Features Dialogues and debates Published 18 June 2018

Confess Your Theater Sexual Awakening

Our critics confess the formative sexy shows, performances, and moments that stirred them.

Exeunt Staff

Mamma Mia! Oh my. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Nicole Serratore: I finally saw The Lion King this year and was surprised by a shirtless hyena dance number which had more in common with Magic Mike than any animated movie memory I could muster. My companion leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Are they going to strip?” We giggled and the moment passed. But it made me think about the kids all around us.  Was one of them having their “Ring of Keys” moment based on an ab-tastic gyrating hyena?

Disney has certainly cornered the market on family entertainment with abs (I noticed particularly in Aladdin the ridiculously toned bodies of the men and women in the cast–Equality!). If I wasn’t already sure of my attractions in my 30s I certainly would have had things clarified after seeing the high-flying boys of Newsies, my first Disney musical.

Disney sadly took over the Great White Way well after my coming-of-age years.  So my earliest shows were Starlight Express and Cats. I don’t recall them being all that sexy, despite all the spandex. In my teen years, I remember losing myself in John Cameron Mitchell’s voice during The Secret Garden. There was something unique about its timbre–something melancholy and unusual–and while I could barely see him from the waaaaaay back, last row of the St. James, I definitely loved him.

I fell head-over-heels for Joe Mantello and David Marshall Grant in Angels in America magically thinking in a fan-fic way maybe Louis and Joe could work out their issues. After that I had another swooning episode with Billy Crudup in Arcadia. Yes, even my teen lust was talky and intellectual. Though I will confess my pre-teen crush on Greg Louganis paid off when he made a stage appearance in Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey (as a chorus boy from Cats–maybe they were sexier than I remember?) during these years as well.

Look at those punims! David Marshall Grant and Joe Mantello in Angels in America (Photo: Joan Marcus)

More recently, The Bridges of Madison County, with the smoldering sex appeal of Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, did a number on my personal Kinsey scale depending on who was on stage at the time. I’m fanning myself at the memory.

Hot nights in the Iowa sheets in The Bridges of Madison County (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The other writers at Exeunt have lived better theater lives than mine as they found theatrical objects of their affection earlier in life. These are their tales of their earliest theatrical sexual awakenings.

Kev Berry: My type is Newsie. I love a shorter dancer type who can do more pirouettes in 2 minutes than he can sell copies of the New York World in a day. Headlines don’t sell papes, Newsies’ butts and tight male harmonies sell papes. However as someone who was gay gay gay well before Newsies hit the New Amsterdam in 2012, Chris Gattelli’s leggy choreography wasn’t a part of my awakening. No, for me, that happened 8 or 9 years before, in 5th grade or so. I think there were two shows that did it for me, one definitely more prominent than the other.

Newsies (Photo: Deen van Meer)

The lesser of the two (which isn’t to say the lesser work, because the show I’m about to name is objectively flawless) is Mamma Mia! The bountiful hunks of the ensemble bopping around the stage to ABBA’s greatest hits while tightly encased in lycra wetsuits or barely clothed in their open linen button-downs  helped me come to realize that…maybe I did want someone to gimme gimme gimme a man after midnight. To Phyllida Lloyd: thank you for the music, but also thank you for helping a little fifth grader learn the appeal of smooth abs and tight asses.

And then there are the trousers in Wicked. And the aloof attitude. And the transformation into the Scarecrow. And the misguided activism. But mostly the trousers. I mean, my God, Fiyero. From his first entrance onto the Gershwin stage, I was hooked. The way the Crowned Prince of the Vinkus filled out those cream-colored trousers in all his twunky glory was eye-opening as a youngster. And if my research proves correct, it seems I saw 90s boy band hottie Joey McIntyre in the role, a blessing I did not realize had been bestowed on me until this morning on the downtown D (not a euphemism) while fact-checking for this little blurb.

As for things that caused a stir this season: Ethan Slater’s biceps. All of Lee Pace. And the final count-of-zero blackout in The Band’s Visit.

Loren Noveck:  I don’t know if this was sexual awakening so much as eye-popping introduction to human physiology, but the first naked man I ever saw was in a college production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class. I was about nine; my best friend’s aunt was in it, and our moms took us. It was in a black box, with no raked seating, so, seeing as how my friend and I were short little kids, we sat right in front. Right in front, in fact, of the stage right corner where, about half an hour later, an actor would come out naked and then pee. We were fascinated, maybe a little horrified, and 100 percent trapped. I’m not sure we came back after intermission.

