This Photographer’s Focus on The Bridges of Madison County
When you are a gay man, when you realize (early in your life) that you are a gay male, you become acutely aware of the two sides of you that are masculine and feminine. Many gay men are quite effete and it is that stereotype that the world, at large, held up as the “gay male” for many years. It is not uncommon for gay men to lean, more heavily, toward their feminine side. There are gay men who lean, almost defiantly, toward their masculine side. Then there are those who walk a fine line, balancing the two sides of the coin that is our life.
A mama’s boy, from birth, I needed masculine example to show me how to be a man. My mother was my first best friend. Her mother was my second best friend. The one grandfather that I had was violent, judgmental and implacable. My own father (who I have always loved, from whom I have learned the lessons of work ethic and of integrity) was not the one to teach me to be a man. Indeed, nobody taught me how to be a man. I had to learn it on my own. I had to learn what kind of man I wanted to be, what kind of man I was, what kind of man I had it in me to be and what work it would take to be that man. It is a lesson I learn, daily, still.
With no real example of how to be a man in my life, I turned to men with whom I shared no connection. Not many of my teachers at school were helpful with this process, I had no uncles or cousins whose society was regular enough for me to glean any kind of lesson and I had no older brother. The people with whom I communed were all women. When I read, I read stories of heroines. When I watched films and television, I watched the women. I grew up, quite entirely, confused about how to be a man. For many years my examples of how to behave were the divas and Goddesses of film, theater, literature and life. I, alone, paved my way into manhood.
When I was old enough to really need to stop being a fey little boy, when I was old enough to want to walk with a manly confidence, when I was old enough to need to embody a masculine strength, I had no choice but to distill, from the few men of fiction that I admired, what it was, for me, to be a man. It was a collection of (fictional) men with a rather un-paternal feel to them. The male characters in the books I read were Robin Hood and the boys of The Outsiders; the greatest male cinematic influences of my teenage years were James Bond and Superman. In my twenties I discovered strong, hard to hurt men of a fictional nature like James McGregor, the ruthless patriarch of Sidney Sheldon’s Master of The Game and Jim Profit, a devious television creation. As I continued in my life as a man trying to become a man, I witnessed fictional characters Brian Kinney and Jason Bourne, who are an actual part of my personality makeup today. Anyone looking at this list of fictional men filling in for my father at the task of teaching me how to be a man, will notice that these are not priests, teachers or little league coaches.
I was raised by a menagerie of fictional hard asses, thieves and assassins.
Finally, I had to abandon my teachers in favour of one who was more in keeping with the person that, authentically, lies at my core. Me.
I taught myself how to be a man. I had to pave the way myself and break the mold myself. I had to learn to accept my flawed humanity and every awful incident of declared mistakes and owned fallibility. I built up a belief system that stands with the God in which I believe and the parts of my life that drive my soul: art, earth, duty and love. I invented myself; I am, literally, a self-made man – and I continue to make myself up as I go along.
As a gay male, I have tended toward loving theater (as some gay men do) and, particularly, musical theater (as some gay men do). As a gay male, I have always identified with the women. Mama Rose. Effie White. Sally Bowles. Margo Channing. Vera Simpson. I can’t explain why gay men love these women, so, and identify with them, so. It is one of the mysteries of the world and it will be solved by someone smarter than I. I listened to cast albums and went to plays and always identified with the women. On two occasions, it was about the man: Sunday in the Park with George and Nine. For me, though, it wasn’t about the man so much as it was about the artist. The way that Sunday describes an artists’ life always spoke to me, as did Nine, with the additional layer added by Nine being that of a man involved with more than one woman – and I have, in my life, been involved with more than one man at a time (as gay men do). No matter how these pieces of theater spoke to me, the characters were not ones with which I related, to the core. Let’s face it, anyone who has met me would be hard pressed to find significant similarities between myself and either Guido Contini or Georges Seurat. So my Ipod has playlists of the songs sung by Phyllis Rogers Stone and Rose Hovic and Desiree Armfeldt and oh just pick a diva and fill in the blank. When I belt songs while cleaning house, they are the divas’ songs and, usually, sung to sound like Chita Rivera.
That’s all changed now.
These days, the music of my home is all Robert Kincaid.
The Bridges of Madison County has posted its’ closing notice on Broadway. On May 18th it will go away forever and I am wracking my brain trying to think of how I can, on my limited income, make it to the closing performance. I have to see Robert Kincaid one more time. I have to say goodbye. It’s greedy, of course, because I have sat house right with the love of my life and I have sat house left with my best friend. Twice should be enough for one trip to Jason Robert Brown’s Iowa.. but it is not. I want, no, I NEED to say goodbye to Robert Kincaid.
