Let’s make a canon! And let’s fill it with queer art, or queer-ish art, or art that has no idea how queer it is. Queer art is often secret art: black-market, whispered-about, read-between-the-lines art. And since secret art can be hard to find, let’s shine a light on a few of our favourite things so all our friends can see them.
We’ll call it a canon, because it sounds Weighty and Important and Serious, but we also won’t be too serious about it. We won’t make The Canon, just a canon. Each month, we’ll chat with a different queer-about-town and ask them to submit something to the canon. And they’ll tell us what that book or play or movie or TV episode or sculpture or poem or dance piece or opera or photograph or painting or performance art piece or anything else means to them and why they think it deserves a spot in our illustrious canon.
This month, we talked to theatre artist and cabaret performer Ryan G. Hinds about Kander and Ebb’s musical Kiss of the Spider Woman.
What do you have for our Queer Art Canon and is it a musical?
It is a musical!
And it’s not only a musical, it’s a gay fantasia musical: Kiss of the Spider Woman! So, you have a musical about a gay man, written by gay men that isn’t about his coming out or accepting himself. At the start of the show, he knows who he is, he has dealt with that, he’s out to his family, he’s out to his friends, he’s out out out out out! And it’s refreshing to see a gay protagonist where it’s not about that journey, or it’s not about him feeling empowered by his sexuality by the end. Everything is very in-your-face. They have sex in the jail. They have intimate kissing in the jail. He shits himself in the jail on stage. There’s very graphic and brutal torture.
So, remind me, what’s the order, because there’s the movie too, which isn’t a musical?
So, first you have the book, and then you have the movie…
With Raul Julia?
With Raul Julia looking gorgeous! And then you have the two-hander play, and then you have the big, splashy Broadway musical.
Wow, so many adaptations!
And to me, that speaks to the strength of the material. It isn’t just about this gay guy and isn’t just about politics in Latin America, it really is about humanity and love and the capacity that we have as human beings to hurt each other and the power of fantasy and imagination. And as a queer guy, I think something a lot of us share is strong imaginations; we have spent a lot of time imagining what it might be like to be someone else, or in another situation. There’s a great number in Act One where they torture a prisoner within an inch of his life. And the song that follows is this really fabulous Broadway number that’s built into the reality of the moment of not wanting to be where you are. And we go from this tortured prisoner who can barely walk reaching to the prison bars—which then detach as a cane for a hat-and-cane routine. You have prisoners being dragged in on a chain gang step by step by step that become a chorus line.
And when we look at the team who wrote Kiss of the Spider Woman, it’s really major figures of musical theatre who are gay. You have John Kander, you have Fred Ebb, you have Terrence McNally, who is certainly someone who is unafraid to put queer themes in his work. Florence Klotz, the costume designer, was also a lesbian.
When did you first encounter Kiss of the Spider Woman?
It was 1992. I was twelve years old. I’m acquaintances with John Kander, and two years ago I was having a conversation with him and he asked me about the first time I saw Kiss of the Spider Woman, and I was like “Well, I was twelve years old…” And he says: “You were twelve!?” And in retrospect, yeah, maybe a musical about guys having sex in jail and losing control of their bowels and torture isn’t the most obvious choice for a twelve-year-old.
I remember at the time seeing ads for the show, and because of the title, I assumed it was about superheroes. And I asked my parents “Can we go see this Spider Woman show?” And they were like “Well, it’s not about superheroes, and maybe it’s not for you…”
It’s funny how experiences you have earlier in life colour your desires. I have a very vivid memory of being twelve years old, and Chita Rivera’s in this yellow feathered costume, writhing in a cage, and all around her are these sweaty, muscled, hot-as-fuck Latin guys, and it was just so sexy…
And a couple of light bulbs were going off for you?
Yeah, I was like “Oh! OK!”
“Can I be the one with the feather boa in the middle of all of them?”
While they’re just writhing around me? Great! (laughs) It was my first time seeing Brent Carver on stage as well.
And watching him tackle such a complex character and then leave Toronto and go to London and go to Broadway and just be the toast of every theatre in the world was really, really wonderful.
Here’s this Canadian gay guy who made it!
You open The New York Times, and there’s this long interview with Brent Carver and he’s not talking about what happened at the Tony Awards after party, he’s talking about Cranbrook, BC! So, aside from the artistic influence on me, Spider Woman was also like “Canadians can do this!” If we’re doing musical theatre, we can go elsewhere and be really, really successful. And hold onto our Canadianness; hold on to what makes us unique.