The following is an excerpt from Megan Sandberg Zakian’s book There Must Be Happy Endings: On a Theater of Optimism & Honesty, available now via the 3rd Thing.
For years the word wolf couldn’t be spoken aloud in our household. It had to be spelled, even by me, when confessing my nightly terrors to my parents: “I’m scared of the W-O-L-F.”
At the time I was devoted to my orange and brown plastic Fisher Price record player, and was particularly fond of playing records that came with follow-along picture books: “When it’s time to turn the page, you will hear the sound of the chime, like this—” ding! I experienced most of the Disney pantheon this way before I ever saw the movies.
There was one record that I loved to hate and played over and over: a Sterling Holloway-narrated recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The three slow, menacing French horns that signaled the Wolf ’s approach made my pulse quicken and my limbs constrict. I could feel the threat of what might be out there, in that darkening place where the meadow meets the forest—the threat Peter’s grandfather warns him of, a warning he does not heed.
As an adult, re-visiting the recording—which someone has helpfully uploaded to YouTube—I was surprised to find that the story ends with a triumphant Peter capturing the Wolf, assisted by his other animal friends, and then carting him off to the zoo. Peter marches proudly, now less of a boy and more of a man. The happy ending apparently made little impression on me. The part I remember vividly is pre-capture, when the Wolf chases and catches the Duck—a cluster of worried oboes—devouring her in one gulp. (Side note: I loved to feed the mallards at Greenlake, a park close to our home in Seattle, and my first word was “duck”—so the tragic fate of Peter’s Duck may have hit particularly close to home.) The score ends with a faint reprise of the Duck’s oboe theme, which is overtaken by Peter’s music as the victory parade marches on. Prokofiev’s original narration concludes, “And perhaps, if you listen very carefully, you will hear the Duck quacking inside the Wolf, because the Wolf, in his hurry, had swallowed her alive.” The End!
In the record I had, though, which was produced by Disney, the final piece of narration has been changed to interpret the oboe reprise not as the Duck calling from inside the Wolf, but as the Bird’s sad memory of his lost playmate. Then, suddenly, the Duck reappears! And the Bird, overcome, rejoices: “Oh, you’re not dead! You hid in the hollow tree! … Now Peter can go hunting whenever he likes, and we’ll all live happily forever and ever after.” The End!
I don’t remember why I was fascinated by this record, why I listened to it over and over. Was I testing myself, checking to see if I’d still be scared of the Wolf? (I always was.) Was I testing the story, to make sure that the Wolf always got captured in the end? (It always did.) Did I like the record? Or did I hate it? Was the experience of listening wholly disturbing, or was there something pleasurable about the terror I knew I would find there? Did my fascination have something to do with the unsettled darkness of the music lurking just beneath the Disney-fied narration?
At some point between ages four and nine, I transferred my fixation from the Fisher Price record player to a handheld tape deck of indeterminate brand, and from Disney Read-Along Records to musical theatre cast albums. The first soundtracks I played were from the movie versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics: South Pacific, The King and I, and, especially, Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. I used to rewind and replay the fifth track, “I Have Confidence,” singing along, sometimes swinging my arms and running and spinning exuberantly the way Maria does in the film. In seventh grade, our music teacher, Mr. Ito, was ambitious or foolish enough to stage West Side Story with the Washington Middle School orchestra playing the full score. He double-cast all the main roles, so I was one of two Anitas, and that was good enough for me. My Maria was Santana Vallejos, and we spent hours together, listening to the music and talking about it. Santana had long, beautiful hair and slender arms. I remember the feeling of holding her hand during the curtain call—her palm so soft, her hold on me so firm.
By the time I was 15, I had a boom box with a CD player. Also at 15, I fell in love for the first time—although I didn’t call it that, then. Liza had hazel eyes and floppy hair; she drove an Acura Integra and was a year ahead of me in school. She wanted to be a famous actress and had a particular fondness for the musical Annie. Or maybe it wasn’t a fondness, exactly. Liza would ash her Marlboro lights into an empty Diet Pepsi can, and say, throatily, “What ever happened to Andrea McArdle?” This was pre-Google, and, as far as we knew, the little girl who had been such a huge sensation when she starred in Annie on Broadway was now lost to the fickle sands of pop-culture time.
