It used to be a secret that, in its postwar heyday, the Broadway musical recruited a massive underground following of gay men. But though this once silent social fact currently spawns jokes that every sitcom viewer is presumed to be in on, it has not necessarily become better understood.
In Place for Us, D. A. Miller probes what all the jokes laugh off: the embarrassingly mutual affinity between a "general" cultural form and the despised "minority" that was in fact that form's implicit audience. In a style that is in turn novelistic, memorial, autobiographical, and critical, the author restores to their historical density the main modes of reception that so many gay men developed to answer the musical's call: the early private communion with original cast albums, the later camping of show tunes in piano bars, the still later reformatting of these same songs at the post-Stonewall disco. In addition, through an extended reading of Gypsy, Miller specifies the nature of the call itself, which he locates in the postwar musical's most basic conventions: the contradictory relation between the show and the book, the mimetic tendency of the musical number, the centrality of the female star. If the postwar musical may be called a "gay" genre, Miller demonstrates, this is because its regular but unpublicized work has been to indulge men in the spectacular thrills of a femininity become their own.
Place for Us takes the protective colorations of the Broadway musical--its happy-as-the-day-is-long heterosexuality, its promise that wouldn't-it-be-loverly? cravings for happiness will always be satisfied--and strips them away to reveal the gay world that lies beneath, rife with fascinating sublimations and subtexts. The shape of D.A. Miller's argument and the passions that impel it are in perfect accord, which is just what we ask of the best kinds of musical numbers. This book is like a musical score that the genre has yet to catch up with.
Place For Us...explores the ways that [the Broadway musical] medium managed to provide a secret language of emotion for a growing underground of gay men.
Could it be that since the Broadway musical is now safely dead--record ticket sales and Disney extravaganzas notwithstanding--it's finally safe to cast a historical and critical eye on this peculiar American art form? Miller rises to the task with an awe-inspiring exuberance--let's just say that by the time one reaches the end of this 143-page tour de force, one feels as audience must have back when they were first steamrolled by Ethel Merman as Rose in 1959's Gypsy (an epochal performance that Miller here dissects at length). At the heart of this extended essay is the complex relationship between gay men and the Broadway show, which began in many an American basement during the 1950s and 60s, where solitary boys would perform along with their cast albums, and ends with a chorus of aging show queens singing along in a piano bar. Miller explores the creative tension that allowed the musical to both acknowledge and deny its gay audience and shows how the performance of show tunes by a generation of homosexuals became a ritual reenactment of the central dilemmas of gay identity...[This is an] entirely fascinating read.
[This book] anatomizes a sentimental and cliche-ridden mass-cultural form that Miller frankly admits no politically savvy individual would willingly embrace. Instead, he argues, the classic Broadway musical chooses its audience, selecting,as a tigress does the slowest antelope in the herd, gay men as the easiest prey...Miller has a knack for making good points with good jokes...But Miller's humor here shouldn't surprise us. Given the compromises required of a professor writing about such an abasing medium as Broadway, he carries the show with a bravura worthy of Merman herself. And like La Merm, he compels us at the same time to take his song and dance in earnest.
Like Kleist on marionettes, like Rilke on dolls, like Baudelaire on toys, Miller on the Broadway musical takes a beloved object in danger of being left on the playroom floor and turns it into a ravishing treatise on aesthetics.
D. A. Miller has looked long and hard into the glorious, dangerous, and falsely flattering mirror that is the Broadway musical. This self-portrait of a man who measures out his life in show tunes is obsessively well-informed, thrillingly provocative, and deeply felt; this is one queen who sure knows how to deliver her tune. Magnificent.
Through this autobiographical-analytical meditation on what is specifically 'gay' about the Broadway musical and the pleasures of not explicitly knowing it, D. A. Miller has written the words to an exquisite Proustian musical sung by post-Stonewall man to his own juvenile self. Miller doesn't just 'know the words': in this brilliant and moving evocation of 'the unconsoled relations to want,' it could be said that the words know him.
Place for Us shows that a gay male investment in musicals, whether closeted or disclosed in a piano bar, is solicited and phobically concealed by musicals themselves. The analysis, exceptional for its sensitivity to both the form of the musical and the culture of its reception, culminates in a reading of Gypsy that is a tour de force if ever there was one. But there's more: the essay's own form and style are endlessly surprising, combining rigor with personal reflection in a way reminiscent of Barthes by Barthes or Minima Moralia. Miller has written a book that is movingly personal without ever being merely so. It is a model of cultural analysis, a witty and beautiful masterpiece of queer criticism.
D. A. Miller's essay is a poetic, personal, idiosyncratic, erotic, and political reverie on gay men's relationship to the Broadway musical...Place for Us, with wit and not a little pain, teases out the contradictions of late twentieth-century gay male identity in relation to this 'frankly interruptive,' 'vulgar' form. Miller is entirely of his text, yet also anthropologically curious about the rituals of gay male culture.
- 160 pages
- 5-1/16 x 8 inches
- Harvard University Press
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