I read and loved the book upon which this musical is based. I also saw (many times) and loved the film that happened in between the book and the musical. As a gay man, though, to see a man onstage in a musical that you connect with is an incredible feeling, especially if, all your life, you’ve only connected with the women, a task that does not assist, much (if at all), as you try to step out of the shadow of your femininity and into the light of masculinity. I have blogged about how my husband saw the play and took me back, the following week, because he knew that it was for me. How right he was. He could not have known how it would change my life. The character is a photographer. I am a photographer. It’s not what I do, it’s who I am. Successful or not, I am, and I have been for over three decades. The parts of this character’s story that are presented, as a photographer, astound me, as they cast a light on the way that it feels to have a camera be an extension of your hand, of your eye, of your very being; to look through that window, to capture, forever, a moment in time that people will frame, hang up, scan, post to Facebook, look at over and over again. They may forget the name of the photographer who made the photo but they will feel something each time that they look at it. They will remember something, every day that they see it. That’s legacy enough. That is what a photographer does; and to do that, one must be within and without, simultaneously. It is a powerful and lonely place to be. It is an invisible and comforting life to live. Jason Robert Brown’s words and music captured it for me so much that I was cold with the fear that he might have read my personal journals.
The photographer who sheds the skin, the armour, of his artistry, and unveils the man behind the lens, suddenly (or not so suddenly) becomes vulnerable. He is human. He is real. I spent years building up that armour for myself and though it shows, at times (sometimes oftentimes), it is like giving birth to let out the man. Here, on the stage, is a man opening up to this woman and exposing his soft underbelly for potential destruction and heartbreak. When he does express himself, it is with absolute abandon. Once he has committed to removing the armour, it is down. No words are left unsaid, no emotions, unfelt. It is a journey that is difficult to take in life – what must it be like to take it eight times a week, while blaring anthems and opuses.
Jason Robert Brown created these musical moods, these epic poems of expression that seem to capture so much of who I am, who I want to be, as an artist and as a man; and turned them over to Steven Pasquale to give them life. This man brought the character into the light for everyone to see – but, in my world, he has done this for me to, finally, have a role model of what it is to be a man – a role model who isn’t a killer, a spy or a snarkmaster. Mr Pasquale has created, for me, a musical theater man with whom I can relate, a character with whom I can be myself, without fear of being dismissed as a femme and without threat of being thought of as predatory. This isn’t a gay crush. We all get them. We all have actors, singers, dancers that we watch perform and sigh because we can’t decide whether or not we want to make out with them or be them. That’s not what this is. This is an artist taking the framework created by other artists and giving it life in so strong a fashion as to reach straight through all of the layers, all of the walls, all of the armour and say, in one fell swoop “here is your role model” and “here you are, recognized in a Broadway musical”. How much more could it mean to me that he walks as I do, wears the same jeans and boots that I do and holds his camera the way that I do. I was stunned, watching Mr Pasquale deliver this performance, the first male performance to just take a giant step off of a stage and into my heart, there to take up residence. I have loved the work of men like David Carroll, Michael Rupert, Christopher Sieber and Brian d’arcy James, not to mention all the other men of Broadway, these 33 years of attending shows on the Great White Way’.. I have seen their performances, listened to their cds and sung their songs around the house. This time was different. This time was personal.
The Bridges of Madison County is the cd that I am listening to right now (read: these days). It is the work of art that guides my days right now. I expect that it will stay that way, for a long time to come. It isn’t just the love story, otherwise I would have been fully satisfied with the book; and it isn’t just the performances, otherwise I would have been completely happy with only the film. This is a perfect combination of words and music, of orchestration and direction, of acting and performance. There is a duality to the piece that lives inside of me. The artistic instinct and masculinity of Robert Kincaid balance perfectly with Francesca’s connection to Europe (the continent where I spent my teenage years), her sense of longing (which I have experienced, in the extreme, during this lifetime) and her dedication to all those that she loves (the driving factor in my own life). It is almost like both the masculine and the feminine sides of this gay man are perfectly represented by this musical written by Mr Brown and sung through by Steven Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara. To take the trip from Robert’s final outcry of love in which he practically keens for the loss of a life with Francesca to her own last anthem about the beauty of all the different ways there are of loving is an emotional rollercoaster of epic proportion, one that I don’t seem to mind taking several times a day. It is tantamount to having my life behind the camera, my love of my own husband, my dedication to my family and my acknowledgment of the art of living and of loving, expressed by the greatest voices of my lifetime, all within nine minutes. When I listen to the cast album, it’s almost as though I am in the song, as it is being sung by the leading lady and man. Their performances on the cd are so crystalline as to transport me back to moments when I was in the theater seat, hearing the words sung for the first time. The emotions are so prevalent as to make me cry.
I cry for the characters, for their stories, for the artists who created them and for the people who won’t get to see them. However, I also cry a different kind of tear for those of us who did get to take this journey and, especially, for those people, like me, who will keep the artists’ work alive, in perpetuity, through memories. In the film version of this story, there is a narrative moment by Francesca (as played by Meryl Streep) about how artists illuminate. A photographer like Robert Kincaid illuminates with one photograph. I hope to have achieved that, at least a couple times in my life. A musical requires many artists to create the illumination, from the original source material to the creators adapting it to the artists presenting it, in person. So many artists had a hand in illuminating my ongoing thoughts and feelings about my life, my art, my manliness, my families, my loves – they have cast a light on my path and my journey. How brightly that light will shine for me, inside of me, so far into my future.
That is legacy enough, for any artist.