In any good musical, says Stephen Schwartz (who knows from good musicals, being the author of many, including Godspell and Wicked), the main character sings an “I want” or “I wish” song in the first 15 minutes. This song itself usually doesn’t drive the action of the plot forward, but rather pauses the action to set up the desire of the leading character—which will then drive the action forward. Sometimes it’s the hope for a better life (“Our Prayer” from The Color Purple, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady) or an existential longing to fulfill a purpose (“Much More” from The Fantasticks, “Corner of the Sky” from Schwartz’s Pippin). Often it’s a desire to get out, to be somewhere else, exemplified by the plucky Disney heroines of my generation; I still know all the words to “Belle,” “Part of Your World,” and “Just Around the Riverbend”—the “I wish” songs from Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Pocahontas, respectively. Occasionally it is the literal desire for romantic love, as in “Goodnight My Someone” from The Music Man or the original Disney version of the genre, Snow White’s “I’m Wishing,” warbled into, yes, a wishing well. The best “I wish” songs, the ones we are likely to leave the theatre singing, or choose for karaoke night, are those that have big, ambitious longings. See: the iconic “My Shot” from Hamilton, in which our titular hero and his new friends, and, by proxy, the entire nation, sing about the drive to rise up, rise up, in revolution.
Desire is the force that sets things in motion; without it, nothing would ever happen. The performance artist Deb Margolin has said that desire is “our dramaturgical force.” And the poet and critic Susan Stewart, in her book On Longing, sees all narrative as “a structure of desire.” Wanting something is the first step to getting something, thus the enduring truth of musical theatre dramaturgy: the more clearly we understand what the protagonist wants at the beginning, the more ardently we can root for them to get it in the end.
Stephen Sondheim, master of the meta-musical, made cheeky reference to this convention of musical theater structure in his fairy-tale mash-up Into the Woods, which begins with multiple characters, including Cinderella and Jack (of Beanstalk fame), singing the lyric “I wish!” repeatedly. By the end of the first act, everyone’s wish is granted in familiar happily-ever-after fashion. Hooray! But then, the second act begins with an “I wish!” reprise. Predictably, the characters have all discovered some new yearning. At the show’s conclusion, after the battered and bruised characters have learned their lesson about desire (“Careful the wish you make… wishes come true—not free”), in the micro-instant of space between the satisfying resolution of the big finale and the beginning of the applause, Cinderella steps forward with one last plaintive, “I wish…!” Curtain.
Into the Woods demonstrates how, in a fairy tale, “I wish” tees up the narrative for an utterly-fulfilled “happily ever after,” in defiance of the reality that wishing is not something we ever stop doing—not at the beginning, the middle, or the end. The continued existence of desire—which keeps us moving forward, living—also makes a fairy-tale happy ending impossible. Desire enables narrative. Narrative requires an ending. A happy ending requires the fulfillment of desire, which is really the elimination of desire.
When “I wish” is located in its traditional position—the first or second or third song in the show—it is a safe and orderly desire, desire pointing us towards “happily ever after.” Second act wishes, though, are more dangerous. They pose a threat to a happy ending. Like the Duck still trying to sing her song inside the belly of the Wolf, they remind us that desire does not die easily and happy endings are provisional at best.
Theatre has a reputation for being a sanctuary for the outsider, a place where anyone who feels a little different can find community, purpose, and joy. Musical theatre as a refuge and a passion for gay men in particular is not only a favorite pop-culture stereotype but also the subject of much socio-historical analysis and theorizing—on the attractions of the flamboyance and style of the musical stage, on identification with the outsize persona of the diva, on the opportunity to over-perform (and hence transgress) gendered stereotypes. This all makes good sense, but it doesn’t help me understand what I felt, spinning around my room pretending to be Julie Andrews, or sitting in the passenger seat of Liza’s Acura with my sunglasses on and the stereo cranked up. It was not the thrill of the fabulous that drew me. Rather, I think, the kind of desire found on the musical stage and in those soundtracks—huge, consuming, so powerful it must be sung—matched the size of the desire that I felt inside but feared I might never be able to express.
