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16 articles I’m proud of writing this year

26 Dec

I hardly ever post in this blog anymore, mostly because I’m too busy writing actual articles for work. But in the interest of reflecting on 2015 — and being needlessly self-indulgent — I decided to share the work I’m most proud of this year. These are the stories I spent months reporting and writing. (Along with some I threw together over the course of one productive day.) In many ways they define my year, and while that might sound a little depressing — surely there’s more to life than work! — I have to remind myself that writing is my passion, and I only really write about things I truly love. It’s been a joy covering film, television, and theater: I get to celebrate the art and artists I admire, all while furthering my subversive queer feminist agenda. If I have one regret about the work I did this year, it’s that I didn’t do more of it (hello, poor time management skills). One of my major goals for 2016 is to be more on top of everything so I can produce more. And maybe, every once in a while, get a decent night’s sleep.

1. Eli Roth Thinks Women Will Love His Latest Movie. This year I went to Sundance for the first time, and it was an incredible experience. I saw a lot I loved — and plenty that I hated. Knock Knock fell into the latter category, so it was a pleasure talking to Eli Roth about what I considered a deeply misogynistic film. I was proud of myself for not letting my bias show, because I knew the key here was letting Roth speak for himself.
2. Jeremy Jordan Has Learned From The Mistakes Of Smash. At this point in the year, I had no idea I’d go on to co-create a Smash podcast. I only knew that I wasn’t done talking about my favorite misguided musical drama. With that in mind, I interviewed Jeremy Jordan about The Last Five Years (which I loved), and I got him to be remarkably candid about one of my least favorite TV characters ever.
3. Daniel Franzese Is Still Breaking New Ground 10 Years After Mean GirlsLooking is a series that I feel never got its due, which is why I wrote about it so often. One of my other major passions is writing about size discrimination and fatphobia in the gay male community. I fell in love with Daniel Franzese’s character Eddie, and it was a thrill chatting with Franzese about issues like body positivity and fat acceptance.
4. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame Musical Is Not Your Average Disney Production. This year I also expanded my theater coverage. The writing I do on theater never goes as viral as anything I write about film or television — and that’s OK. It remains one of my greatest joys. And as I toy with the idea of leaving Los Angeles for New York, I realize how important this work is to me.
5. The Definitive Ranking Of The Friday The 13th Movies. Another subject I can’t ever seem to write about enough? Horror. (Look for more in-depth pieces on the genre in the coming year.) I love revisiting films that often get overlooked — mediocre horror sequels, for example — and finding a new way to talk about them. And yes, that means I’ve watched a ton of shit, but dissecting garbage is one of the best things about my job.
6. Why Stephen Sondheim Is A Genius, According To The Broadway Stars Who Love Him. This was a project that required very little writing on my part, but it’s something I’m still immensely proud of. Reaching out to icons like Patti and Liza and Barbra, and getting gorgeous responses, was a great reminder to always make that effort, no matter how impossible it seems. And I received a lovely note from Sondheim, which I treasure.
7. What The Heidi Chronicles Gets Right About Feminism And Gay Men. Basically no one read this piece, which was a bummer, but hey, all the more reason to share it again. I was able to get more political than I usually can in my work by articulating it in terms of a play. I can’t be as public with my beliefs as I once was, but if I can remind gay men to be better feminist allies and write about theater, I’m satisfied.
