I’ve only made it out to a small tiny slice of the shows offered in the Fringe this year, but thanks to my other life as a bartender I saw four performances of Gay Mis and it might be the best show of the fesitval. Gay Mis, if it isn’t obvious, is a queer, drag queen-infused parody of Les Miserables created, produced and performed by Eric Jaffe along with a stunning cast. It’s a follow up of sorts to Thweeney Todd: The Flaming Barber of Fleek Street. Gay Mis is a colossal offering and I haven’t stopped thinking about it all week.
Let me cut right to the cheese: this show is dumb. The jokes are wonderfully stupid, and at times fabulously obvious, a line that evokes explosive applause one night brings out a symphony of groans for the next. This show has the kind of jokes where you’re kicking yourself because you didn’t see them coming. I love it. If I wrote you a list of all the songs in Les Mis and you had to guess the names of the parody version, I’m sure you would get a few of them right. We’d probably all get One Day More right. But here’s the trick...they’re still doing the songs. All the hits are there: I Dreamed a Dream, On My Own, Bring Him Home, you know, powerhouse songs. The words are different and they’re stuffed with gags, but this cast still hits all of those notes.
Right from the beginning, Jaffe lets us in on the known secret that the play doesn’t make any sense, or if it does make sense it’s almost impossible to follow. The whole time they’re mocking Les Mis, but they’re still singing all those songs, and those songs don’t just happen. As much as the cast sort of wants us to play along that they don’t really know what’s going on and the thing is just barely being stitched together right before our eyes, you can’t fool us. You don’t trip and fall into Les Mis.
There are times when the lyrics are just barely hanging on to a sensible story, but the music always comes through and hits me. Eric Jaffe shows us that even if you change the songs to be about something completely ridiculous or quotidian they still slaughter. Let me be clear Gay Mis is only good because Les Mis is good. But Les Mis is really good. Gay Mis let’s us have our cake and eat it too. Well it lets us eat our cake and then, talking with our mouths full of cake, spitting out crumbs and frosting as we laugh, make fun of anyone ridiculous enough to eat cake. It is such a silly, teasing, flirty love letter to Les Mis as if Jaffe is telling us ‘I don’t know what this show is about but it must be about something because it’s moving as hell.’
Bring Him Bring Him Home
This show brought me back to a lesson from grad school about the sublime. There’s a territory that we work on at the Pig Iron School called bouffon. It’s a very strange, morphing form built upon mockery and grotesque bodies. Inside of that mockery, we also look at bouffon poetics. These are the moments when the ugliest creatures show us something truly beautiful. We can hear a beautiful text in a new way when it comes from the mouth of something hideous and we understand the power that poetry has to lift us up. Gay Mis doesn’t challenge us to confront the hideous; it asks us to look at the ridiculous, the irreverent, and discover the power that this music has to make it all seem so consequential, so tragic. It gives us a chance to hear these songs again as if for the first time. That is what moved me the most. Behind the mask of a clueless drag queen and their goofy ensemble lurks a classic musical and the chance to hear it with a new joy and no apology.
On My Own Bullshit
Any parody is an acknowledgement that some of the great tales have already been told. We have titanic stories to build from and there’s a hope that we can tell them better. Us theatre folks know that this has always been true. So we take those stories and we give them our own telling. We say “look maybe we’re not about to tell the greatest story ever told, by next week this story might be useless, but tonight in this theater or in this bar or at this table, this is the story that’s going to happen.” There’s a need to take the teeth out of the thing. We make fun of it and mock it to create some space for our version. Early in Gay Mis we’re given the message that the plot is all over the place. A cynic would see this as an admission that the piece doesn’t have any meaning. My take is that it’s an honest invitation to the audience that we’re here to make the meaning together. It creates space and says ok us performers and you the audience, we’re all going to try to figure out what this is about and what this means. That invitation to complicity, and to have fun together, is what I love about live performance.
Gay Mis takes it’s space. In a festival that’s all about giving yourself permission to create, Gay Mis holds the torch high. It says ‘look, we’re going to do Les Mis and we’re going to make it queer as hell and we’re going to make it funny as hell and you’re going to help us!’ I haven’t talked very much about the queerness of this show because that isn’t my story to tell, but please check out this interview with Eric Jaffe where they get into it. Eric Jaffe wanted to make a show that lets us love Les Mis while laughing at it, and they’ve delivered a show that is fearlessly funny and unquestionably queer.
So here’s your homework: Go see this show, have a great time, and come tell me your favorite joke and the dumbest song you sang along to. I know mine.
Gay Mis has one more night of performances over at Punch Line. Do not sleep on this squad: https://www.theericjaffe.com/