A friend of mine, an extraordinary singer and actress who recently came out as queer in her 40s, tells the story of the first time she encountered musical theatre as a little girl growing up in the Midwest: a magical outdoor summer theatre production of Annie. She was riveted by the scale of what she saw—a glimpse of a world where adults could be passionate, bold, ridiculous. She vowed at that moment that she would pursue musical theatre so that she, too, could live in that place, where desire that was otherwise out of bounds—too large, too loud, too dangerous—was given voice, where big feelings were celebrated instead of repressed.
For those of us who feel we have to move through our lives hiding what we want, rather than risk rejection, expulsion, or even death, desire becomes an epic secret. Forced into hiding, it grows to a massive scale. A good musical allows us—all of us to step into an imaginary world where desire can be sung out loud in a full-throated, totally embodied way; it’s a safe place to live for a few hours and feel what it would be like to sing about big feelings before having to step back into lives where we must shrink and limit ourselves. Returning to listen and relisten to a musical, then, is the opposite of relistening to Peter and the Wolf—revisiting safety rather than revisiting terror.
Stacy Wolf has written beautifully about the “problem” of being a musical theatre fan as well as a woman, a lesbian, and a feminist. In her books A Problem Like Maria and Changed for Good, Wolf provides feminist and queer readings of characters and relationships in musical theatre (“the challenge is to identify how lesbians appear where none officially exist”!), offering that the form, from its earliest incarnations, has always contained strong homosocial and homoerotic feelings and relationships, available to those who wish to see and feel them. She writes of the tension of taking refuge and finding joy in a form that promotes conservative values (heteronormativity, traditional views of femininity and women’s work) but also allows for empowering representations of female characters and (covert) queerness.
In The Musical as Drama, Scott McMillin offers that it is not only the queerness of the relationships, but “the double-coding and the subversion and the repetition” at the heart of the musical theatere form that draws queer people to it. In contrast to the accepted theory, which holds the unique feature of American musical theatre, starting with Oklahoma!, to be the integration of the songs with the book, McMillin writes that musical theatre structure holds true to the disjunctive and irreverent forms of popular entertainment from which it arose. Musicals toggle between “progressive time” (the forward-moving plot points of the book) and “repetitive time” (the lyrical and musical structures of song and, sometimes, dance). What we enjoy in a musical is not the smoothness of unity, but “the crackle of difference,” as the show moves between being organized by narrative (the book) and by repetition (the musical numbers). The songs, designed for pleasure, are indeed pleasurable—but also, somehow, unsettling, because they stand apart, even from the book, in which they are supposedly integrated. They point to something else, something under the surface. Then they take that under-the-surface thing and sing and dance about it, with a pleasurable yet disturbing intensity.
What is the under-the-surface thing? Does it matter? Just the suggestion of something hidden is enough to awaken in the listener a sense that the secrets onstage might be the same as the one she harbors in her own heart. When I read Stacy Wolf ’s analysis of Maria in The Sound of Music as a character who is initially coded as queer (short hair! living in a community of women! cavorting around the countryside wearing clothes made out of curtains! turning children into radical little Bohemians who sing and dance instead of sitting quietly!) and who, over the course of the show, is successfully “rehabilitated” into heterosexuality, a light went on. Ah! I thought. This feels…relevant to me.
I don’t know where my queerness lived in me in the W-O-L-F days, or where exactly it was when I moved on to playing The Sound of Music soundtrack on repeat on my cassette player, but I know it was there. It was there when I held Santana’s slender hand at the curtain call for West Side Story; it was certainly there when Liza and I sat in her parked car wondering about Andrea McArdle. But just like the queerness in those musicals, my queerness was coded—best friends, actresses, intimacy, art. I hid it—even, for a time, from myself.