8. Inside The Mind Behind The Most Disgusting Franchise Of All Time. Like Eli Roth, Tom Six is basically a troll. Again, I’m including this because I’m proud of how I’ve grown as an interviewer. When you’re talking to someone as performative as Six, you have to use a lot of restraint and ultimately let him reveal more than he intends to. Given how much I hated this movie, I was delighted by how good the piece came out.
9. Half Of the Team That Changed Horror Is Now Flying Solo. Leigh Whannell, on the other hand, is a horror filmmaker who actually has something to say. This was another one of those interviews that reminded me why I’m so passionate about the genre. I love the ability to analyze something so few people take seriously, and Whannell’s astute observations gave me a lot of hope for the future of horror.
10. The Definitive Ranking Of Walt Disney Animation Studios Films. This was a beast to get through, and I think that shows in the finished product. Rewatching every Disney animated film was a daunting task, to say the least, but what made it worthwhile was being able to engage critically with the films I grew up on. I never want to ruin anyone’s childhood, but I do want to encourage people to rethink their treasured classics.
11. How Catfish Helped Max Joseph Make His Major Film Debut. I wish more people had seen We Are Your Friends, which I liked so much more than I thought I would. I also wish more people that I interviewed were as insightful and honest as Max Joseph. This was me stepping outside of my comfort zone, which is so rewarding. I never thought I’d want to analyze “bro culture,” but here we are.
12. Olivia Wilde Is Taking On A More Active Role To Support Women In Film. You know who is fucking great? Olivia Wilde. This was another one of those interviews I did that made me feel excited about the direction film is headed. It was truly inspiring, and I was so honored to be able to pass Wilde’s message along. If I could just talk to brilliant women in film all the time, I would. It’s such a thrill.
13. The Movie That Taught A Generation Of Misfits To Let Their Freak Flags Fly. Like Drop Dead Gorgeous, another film I wrote an oral history of, Camp was pivotal to my development. This story took me months to get done, and toward the end I pretty much just wanted it to be over. But this is easily the story I’m proudest of writing this year. I wanted to capture a movie that changed my life, and I think I succeeded.
14. All 78 “Treehouse Of Horror” Segments Ranked From Worst To Best. OK, I’ll be honest: I’m mostly including this here because I’m proud of my time management skills on this one. I busted it out in a few days, because I decided I wanted to do it right before Halloween. Anyway, it was a blast and, once again, allowed me to revisit my childhood in a new way. Writing this much about The Simpsons falls under “dream job” territory.
15. How To Be A Broadway Diva, Or At Least How To Fake It. I love writing about people who just aren’t getting that much coverage otherwise. Lesli Margherita is a big name in theater, but not so much to those outside of the community. I was blown away by her humor and sincerity, and I relished the opportunity to share that with a wider audience. I’m going to continue working to force non-theater fans to give a shit.
16. The 18 Best Plays And Musicals Of 2015. And to that end, this is the first list BuzzFeed has done of the best theater of the year. It’s the culmination of my work to broaden our theater coverage, and while it’s still nowhere near my most widely read story this year, I think it’s a major step in the right direction. I can’t wait to return to New York so that I can continue to remind people that Broadway is more relevant than ever.

