One Night in New York!

by John Stoltenberg

The term “gay musical theater” is almost redundant, especially for countless closeted teens who found they could forget their troubles and get happy when they happened upon the uniquely American art form of song, words, and dance rolled into one. Many of these kids started out in shows in high school, nearly all grew up to be fans, some became its creators—and Broadway has been the richer for it. But parse that term another way—combine “gay” and “musical theater” in a sentence like “I just saw the most wonderful gay musical theater yesterday”—and you would find yourself wanting. There’s not much there there. Until now. One Night in New York!, which just finished a sensationally popular run in Capital Fringe 2013 at Gala, blows musical theater a big rainbow kiss.

The book writer, lyricist, and composer is Eric Tipler, and gosh does he have musical theater chops. The story is about twenty-something Michael, a winningly winsome farm boy from a faith-based family in Iowa who comes to the Big Apple for one night only with the express purpose of hooking up to have his first time. It’s a tale that for the show’s target audience is as relatable as they come, and Tipler has turned it into a book that’s so funny and touching, so witty and wicked, so polished and well constructed, that it could give Harvey Fierstein agita.

At first Michael (the endearing Paul Luckenbaugh) falls under the tutelage of the comic Cock Fairy, who’s like a yenta in a tutu (the formidable Ryan Patrick Welsh). Cock Fairy prompts Michael on how to make it in New York City’s gay bar scene, and so it is that our hopeful hero is pitched into a spot-on send-up of preening preppies in a bar in Chelsea and fetid fetishists in a dark, dank Lower East Side dive. The whole silly/seedy affair is sung and danced by a chorus of habitués choreographed hilariously by director Craig Cipollini. But alas young Michael does not find the lad he’s looking for.

Then Michael sings a song of longing for love. And it stops the show. It’s some of the most nakedly emotional music and lyric composition you’re likely to find on stage. It choked me up and made me cheer. It’s called “Normal.” It’s Michael’s heartfelt plea to be “normal” and to find “someone who’s normal to me.” And in it Tipler may well have written as much the anthem for these post-DOMA times as was “I Am What I Am” post-Stonewall.

I confess, though, I got a little anxious when that song was over. Where could the story go next? How could Tipler top “Normal”? But, more urgently: How was this sweet character Michael ever going to truly find what he’s seeking within the show’s shallow all-gay-scene-all-the-time setup?

The good news turned out to be that Michael does luck into a really nice guy, someone with whom he does have what Cock Fairy promised would be “the kiss of love,” and someone who—check this out—doesn’t do hookups. So they part, maybe/possibly/probably to rendezvous another time in another town. Meanwhile Michael is horny and appeals to Cock Fairy for help.

And here’s where the show’s sturdy structure—and sharp social satire—got shaky for me. Tipler’s astute take on the gay bar scene goes about as far as it can in a dismal episode depicting the depressed and desperate in a joyless joint “where dreams go to die” and where Cock Fairy sings of “The Dregs.”

Yikes! Poor Michael! Get him out of this show!

What comes next is Tipler’s earnest satire on the hookup scene that’s now online. Tipler tries hard to include that sea change see-exchange within the purview of his entertaining critique—as indeed he must: For anyone who wants to score in a hurry, the Internet is where it’s at—but that puts the pressure of the One Night in New York! premise in a pickle, because now it’s 24/7 Online Anywhere! So Tipler inserts a big song-and-dance number about Grindr and gingerly sends Michael off stage to get down with a download.

But to me this plot turn felt like a downer, more patched in and pandering than this wonderful show deserved. Besides, it betrayed the core of the character Tipler had artfully crafted in Michael, who, after all, had found what felt like the love he wanted deep-kissing a great guy who doesn’t do hookups.

So the show’s final-scene storyline needs a bit of work. But I’ve got a hunch that Tipler can do the trick.

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