During my college years, though, the familiar coding slowly began to fall away—for Broadway and for me. Musicals with explicitly queer content meant that it wasn’t always necessary to read between the lines. Falsettos was on Broadway and so was a scantily clothed Alan Cumming in the dark Donmar Warehouse revival of Cabaret. As a college student, I would take the bus into the city to see shows. Once I graduated, I moved there and lived in a tiny walkup in the Meatpacking District—back when they still packed meat there and I had to be careful not to splash my ankles with blood when I rode my bike over the cobblestones on my way to work. In those years, there were three shows in particular that triangulated into a mini-bucket-list of my own desire, three shows that I instantly loved and longed to direct: Rent, Spring Awakening, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Sometime in the late ’90s, a college friend gave me a cassette tape copy of her cast recording of Rent and I listened to it for the first time at the gym; I remember sitting there on the stationary bike sobbing. It wasn’t just that the almost-adult me strongly related to the inevitable tension between following your dreams and paying your rent. The sparse, driving “One Song Glory” was an “I Wish” song for my generation. The song comes about 15 minutes into the show (classic “I wish” placement) as the filmmaker Mark leaves his friend Roger in their apartment on Christmas Eve, narrating: “Close on Roger. His girlfriend April left a note saying ‘we’ve got AIDS’ before slitting her wrists in the bathroom.” Roger, alone with his guitar, sings about his longing to write one great song before he dies. The driving guitar and raw vocals captured the burning intensity of both my bright anticipation—“find glory / in a song that rings true”—and the dark urgency I felt, not to wait too long to begin my life—“one song/ to redeem this empty life.” The sense of impending doom and the need to create, twinned and inseparable. I knew, of course, that Rent’s writer and composer, Jonathan Larson, had died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart defect following the final dress rehearsal at New York Theatre Workshop. At least he’d seen it once, I thought.
In my final year of college, I ventured downtown to the Jane Street Theatre to see John Cameron Mitchell’s Off-Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In it, the title character tells her life story, beginning when she was Hansel—a young East German lad who is seduced by an American GI. In order to marry the soldier and start a new life in America, Hansel must become a woman—but after the sex change operation is botched, Hansel, now Hedwig, ends up alone in a trailer park in Middle America, with “an angry inch” between her legs. As Hedwig searches to discover who she is, she meets and falls for American teenager Tommy Gnosis. Hedwig’s “I wish” song, “Origin of Love,” describes a long-ago bedtime story, derived from a passage in Plato’s Symposium, in which an angry god splits humans in two and leaves them always searching for their other half. Tommy, she implies, is her other half, once violently wrenched away from her, with whom reunion is inevitable—although, perhaps, equally violent.
Hedwig’s story emerges in pieces as she performs her cabaret act at a dive bar with her band, The Angry Inch. Her narrative is driven—and sometimes derailed—by both her memories of desire and the desperation that overtakes her in the present moment as she shouts out the back door to Tommy, who is performing his own show at a nearby arena. But over the course of the performance, the scale of the desire subtly slides outward. We become aware not only of Hedwig’s longing for Tommy to hear her, but also of her desire to really listen to the world around her and be listened to in return—not a desire for Tommy to complete her, but a recognition that her whole, damaged self fits perfectly into the universe, at this moment, completing it. As Hedwig starts to release herself to everything around her, she is finally naked before us, able to be who she/he really is, for her/him-self.
A matching his-and-hers pair of “I wish” songs kicks off Spring Awakening, the rock musical set in 19th-century Germany and based on the play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, with a spare, darkly clever book by Steven Sater, and lush, emotional score by Duncan Sheik. “Mama Who Bore Me” begins the show with our heroine Wendla and a chorus of teenage girls lamenting their mothers’ collective failure to educate them on what really matters; their desire is not just to know where babies come from, but more sweeping, profound, and existential. In the second number, “All That’s Known,” the girls’ male counterparts are reciting Latin in an oppressive classroom, where adults insist that the only real knowledge is found in old books. But our young hero Melchior sees the hypocrisy of their doctrine, his gloriously optimistic ballad soaring over the drone of ancient language: “I know there’s so much more to find / just in looking through myself and not at them.”
Hunger is the driving force of this show, extending from the first few scenes to the tragic conclusion. The language the teenage characters use to describe their desire is equally heightened whether they are singing about their intellectual lives or the pleasure of masturbation. And although there is sex onstage, both described and performed, these young people are not singing only, or even primarily, about sex. The adults in their lives who claim to think that it’s all about lust are missing the point. These songs are about a hunger for transgression, including and beyond the carnal: enlightenment, unity, freedom. These are desires that the repressive adult regime has every reason to fear.
