’re off on a bus, never to be seen again.  (Just most of us.)

One of my problems with the gay world is that I came into it with a completely Hollywood, black-and-white-movie romantic conception (all those late nights during high school years watching Fred Astaire movies.)  I’ve been working in the theatre since I was eighteen, but I still have never gotten the hang of the superficial slam-bam thing – and that’s all I’ve ever found in New York – with all the most gorgeous men in the world, it’s quickie slam-bam all over the place, and I’m well aware there’s something weird about me that doesn’t get it, can’t play the game – and frankly I know I’m no one’s idea of a #1 great catch physically, so none of the whole “gay scene” shtick comes easily to me.

I’m only laying this on you to explain why, on that night we met, I reacted as I did.  It was the perfect Hollywood scenario.  A stunning young man in the front row, and a New York sophisticate, out of his element in the real world, sitting directly below in the pit – and we truly had a total simulation of an old-fashioned Hollywood romance in those few hours.  I know, you think I’m totally off my rocker – you’re a young guy, you were just having the fun of silently, secretly flirting with some traveling pit musician who happened to be in the zoo cage in front of you, and it cost you nothing, was all kinds of fun, and you could walk away without a second thought.

So the last thing you needed was to actually bump into me at the Woodward, with me laying the whole extravagant “we’re together at last” thing on you.  I get it.

But I just wanted to share with you how it looked from my end.  I know my former friend Paul is gorgeous, cute, fun, easy-going, uncomplicated, and a master of seduction and a good time.  I’m a little complicated, maybe a little ill-at-ease and a bit of a piece of work… no wonder I fell for our being in a fake Hollywood world for three hours, before the real world butted in again.  The gay world is shallow, superficial, ridiculous, cruel, very occasionally a blast, and there are a million unpredictables.  It’s no crime to flirt with the glam out-of-towners; some Front-Row-Cruising and eyeballing is no big deal, right? And it’s no crime if someone like me, a little intense and dramatic, who falls for you out of proportion with the frivolous situation, is not your cup of tea, for whatever reason.  By the cold light of day, away from the flashy lights and the party, inside us slightly odd ones lurk real human beings who might really like you in a way you may not expect or be used to.

There was some talk about you at the bar, and the comments really surprised me.  I’m sure it’s no big deal to you; you’re all friends in a small social world which you understand and know better than I do, or have any reason to.  Whatever your real life is really like right now, I hope you know one thing, and here’s what I saw from the minute Fate dropped you in the seat six feet in front of me at the theatre, and I saw it again when I spoke with you:  you’re an exceptional, fine guy and you deserve the best, and everything you want, and I sincerely hope you get it – what the old movies used to call “your heart’s desire.”  Like most normal guys, you were out for some harmless fun, and if I didn’t fit that bill for you, I hope you’ll always look back and remember that for at least a few let’s-pretend hours, there was some strange musician from New York who saw something in you, and you saw something in him, and we had a fleeting Hollywood romance, like those movies I grew up on. 

I won’t remember some kid in Detroit grabbing some harmless fun with someone who turned out not to be me.

I’ll remember my guy in the front row.  I’ll remember you.





The chances of my ever seeing the joint again were slim to nonexistent, but in mid-1991, three years after the CABARET tour, I walked once more into the Woodward Bar in Detroit.

Three years? Correction: three thousand years.  I finished the CABARET tour in 1989, did some more TV music, did a production of TOMFOOLERY in Wilmington, Delaware, went to Helsinki and Copenhagen and back, and back to Copenhagen again for another romantic catastrophe, had major double-jaw surgery, got my first computer, did another production of TOMFOOLERY in Wilmington, moved to Los Angeles, had a nervous breakdown, got a Masters in Film Scoring at the University Of Southern California, and the day after I left USC, I got the job as Associate Conductor of the LA production of CITY OF ANGELS.  The show lasted at the Shubert Theatre less than 6 months, and we were swept out on an ill-fated national tour, and that tour brought me back to Detroit in mid-1991 – and to the dingy, ominously grubby back-door entrance to the Woodward.

I walked in and stood gazing at the scene.  There sat Terry Feinstein, in the exact same position at the bar.  And in his appointed spot at the end sat the “SACK OF SHIT,” the popular, eccentric character who fronted the bar: Andy K.  I had a feeling their three years had been somewhat less dramatic than mine; I wonder if they’d ever stood up and gone home since the night I had left with Furniture Mike’s surreptitiously proffered card burning a hole in my hand.

Sliding in next to Terry, I said, “Remember me – Fred?”  Not a blink or hesitation:  “Hey, yeah, of course, howahya.  Back in town with a show?”  “Yeah; I cannot believe I’m seeing this place again.”  “Same old same old.”  I’d love to provide you with more scintillating dialogue, but just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

After a few pleasantries, I cut to the chase.  “So – any chance Furniture Mike is coming by tonight?”  He cut to the chase.  “No, he killed himself.”

Over the next cocktail or five, Terry filled me in.  At some point, Furniture Mike must have extracted himself from whatever was going on with Gnarly Old Bar Owner, and gotten himself a more appropriate lover (which is what we used to call them, before the antiseptic “partner” word came in, desexualizing gay couples even more than the gay community had already desexualized itself in its quest for heterosexual acceptance, and to distance itself from a sexual definition connoting death and destruction.)

One day, so I was told, Furniture Mike called his partner (I mean lover) at work, and asked when he’d be home.  “Usual time,” was the lover’s reply.  Furniture Mike:  “OK, great, just checking, because I have a surprise for you.”  Then he hooked up the exhaust pipe to the window of the car and killed himself, leaving the lover to come home and find his body.  No one ever knew why he did it.

Among my other flabbergasted comments:  “After I met him three years ago, I sent him a long letter.  I wonder if he ever got it.”  Terry thought about it, and said, “You know, we were all out on the patio or something once, and I remember him talking about a strange letter he had gotten from someone.”  Three years later, I was hearing confirmation that Furniture Mike got my “strange letter.”  Whether he “got” it is an unknowable.

I went to the end of the bar and re-introduced myself to Andy K.  “Remember me?”  He pulled his head out of his cocktail, screwed up his swollen eyes, and stared at me with an amused look.  “Oh yeah – you’re that musician.  I remember you.  I was so mad at you that night, Furniture Mike making eyes at you all night and you talking to him.”  (A wry little smile.)  “You know, I was fucking him.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

“He killed himself.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

Back in New York, after the CITY OF ANGELS tour folded, I called up my former friend Paul for the first time in three years, buried the hatchet, and we’ve been talking regularly again to this day.

I wonder whatever happened to Funeral Mike.

© 2014 by Fred Barton