The allusion made in the play's title relates directly to gay role-playing. About halfway through A Star Is Born, Garland, playing an unknown singer for whom James Mason has arranged a Hollywood screen test, loses her confidence. On the morning of her screen test the studio wardrobe department convinces Garland that her look is all wrong, that she must be a different kind of woman to be acceptable in the movies. Mason, who discovered Garland singing in the wee hours in an empty jazz club with the chairs turned up on the tables, and spied in her a native talent more powerful than any he had ever seen before, snaps her back to her natural self before she goes in front of the cameras: "It's the Downbeat Club at three o'clock in the morning," he says, "and you're singing for yourself and for the boys in the band -- mainly for yourself."
In A Star Is Born, the boys in the band are the people with whom you are your truest self -- the ones who know you and bring out great things in you. But the boys in Crowley's band are not supportive, trusted insiders; they are a community of individuals whose solitude is never breached. They are, in the words of another Garland standard, "alone together." Thus the play's title is a poor description of its characters' relationships with one another. "The boys in the band" works better as a description of the relationship between the play's characters and the gay men in its audience. It challenges us to find some way of understanding them as our people, at the same time that it challenges us to not turn out the same. Above all, the title orders us, as individuals, to drop the pretense, to remember who we are.
Judy Garland began losing her power over gay men because we got that message and started becoming more integrated characters than the screaming queens of yore. We no longer need a surrogate to embody the conflicts that so many of us experience, because we now have more and better resources for sorting them out for ourselves. Young gay men have ditched diva worship and chosen the role of the regular guy as a gesture of healthy adolescent rebellion, a way of taking full advantage of what's distinctive about coming out now: coming out is increasingly viewed, and experienced, as a gesture of strength that makes one more of a man, not less.
All that is true, but so is this: the fetish of the normal guy is also a function of fear. Previous generations of gay men faced the risk of social exile when they came out. My generation worried less about being outcast and more about being dead.
So we play strong, and we banish the Judy queens because they are emblems of weakness. In the past, when gay culture was a community of outcasts, it was a community where weakness could be forgiven and enjoyed. Now it is a community of survivors, in which we are likely to deny or despise all signs of weakness in our numbers.Awkward Intensities
I SAW Liza Minnelli's one-woman show, Minnelli on Minnelli, at New York's Palace Theatre last December. The first act was a raw spectacle of fear and courage. At times Minnelli literally trembled with fright. Her manner was tentative and her intonation sloppy, and her six hunky chorus boys gamely saw her through. Then, every once in a while, from God knows where, she would pull out the power of Sally Bowles, her role in Cabaret. The contrast was exhausting to watch. During intermission, at the mezzanine bar, I said hello to a young man in a muscle-hugging, sky-blue spandex shirt, whom I recognized from Boston. "What do you think of Liza?" I asked.