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A homily for Sondheimas

22 Mar

Although there will likely be video at some point — vaguely dreading that, to be honest — I’ve decided to share the homily I delivered last night at Sondheimas, the annual celebration of our birth and savior Stephen Sondheim. It was a thrill to take the stage at 54 Below and nerd out over a man who is, without question, one of the most significant influences in my life. What follows is the homily as I wrote it. (I ad-libbed a bit on stage, so if you happened to be at Sondheimas and thought my homily was much better as you remember it, you’re being really picky. But you might also be right!) Anyway, without further ado, the homily.

Steve be with you.

The Bette Midler Gypsy came out when I was seven, a decade before I did. I’ve always connected the two, if for no other reason than being gay seems to be some combination of nature and nurture, and if watching the Bette Midler Gypsy every day for a year doesn’t turn you gay, you’re not trying hard enough. The funny thing about the Bette Midler Gypsy is that I never saw the whole thing until years later, when I learned that my diligent parents had been stopping the VHS tape after “Together, Wherever We Go.” That means that for years I had no idea that Gypsy was about a stripper. It also means I missed Christine Ebersole’s iconic performance as Tessie Tura. In retrospect, I’m lucky I still turned out gay.

The Sondheim musical my parents did let me watch start to finish was Into the Woods, which my dad had taped when it aired on PBS’s American Playhouse in ’91. I was four years old, still a few years shy of the Bette Midler Gypsy and barely old enough to follow the fairy tales that inspired the musical. But I knew that the Baker’s Wife died. I’m not sure why the trauma of Into the Woods was inflicted on me while I was spared the knowledge that Louise becomes a stripper, but like most parents, mine had a harder time explaining sex than violence. I guess they hoped I would miss the giant wolf dick in Into the Woods.

I probably did, at first. I missed a lot of things during those early repeat viewings, which were even more frequent than those of Gypsy. But unlike the Bette Midler Gypsy, the PBS Into the Woods has been a constant in my life. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t watching it. That worn VHS tape, which I eventually upgraded to a DVD, has been a lifelong companion and friend. Sometimes I fear I’m touched. And when I wasn’t sitting down friends to watch Into the Woods, nervously gauging their reactions to decide if we could actually keep hanging out, I was watching it again on my own, taking more of it in each time, my understanding deepening the older I got. I know things now.

I don’t want to put all of my emphasis on Into the Woods because it wasn’t the only Sondheim show that moved me during my adolescence. I remember seeing Company a week after getting my first hickey and bawling during “Being Alive” because somebody had held me too close and then stopped returning my calls. I experienced something close to a goth phase when I became deeply obsessed with Sweeney Todd. I saw an all-Asian production of Pacific Overtures and an all-Asian production of Merrily We Roll Along. Both were great. For those not in the know, the East West Players is LA’s premiere Asian American theater organization, and they do a lot of Sondheim.

But nothing could ever replace Into the Woods for me. The connection was too strong. No matter how many thousand times I listened to the original cast album, I found new relevance to my life. Lyrics from Into the Woods comforted me in times of turmoil. When I came home from college to a city that didn’t feel the same: “And you think of all of the things you’ve seen, and you wish that you could live in between.” When I made my first online dating profile: “But then what if he knew who you were when you know that you’re not what he thinks that he wants?” When a close friend died suddenly: “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you, no one leaves for good.” And, of course, when David asked me if I wanted to deliver this homily: “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.” Which I’m pretty sure is a James Lapine line, but work with me here.

I know I’m not the only person in this room who looks to Sondheim for guidance or context or inspiration. His songs are so intricate that they force you to engage: “Every moment makes a contribution. Every little detail plays a part.” You can’t not think about his words long after you’ve stopped listening, and you can’t not find meaning in every line, whether funny, tragic, or somewhere in between. Sondheim helps us think and feel. And if you’re anything like me, you need all the help you can get. Sometimes the best way to process that which we cannot understand is through Sondheim.

The other day at work I published a list of quotes I commissioned from various performers, composers, and directors who have worked with Sondheim or have a special relationship to his music. At the risk of losing you all with a Glee reference, I want to read what Chris Colfer wrote, because I think he sums it up well. Sorry, haters. Chris wrote, “Performing Sondheim is more than just singing a song; it’s exposing a soul — sometimes a character’s, sometimes your own. Listening to Sondheim is like handing over the keys of your psyche. Every lyric and every note is so beautifully assembled, it instantly levels your mood to whatever emotion is being portrayed. It takes a true gift to make audiences feel music as much as they hear it, and a performer couldn’t ask for a better tool.”

It’s a really nice quote, right? Almost makes up for the horrifying Auto-Tuned cover of “No One Is Alone” that Glee did. I digress. Chris’s quote really resonated with me, even though I’m not a singer. Because you don’t have to be a performer to be grateful for that lyrical journey Sondheim takes you on. You just have to be a human being. With really good taste.

At this point in my life, I still turn to Into the Woods the most. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve watched and listened to it so many times that it’s now deeply rooted in my soul. All I know is I can’t remember the last time I made a decision that didn’t involve consulting “Moments in the Woods.” It’s the perfect anthem for someone as anxious and indecisive and Jewish as I am. The older I get, the more I realize that having it all is a fallacy. Believe me, I know: I’ve tried to be bicoastal. But I’m also OK with life as a sometimes disappointing but often wonderful work in progress. Things are complicated: No matter what my parents would have me believe, Gypsy doesn’t end with “Together, Wherever We Go.”

