by Steve Desroches
For decades LGBTQ celebrities and pop stars have had to walk a fine tightrope to maintain their careers while trying to stay true to themselves. The imposed censorship of a homophobic society required a wink-wink here and a nod there to express any queer sexuality. To closeted fans those moments are golden affirmations that indeed LGBTQ people and a subsequent culture do exist. And that can leave a lasting impression. Such was the case for musician and performer Todd Alsup. While growing up outside of Detroit Alsup gleefully ensconced himself in the pop music of the 1980s: Whitney Houston, Madonna, Rick Astley, Michael Jackson. But there was something about George Michael that struck a chord with Alsup. Yes, the British pop star’s good looks certainly had something to do with the level of distraction Michael stirred in Alsup. There was also a sense of kinship. There was a sense of confidence. There was a sense of rebelliousness. There was a fun sexuality. There was a sense of freedom.
That connection between a mega pop star and Alsup, now a grown, out, gay man, is at the heart of Freedom: The George Michael Experience, a new “club music cabaret” created by Alsup and presented at the newly renovated Wave Bar at the Crown and Anchor. While not an impersonation show or a tribute concert event, The George Michael Experience is a deeply personal examination of the late music star’s work as well as his contributions to LGBTQ culture and visibility all presented with Alsup’s powerhouse vocals and electric stage presence. The show embraces and interprets just how pioneering Michael was, not only with his music, but his presentation of an overt—for the day—gay persona and a celebration of sexuality, particularly that of gay men, even if not obvious at the time. Culturally there is now room to reexamine artists like Michael through a more open and honest lens. The image of Michael in tight blue jeans, aviator glasses, with a scruffy beard, wearing a butch leather jacket with strings of pearls on his left shoulder in the music video “Faith” perfectly melds the masculine and feminine, that hot man that makes his female fans scream and his gay fans wait by the backstage door. All that smoldering cultural activism is at the core of The George Michael Experience, leather, pearls, and all.
“I was all about the color and the splash of pop,” says Alsup of his childhood. “I didn’t give a shit about rock or country. I watched VH1 constantly. I was obsessed with pop. But when it came to George Michael it was different. I realized that my sexuality was different, too, and that it was something that had to be kept private. When I saw the video for ‘Father Figure’ I remember thinking that this must be what sexy is. This must be what a gay man is.”
The George Michael Experience is first and foremost a musical event, featuring Alsup performing 20 hits, including “Careless Whisper,” “Faith,” “Freedom ‘90,” and “Outside,” which was Michael’s pitch-perfect, thumb off the nose response to the scandal that resulted when he was arrested in 1998 in a public bathroom in Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills for cruising after being nabbed by an undercover police officer. The corresponding music video featured Michael dressed as a cop in a public restroom that turns into a nightclub, with metallic urinals and descending disco balls. Michael chose that moment to officially come out as a gay man and managed to diffuse the media attempts to devour him, particularly in the United Kingdom where the tabloid press turned vicious. When Michael was sentenced to 80 hours of community service he flippantly responded in the press, “I’d service the community, but I already have, you see.” Michael appeared as if he was above the moralistic and puritanical fray that sought to destroy him. It seemed as if he was a gay superhero.
“I don’t think people knew what to do with that,” says Alsup of Michael’s public sexual persona. “He always seemed to know exactly what he wanted. He had this confidence. But if you look again he was struggling. He didn’t know what he wanted. He was so confused about who he was and what he wanted. And this was all happening while he was a global pop star. All under the glare of enormous fame.”
Alsup’s show comes at a time of great synchronicity as Michael’s life and work is getting another examination since he died on Christmas Day in 2016 at the age of 53. His struggles with addiction and coming out as well as achieving fame and then not knowing what to do with it, or if he even wanted it at all, frame this extraordinary person, but with a renewed focus on his humanity with recent works, including Alsup’s show, which debuted just as James Gavin’s biography George Michael: A Life came out and the documentary film George Michael Freedom Uncut was released. And here in Provincetown artist Jo Hay hung a large painted portrait of Michael in the Greg Salvatori Gallery. While fellow pop star Madonna was also a sex positive pioneer, who herself batted away criticism, and continues to do so, Michael’s experience was different, in particular how he had to keep the death of his first love Anselmo Feleppa from AIDS a secret, encoding that experience into his work to be discovered later. There’s so much that Michael himself didn’t live to say, or rather explain in full. And The George Michael Experience is ultimately a sexual and sensitive expression of joy and music of a pop legend.
“He deserves to be celebrated,” says Alsup. “He’s not forgotten.”
Freedom: The George Michael Experience with Todd Alsup is every Friday now through September 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St. Tickets ($35/$55) are available at the box office and online at onlyatthecrown.com. For more information call 508.487.1430.