Unlike the shows in the musical theatre pantheon that Wolf (Stacy, not the other one) shows us how to read subversively, my three bucket-list musicals explicitly stage queer desire. Rent gives us Joanne and Maureen, Angel and Tom, “faggots, lezzies, dykes, cross-dressers too.” Spring Awakening has teenage boys lusting after their classmates in the shower. Hedwig, of course, has Hedwig. As queer desire is more explicitly staged, so too is the devastation wrought by such desire. Yet even in this devastation, when the protagonist loses everything and is brought, often literally, to their knees, in all three shows we get a transcendent ending that lifts up into joy and communion. These endings perform the risks and rewards of full-throated, multivalent, boundary-crossing desire.
Listening now, I hear in the endings of these three musicals a different final thesis than in traditional narrative, where the continued existence of desire is incompatible with a happy ending. Yes, all three end with soaring, unifying finales—“Finale B,” “The Song of Purple Summer,” and “Midnight Radio,” respectively. But immediately before that final song, each has what might be called an “I still wish” song that performs the often literal co-existence of desire and death. The penultimate position it occupies in the narrative is a neat mirror of the traditional “I wish” position, a beautifully queer almost-ending.
In Hedwig, it’s “Wicked Little Town,” the pop ballad that Hedwig once sang to Tommy, sung back to her by him as a healing offering after she has violently destroyed her physical and creative self. As both roles are played by the same actor, we can see before our eyes the co-existence of death and desire in one body. In Rent, Roger must perform a literal embrace of a fused desire and death as he sings his “one great song” to a dying Mimi (“Your Eyes”). And in Spring Awakening, Melchior kneels in a graveyard, beginning a heartbroken and defeated reprise of his “I wish” song, “All That’s Known.” As he sings, the ghosts of his lost friends appear, whispering their love, support, and hope, reminding him of what he believes, transforming his song into a liberating re-commitment to living fully, without fear, in pursuit of truth and freedom. Melchior’s 11th hour reassertion of desire affirms for us that to continue to reach out, through longing, through loss, to “trust your own true mind,” is the most heroic act—an embrace of hope in the face of the world’s darkness that gifts us an authentically complex, fully felt happy ending.
These endings give us desire and death, together. We watch characters—no longer coded—who take big risks on outsize, out-of-bounds desire, who encounter death and survive. Not every character in these narratives lives, but by giving us the hopeful unification of desire and death in the text rather than the subtext, these musicals offer extraordinary opportunities for audiences to practice queer survival.
In the W-O-L-F days, I was also for a time obsessed with “The Three Little Pigs”—yes, on a Disney read-along record. Two of the pig brothers were lazy and idle; they built their houses out of straw and twigs, respectively, in order to have the time to play the flute and violin and dance around the meadow without pants on. The third pig, who wears overalls and has a deeper voice, unlike the squeaky sopranos of his brothers, isn’t afraid of hard work, “You can play and laugh and fiddle, don’t think you can make me sore. I’ll be safe and you’ll be sorry when the wolf comes to your door.” And indeed, the pants-less little pigs are sorry, when the Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs and blows their houses in. I shudder to think of their fate if they hadn’t had a brother with a brick house to run to.
These are the warning tales about nonconformity—that is, queerness—that demonstrate the misguided and destructive wish for pleasure. Wanting to laugh, to play, to make music, to run outside, to bask in the hedonism of freedom—these impulses put you in danger, make you vulnerable to ruin. Stay good, stay vigilant, stay straight or the darkness will destroy everything you own, everything you have built, even your own body. It will blow down the walls that keep you safe, it will demolish your livelihood, it will stop at nothing, it will consume you.
If my childhood terror of the W-O-L-F was a terror at the force of my own desire, and how vulnerable it made me, and if, by listening and relistening, I was practicing a critical encounter with fused desire and terror, an encounter necessary to step fully into the queerness I was not yet ready to sing—then it seems clearer why I stubbornly misremembered the ending of Peter and the Wolf, recalling the Duck’s tragic fate rather than Peter’s triumphant capture of the Wolf, or even the Disney-approved 11th-hour Duck reprieve.