So do your best, be kind to one another, and maintain your faith in a higher power, whether it’s Stephen Sondheim or one of the lesser deities. As my therapist has been telling me for years, “Live in the moment.” Now I understand. And it’s time to leave the woods.

Further tales of the city

8 Jun

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of seeing the new Tales of the City musical at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I say “privilege,” even though anyone can buy tickets and go. I guess I had the privilege of not paying for my seat! I really enjoyed the show: it was a little slow to start, but once it picked up, I started to really enjoy the book, the score, and the way a series very dear to me had been translated into a theatrical production. But that last bit proved to be troublesome, too—as with all adaptations, I started to fixate on what was missing.

As I said in my first blog post, I won’t be writing many reviews here, and this post isn’t really a reflection on the quality of Tales of the City. You should go see the show. It’s fun, it’s creative, and it’s one of the gayest, ’70s-est musicals I’ve seen. If my fannish complaints/observations will in any way dissuade you from seeing it, please don’t read the rest of this post. That’s right, I’m giving you express permission to skip something I’ve written. It won’t happen again.

Tales of the City is an interesting choice for a musical. In a lot of ways, it makes sense, but there’s also a ton of ground to cover. The new show incorporates elements of the first book and its sequel, More Tales of the City, cutting out some plot points and characters but still managing to squeeze in a whole lot. And that’s fine: I didn’t expect the musical to go over every detail in the books, because a fuckton happens, you guys. Let’s not forget that Tales of the City and More Tales of the City were previously adapted into TV miniseries. And no one wants to sit through a 10-hour musical.

Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on what was missing. How could I not when I have such a fondness for Armistead Maupin’s novels? And perhaps more distractingly, I kept thinking about what happens next. The first two Tales books are arguably the best, but the story continues long past that. There are four more novels in the series proper and two later installments, including the recently released Mary Ann in Autumn. (Which, incidentally, ties up a loose end from the very first book.) You can’t adapt the first part of a series and not expect fans to start imagining the rest. The musical is very good in its right, but seeing it, my mind was working overtime.

Sitting in the audience, I began to mentally plot out the arcs and trajectories of every character on stage. Maupin’s universe is so dense and intricate that I couldn’t stop myself. (Minor spoiler ahead.) At one point, I remember thinking that DeDe’s daughter Anna (just a fetus in Tales of the City) would eventually grow up and make an appearance in Maupin’s novel The Night Listener, later adapted into a movie with Sandra Oh playing Anna. This is completely irrelevant to the stage adaptation of Tales of the City, but I don’t know how to turn these thoughts off. I wouldn’t say it took away from the show, though I am glad I’ll be seeing it again later this month. Maybe I’ll give myself a light but effective bump on the head first.

If anything dampened my joy, it was knowing where all these characters would end up. (Vague spoilers ahead, so just read the damn books already.) The musical ends on a bittersweet note, but there is a finality to it. You see how these stories could continue, but you’re not exactly left with a cliffhanger. The books, too, are self-contained—though if you’ve read them all, they do start to blur together a bit. Believe it or not, I watched Tales of the City at times with a sense of dread, because I could envision the break-ups and illnesses and deaths to follow. I saw the specters of Jonestown and AIDS, even when they should have been little more than blips on the radar.

And maybe it’s not even about the musical, which is—all things considered—an excellent adaptation of Maupin’s work. It’s the fact that I can never go back and read the books with a clean slate. I know too much already, and that’s kind of a bummer. (For the record, I rarely feel like I know too much about anything, so it’s also a little exciting!) I envy those who can see the Tales of the City musical without knowing how everything will eventually turn out, just as I envy those who can pick up the books and enter that world for the first time. I guess I know what I’d use that Eternal Sunshine technology for if it were suddenly invented.

Yes, I would erase books over a relationship. I’m a pretty cool guy, OK?