Sometimes referred to as the de facto National Theatre of America, The Public Theater, under the artistic leadership of Oskar Eustis, has championed many new and ground-breaking musicals over the last few years: Here Lies Love, Fun Home, Hamilton and The First Ladies Suite to name a few. Each of those productions shares some common ground, although no style, of score or book or production, is the same. What they share is a freshness of subject matter, a new attitude to form, and a unique vibrancy about the manner of playing and what is expected from the audience.
Southern Comfort, a new musical with book and lyrics by Dan Collins and a score by Julianne Wick Davis, a work that has been in development for ten years and has seen a couple of previous tryouts, has just finished a season at the Anspacher Theater. It is a beautiful show, compelling, confronting and completely original. It juxtaposes stereotypes against archetypes, fuses country and urban, and legitimately questions the concept of family in the 21st Century. For my money, it does this in a form and with content that is superior to Fun Home and which, in its own way, is every bit as game changing as Hamilton. Whether it gets a chance to shine outside of the protective and innovative crucible that is The Public Theater remains to be seen, but it certainly should. It is profoundly affecting, as well as educational and enlightening without ever being worthy.
In 2001, documentary film-maker Kate Davis made a film, also called Southern Comfort, which won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Musicals based on documentaries are not unknown: Grey Gardens is an obvious example of the notion in action. Like Grey Gardens, Southern Comfort does not attempt to replicate the documentary: rather, it extrapolates from its source to create a wider canvas for the issues covered in the film to be fleshed out and further investigated.
The story concerns Robert Eads, who was born as Barbara but who felt trapped as a man inside a woman’s body and transitioned quite late in his life. He lived the latter part of his life in Georgia, as a cowboy type. He never underwent phalloplasty and in the musical expresses the very firm view that gender is about feelings, emotions and not about genitalia. Robert is rejected – outright – by his parents, who want nothing to do with Robert: Barbara is their child.
Robert makes friends with Jackson, born Peggy-Sue, and helps and guides Jackson in his transition. Both regard the other as family, with Jackson referring to Robert as his “Dad”. They have a strong connection, although Robert is dubious about Jackson’s womanising ways. Robert’s extended chosen family also includes Melanie and her new partner, Sam, who is also transgender, having transitioned from girl to boy.
Like all families, Robert’s extended family has issues, arguments and traditions. When Robert brings a new partner, Lola Cola, another transgender person, into the group, tensions run high. Essentially, Jackson worries that Lola is after Robert’s money and is distrustful of her. When Jackson starts a close relationship with a transgender girl, Carly, the tensions escalate, with both Robert and Jackson critical of the other’s behaviour.
Additionally, Robert has been diagnosed with, ironically, Ovarian cancer. Doctors initially refuse to treat him, fearing that having a transgender man in their surgery would offend and disrupt other patients. By the time he gets treatment, the cancer has metastasised and there is no hope for Robert: as Jackson points out, it is cruelly ironic that“the last and only part o’ you that’s still female,” will kill Robert. The musical examines, in some detail, the relationships between these six central characters, their foibles and commonality. Almost from the start it is apparent that Robert will die from the cancer, so the central thrust of the narrative concerns how the others cope with that and how Robert does or does not take advantage of the last months of his life.
Perhaps inevitably, as the final hour for Robert approaches, he and his “son”, Jackson, have a breakdown in relations which causes both of them real, and quite tragic, pain. How that resolves with the involvement of the rest of the “family” is the crux of the final scenes of the musical.
When the casting for this production was announced, there was some backlash from the Transgender community, as only two of the cast were actually members of the Transgender community: Aneesh Sheth and Donnie Cianciotto. Oskar Eustis, writing in the Playbill for Southern Comfort, states:
We’ve had a generous and complicated dialogue with members of the trans community about this show, about issues of representation and empowerment for a group that is only now, finally, beginning to be recognized and accepted in society as a whole. I am hoping this dialogue is just the beginning; we have so much to learn, so far to go; but what a wonderful journey to undertake.
It seems sad that there has been disgruntlement about this production, because even though there may not be a majority of actual transgender performers in the cast, the stories of the transgender people in the musical are portrayed with clarity, candour and consideration. That, surely, as it should always be in theatre, is what matters? Both Sheth and Cianciotto are excellent in their roles and, truthfully, each is involved in at least one of the three most affecting scenes in the show.
Sheth’s Carly writes a letter to Jackson’s father, imploring him to make contact with his son. The father refuses but when he leaves a curt voicemail message, he refers to his child as “Jack”, a major turning point in their relationship. It is all but impossible not to be deeply moved by those scenes.
Likewise, Ciancotto’s Dan holds a grudge of sorts against Melanie because she will not let him accompany her to work parties, especially the Christmas party. Finally, Melanie presents him with a special Christmas tie and tells him that she is ready to stand with him and to introduce him to her colleagues and make them cope. Again, it is a deeply moving scene.
The third great scene occurs between the relatively shy Lola (a marvellously convincing Jeff McCarthy) and Robert, here played by the quite astonishing Annette O’Toole. Her sense of the spirit of the character is commensurate with the notion gleaned from Davis’ celebrated film; all cowboy sensibility, fierce dogma and warm-hearted embracing of those like him. Having convinced Lola to attend Southern Comfort, a convention for the transgender community, the largest of its kind, Robert treats the occasion as an opportunity for Lola to have the Prom she never had. He even buys her a corsage. The scene of them dancing together, under a mirrorball, he in a tuxedo, she in a formal midnight blue frock, is unfeasibly touching – and life affirming. That he could do that for her as the cancer accentuated its hold on him is quite remarkable.
The best thing about Southern Comfort is that everything and everyone in it seemed utterly normal, perfectly commonplace. Of course, that is not so, they are quite extraordinary people, but the fact that the sense of it should be so instantly identifiable and embracing is a testament to the quality of the work.
Wick Davis’ score is fascinating. The idiosyncratic nature of the tunes, melodies and harmonies both, helps keep the special world of Robert’s fabulous family distinct and interesting. There are some super numbers: Chosen Family,Places That Aren’t Even There, I’m With You, Giving Up The Ghost and Home to name a few. The sense of Georgia, pain and transformation is fused in the music itself. The small onstage band plays and sings extremely well.
James J Fenton’s scenic design evokes a southern home with porch, swing and picket fence. There is a tree in the yard, a tree whose branches are decorated with photos of the real Robert and Barbara and a collection of baskets/drawers each of which contained mementos of growing up; it seemed in each that there were items both masculine and feminine, emphasising the duality of the major characters. A string of fairy lights/christmas lights added a touch of glamour to the tree, extremely effectively.
This is a timely and absorbing musical, full of heart, and travels roads rarely taken in theatre, let alone musical theatre. It deserves a long future and a wider audience. Let’s hope it gets them.
They are still eyes to be opened and equalities to be achieved.