In the original piece of music and narration, we have the Wolf as villain, Peter as hero, and the Duck as horrifying semi-casualty, trapped forever inside the carnivore. In this ending, the peril represented by the Wolf has been captured and contained, so the Boy is free to roam where he pleases. This is a happy ending, but only for Boys. For Ducks, or a little girl whose first word was “duck,” the ending is not a happy one. She is somehow both forgotten and punished, trapped in the belly of peril—contained forever in a cage of caged Wolf. The lesson: If I abandon care, if I get too close to that hungry mouth, I will be consumed. And when the Boy cleverly traps the Wolf and puts it in a cage, I, too, will go to the cage. Because I failed to avoid the danger, I will be punished as if I am part of it. As if I, too, am dangerous.
It is here that Disney intervenes, glossily but imperfectly papering over this conclusion—the Duck comes out from her hiding place, and all is well! But there is a cost to her survival, a cost not incurred by the Boy, who is still free to roam, nor by the wily Cat nor the swift Bird (both gendered male in the Disney version) who assist the Boy in his feat of capture. For the Duck, however, even in the happy(er) version, there is just one way to avoid destruction: she can hide. She emerges only in the final moment, tentative and shaken. And of course, Prokofiev’s original music lurks under this amendment, militant and grim.
I might have listened over and over again hoping I would hear something different. Couldn’t the Duck, like Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, slice her way out? Or what if, this time, from her hiding place, she steps into a more active role, providing some essential part of the Wolf-capture-plan?
This decentered kind of listening strikes me as essentially queer—an out-of-bounds noticing, attending to the edges of the narrative, imagining alternatives. It’s clear that I wasn’t especially interested in Peter’s story of capturing the Wolf, or in pigs who live in brick houses; I was listening to the story in the margins, learning the lessons of the sidekick, the best friend, the funny co-worker, the nosy neighbor—all classic queer character tropes. I am there, I am determined to be there, but I have to stretch to find me. It takes work.
Really, the queerest reading of Peter and the Wolf would probably be to empathize with the Wolf, to imagine a version of the story where the Wolf is tamed with love or song and becomes friends with the others, frolicking together in the forest—or, even better, where there is an alliance between Duck and Wolf and they live happily ever after together even as it looks to the rest of the world like they are in a cage.
At the time I didn’t have the imaginative fortitude for that kind of queer reading. The Wolf is meant to be terrifying, and I was, as I was meant to be, terrified. W-O-L-F.
But I was interested in that terror. It was a big feeling. I turned towards it, instead of away. I wanted to feel a feeling with that size, again and again. I relistened to Peter and the Wolf because the cosmic terror dwarfed the happy endings on the rest of my Disney read-along records, and feeling something huge made me feel alive, made me feel most like myself.
As I moved from high school to college to that apartment in the Meatpacking District, as I watched and loved Rent and Hedwig and Spring Awakening, I had a series of male suitors and a healthy dose of heartbreak. In those years, though Liza and I shared an intimacy far beyond what I shared with any boyfriend, we never kissed. At least as far as I remember, we stayed within the bounds of the prescribed narrative. We were friends.
I’ve always thought this was because I didn’t understand how I felt about her at the time, that it became clear to me only later. But then, while working on this essay, I find a stack of paper stashed in a dresser drawer at my parents’ house. It’s a two-inch thick print-out of emails from the first six weeks I ever had email—like, ever. I suppose I didn’t quite trust the medium. The emails are all between me and Liza. I was still in high school, she’d gone off to college, and they read just like the correspondence of every other young couple that’s been separated in this way. Promises to stay true forever, earnest over-statements of affection, ardently possessive language.
Reading these, I’m freed from the burden of imagining that I didn’t understand my desire. It is evident that I wanted what I wanted with a startling power. And what I wanted was to be as near to Liza as possible. To experience the world with her, through her, to become what she saw in me, to make and remake each other.