Seriously, though–I saw Chorus Line in probably 1977 or ’78, when I was probably at least 5 years too young for most of the content of that show. I was a ballet kid but not really talented enough to have been pushed at all, let alone to have ever danced with a male partner, and I was years away from puberty. Seeing how all of the performers and characters in that show had complicated relationships with their bodies–from the stories of sexual awakening in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen,” most of which I didn’t really get, to Connie’s laments about being short (which I was), to the ballsiness of “Dance Ten Looks Three” to their sheer joy and heartbreak of their work as dancers–it was a whole new way to imagine being an adult, and being an adult for whom sex wasn’t an entirely separate category in life from work, and friendship, and struggle.

Pink Ladies of Grease Live! (Photo: Michael Becker/FOX)

Patrick Maley: When I was a lad, a Pink Lady in Rosie O’Donnell’s Grease smiled and winked at me from stage, inaugurating puberty instantaneously.

Cameron Kelsall: When Nicole proposed this topic, my mind immediately went to two distinct places. One was my first experience of realistically simulated sex on stage. The other was my first time consciously finding myself attracted to a performer. Coincidentally, both occurred within a few weeks of each other when I was fourteen.

Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci (Photo: Joan Marcus)

My parents took me to New York for my birthday every year when I was younger, and for my fourteenth birthday, I choose to see Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci. (Yeah, I was a weird kid/teen). The play opens with the two characters – a diner waitress and a short-order cook – screwing on a pull-out couch in a dingy efficiency apartment. In the dark, sounds of pleasure mixed with awkward and uncomfortable moments, signifying a couple who hadn’t quite figured out their sexual rhythm yet. Even then, I found this unromantic, genuine depiction of sex incredibly moving. That neither Falco nor Tucci looked like supermodels added to the verity – this was an instance of two middle-aged people who’d been around the block looking for a moment of comfort. Under Joe Mantello’s direction, they communicated this with grace. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve seen sex onstage since, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it choreographed with such honesty.

Shortly after that eye-opening experience, I went to see the Ahrens and Flaherty musical A Man of No Importance at Lincoln Center. The show centers around Alfie Byrne (played by the late Roger Rees), a closeted bus conductor living in repressive, catholic 1960s Dublin. He secretly pines for his co-worker, played by then-unknown-to-me Steven Pasquale, who seemed like the most beautiful and virile creature on the planet. No wonder Alfie desired him so! The moment Pasquale walked onstage, my eyes popped out of my head and stayed there for the next 2.5 hours. And when he started singing, forget it. If I didn’t already know I was gay – and, since I was fourteen and seeing an arty period piece about an Oscar Wilde-obsessed homo, it’s a safe bet that I did – I surely figured it out by the time I left the Mitzi Newhouse.

Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Lane Williamson: He’s problematic this week because he’s being dumb on Twitter, but I’d be lying if I said my theatro-sexual awakening did not involve Neil Patrick Harris. I have never seen an episode of Doogie Howser, but I was first exposed to NPH via the studio recording of Sondheim’s Evening Primrose. I haven’t listened to it in years, but I remember his voice in my headphones, guiding my adolescent body through puberty. Maybe I sensed he was gay, maybe I pretended he was my boyfriend, who’s to say. That recording was followed closely by the DVD release of his Sweeney Todd concert. Neil played Tobias and wore a silver sweater and, I have to tell you, I wanted to be that sweater more than anything. It was a goddamn lucky sweater: clinging to the body of my imaginary boyfriend, hanging out with Patti LuPone. I watched that disc more times than I can (or would) admit. I showed it to all my friends.

Playing right into my sweet spot, Neil then appeared in the Broadway production of Assassins and the Zapruder footage was projected on his chest. That seems like a weird kink, but I thought it was sexy as fuck. My sophomore year of high school, Neil was in a production of Jon Robin Baitz’s The Paris Letter at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. I read on a message board that Neil appeared fully nude in the play, so you can imagine what that did to me. I lived about an hour north of the Douglas, but I didn’t have a driver’s license, so my mom or stepdad would have to drive me to the theatre and what if they decided to see the play with me? I had no interest in sharing Neil’s penis with my parents, so I didn’t end up getting to live that dream. The residual disappointment closed the book on my NPH obsession…for the time being.

Ten years later, I saw Neil in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway and I was immediately thrown back into my childhood state of lust. I longed to be that person he kissed during “Sugar Daddy.” I was dizzy with attraction. I screamed, I cried, I would have thrown my underwear at the stage. Before that, I’d thought I was over Neil. I didn’t care about How I Met Your Mother or anything else he did in that ten year gap. In fact, I thought he was kind of annoying. But then he won me over again. Like a phantom from the past, he transported me back to a simpler time when I was developing my taste in men and in musicals and, for at least those 100 minutes, it was nice to be a kid again, writhing in the throes of wild, unabashed sexual naïveté.

Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine