by Steve Desroches
As the school year came to an end Todd Buonopane’s fourth-grade teacher was finishing up her career in education and about to retire. Without being asked, Buonopane wrote a musical in her honor and organized his class to perform it for her, including covers of songs like Kenny Rogers’ “Through the Years” and “Saying Goodbye” from the movie The Muppets Take Manhattan. That’s just how gay he is and always has been. And his teacher loved her musical send off.
While Buonopane was the Bob Fosse of his elementary school, Michael Buchanan was perfecting his impersonations of Rosalind Russell and Barbra Streisand. He’d often spend an afternoon with his mother watching The Way We Were or Auntie Mame, and these women were inspirations to him. Who cares if everyone on the playground gave him strange looks when he declared, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” He was just shocked no one else had strong opinions about Susan Hayward’s performance in I Want to Live! These shared experiences of being a gay boy and finding out that what feels so central to your being is something the rest of society feels they have a right to criticize or ridicule, is often a universal theme for gay people. But they’ve stood proud ever since, never giving in, seeing both the humor and the sweetness of their childhood stories.
“Michael and I grew up in the Eighties and there was a lack of gay representation in the media,” says Buonopane. “You had to find things to connect to. There were just those things that made you feel less alone in the world. The Solid Gold Dancers made me feel less alone. The movie Fame made me feel less alone. You connect to those things. The Muppets! They always said they were a bunch of weirdos and they got together and made something great. That’s how I felt years later when I found the theater.”
“Of course nothing makes you gay,” says Buchanan. “But there were lots of things that helped to make me feel comfortable with who I am. A song, a movie. Whatever. You find connection wherever you can.”
That commitment to self-worth and camp proved fruitful, no pun intended, as both are now accomplished actors with Broadway credits that include Book of Mormon and The Addams Family for Buchanan and Chicago and Grease for Buonopane, as well as roles on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock. And now the two best friends are coming to Provincetown this Carnival Week to perform Songs That Made Us Gay, a comedic cabaret shows full of songs that for one reason or another sprinkled a little glitter on them both. As the duo prepares to take to the stage at the Post Office Cabaret, they acknowledge that the gravitational pull of their respective reverence of camp, laughter, and music. In fact, the laughter starts as soon as they both connect over Zoom, in different locations in New York. They can’t help it. They just continually make each other laugh, and that, they say, will be on display during the show.
Their laughter and sense of fun is infectious, and impervious, too, as the two met 20 years ago when they both were cast in a production of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. The play was serious and heartbreaking. But their memories were that, from the moment they met, it was a laugh riot.
“We quickly bonded over the Muppets and show tunes,” says Buonopane. “We just became sisters doing the saddest show ever!”
“It was the saddest show,” laughs Buchanan. “Which is funny because from the moment we met it was non-stop laughter.”
The only tears this show will generate are those from laughing. They’ve prepared a medley of duets featuring “Endless Love,” “Islands in the Stream,” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” as well as delightfully campy version of tragic Broadway songs like “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Misérables, and, of course a little Bette and Bernadette. The two say basically anyone who ever wore sequins, chiffon, and marabou has inspired them in some way, and Songs That Made Us Gay is an homage to those women….and Elton John. If the show has a spiritual center its reverence for gay icons—not the garden variety, flavor-of-the-month kinds of today, but the old-school kind, soaked in vermouth.
That connection many gay men feel to certain female celebrities is so strong that it feels like scientific fact. It’s hard to explain why Judy Garland, Cher, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, and Patti LuPone are the gay enchantresses they are. But Buonopane and Buchanan have a theory. While they are of course successful because of their talents and hard work, garnering fans of all kinds, those performers that embraced camp back in the day, were in turn utilizing a queer invention, and then communicating that, though not through words. It wasn’t so much an “if you get it you get it” kind of thing; it was a message to gay fans delivered in a frequency only they can hear.
“I think in part it’s because they wear their emotions on their sleeves and are fearless,” says Buonopane. “As cis men we’re taught to suppress your emotions. You’re just supposed to toughen up and keep quiet. But not with these women. And they also had a great sense of humor and camp. Cher. Bette Midler. Dolly Parton, she knows what she’s doing. They all do. It’s like they’re winking at us. Letting us know they see us and know all about us. That they’re with us.”
Songs that Made Us Gay with Todd Buonopane and Michael Buchanan is at the Post Office Cabaret, 303 Commercial St., Tuesday, August 16 and Wednesday, August 17 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets ($35) are available at the box office and online at postofficecafe.net. For more information call 508.487.0087.