I can also see that, like a million heartsick letter writers before me, I was small in the shadow of my big feelings. My submission to this overwhelming radiance of Liza felt both wrong and good. The combination of shame and pleasure was confusing; I thought no one would understand. I believed, as I’d been taught by so many stories, that I could only survive by concealing the size of what I felt—but I was also tempted to see what I could get away with. I would slide her name into conversation, casual as any other noun. Was she like a ghost that only I could see? Or would everyone around me feel the blaze of her name scorching its way through a forest of ordinary words?
They did not. I learned that I could hide in plain sight.
I didn’t proclaim my wish.
As a child, as a teen, as a young adult, I was terrified by what I sensed was at the door: the force of my own keen appetite, the dark carnivore in my forest. I was terrified—but I was also curious. I returned over and over to the site of terror. I learned that it wouldn’t kill me. I searched for another narrative—one that didn’t start with singing “I wish” and end with “happily ever after.” I understood that the old familiar story wasn’t my story. If indeed it is anyone’s story, which I’m not totally sure that it is, but if it is, it’s a very straight story. In a straight story, a queer protagonist can’t proclaim her wish. She can’t be heroic in her attempt to achieve it. She doesn’t get a happy ending. And I want a happy ending. Which means wanting a different story.
Last week it seemed like everyone in my social media feed was posting a video of M.J. Rodriguez and George Salazar on late-night TV singing the duet “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors. As I write this, the two are starring in director Mike Donahue’s production of the cult musical at Pasadena Playhouse, which takes the (radical, according to most media coverage) route of portraying the show’s Skid Row denizens with total truth and heart. The cast is mostly actors of color; the leading man Seymour is played by Salazar, a gay Filipino/Ecuadorian man, the leading lady Audrey by Rodriguez, an African-American/Puerto-Rican transgender woman.
It is a stunning and completely moving performance, notable not only for its piercing sincerity and unadorned artistry, but also because the song seems to have been waiting since 1982 for these two to come along and sing it. Ah, the song is saying, now I can reveal the size of my truth to you. This song where Seymour tells Audrey “you don’t need no makeup, don’t have to pretend,” where Audrey lights up with the revelation that “I can learn how to be more, the girl that’s inside me!,” where the soaring duet’s climax is the now heart-rending lyric “with sweet understanding” repeated four times in a row.
Little Shop has always been a show that defied genre, and perhaps its conclusion—bloody death and campy fun, threatening and joyful all at once—has always been queer. But in this version, where the queerness is lifted out of the coded and subversive, it feels finally fulfilled.
“Suddenly Seymour” is not Little Shop’s “I wish” song. The show does have a great one, though—the alarmingly catchy ’60s pop-rock “Skid Row.” I wish I could hear Rodriguez and Salazar sing it. But that’s one thing about live theatre—if you’re not in the room where it happens, you might just miss it forever. I can imagine it, though. I can imagine just how it would feel hearing those two sing the familiar lyrics—about being poor all your life, about scrubbing rich people’s bathrooms and then going home to a neighborhood where the cabs won’t stop, about never being valued or respected, and longing, longing to get out.
My eyes fill up just thinking about them singing it. And maybe that’s good enough. We’ve long been queering “Skid Row,” and every other “I Wish” song—just by listening. If you don’t believe me, try it. As an experiment, put on the original cast recording of Little Shop—or, if by the time you’re reading this, you actually can listen to the Rodriguez/Salazar version, please do. We’re living in the Spotify age, so I know, if you have your phone nearby, you can do this in a few taps.
Do you have it on?
I put in my earbuds, tap play, breathe into the opening piano notes. The feeling of relief is immediate. As the snare drops in, a smile creeps over my face, I can feel my toes and my head start to bob. As the harmony swells, as the chorus drives, I feel myself expand. As they sing, I rehearse: my desire, my self, larger, larger, larger, sometimes getting almost to full size before the song ends.
Megan Sandberg-Zakian is a freelance theatre director with a passion for the development of diverse new American plays and playwrights. A co-founder of Maia Directors, a consulting group for artists and organizations engaging with stories from the Middle East and beyond, she is a graduate of Brown University and holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College. Megan lives in Jamaica Plain, Mass., with her wife, Candice. www.megansz.com.
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