Historic LGBTQ musical revue returns for one performance in St. Louis
When St. Louis theater-maker Joan Lipkin set out to produce a musical revue about LGBTQ culture in 1989, she had so much trouble recruiting actors and advertisers that she wrote a new opening to the show.
“Some of My Best Friends Are…” begins with a character named Joan calling around in search of people to work on the project. The conversations are brief.
“I think a lot of actors were afraid to audition for it, because they were afraid of feeling outed if they were LGBTQ+ or just perceived as such if they were straight,” she said. “This was not an easy time. There was a lot of anxiety and legitimate fear in the air. So yeah, people hung up on me.”
She did recruit a creative team and mounted the show to great success. Much of the original cast is now reuniting for a one-time performance of the revue Thursday at the Missouri History Museum.
In 1989, Missouri law prohibited sex between men and between women. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out a similar Texas law in 2003, though Missouri lawmakers didn’t formally change the state law until three years later.
Lipkin wrote the show with lyricist/composer Tom Clear and presented it with That Uppity Theatre Company. Its subtitle is “A Musical Revue for People of all Preferences.”
A series of humorous sketches depicts elements of queer life, often with a knowing wink. A gay man expresses frustration about an ostensibly straight friend who seems to be flirting with him. A gay woman sings an ode to her beloved flannel shirt. And in a recurring storyline, a heterosexual man and woman navigate a world in which queerness is the norm and straight people face persecution.
“I wanted to bring some joy to the community. I wanted to bring some relief. And I wanted to say that our identities should not be demonized," Lipkin said.
The original musical director, Larry Pressman, has since relocated to New York but has been conducting rehearsals remotely and will return for the performance. The show will be something between a staged reading and a fully realized production.
“Some of My Best Friends Are…” appears to be the first theatrical production openly depicting queer culture ever produced in St. Louis. The revue’s original run at the St. Marcus Theatre was extended from three weeks to three months. It had a big impact on some audience members.
“It was my first exposure to anything that today we might call a queer culture. I’ve never forgotten it,” said Rodney Wilson, who was a student at Southeast Missouri State University at the time. “That kind of art is liberating, because it lets a person know they are not the only one.”
A few years later, Wilson became the first openly gay K-12 teacher in Missouri schools. He also founded the nationwide LGBTQ History Month.
Members of the creative team behind the show had a sense they were involved in something unusual.
“It was the time of our lives, let’s be honest,” actor Terry Meddows said. “Usually you work on a show, and you’re close to everybody, and then you move on to the next thing. But this was different. We still feel like family.”
In Lipkin’s Central West End apartment one recent afternoon, Meddows and Kate Durbin rehearsed a scene in which they play young children: His parents are a divorced heterosexual couple, she lives with “a Mommy and a Linda.”
When “Some of My Best Friends Are…” was first produced, LGBTQ people were legally barred from adopting children in Missouri. The script hints that Linda previously had a child taken away from her because of her sexual orientation.
As the team works on the remount, that restriction is gone. Yet some school boards are stripping libraries of books with LGBTQ characters, and many people on the political right are recirculating an age-old slur by falsely accusing queer people of grooming children for abuse.
“There’s still a judge in my bedroom, and the cop is back at the door,” Durbin said, echoing lyrics from the show’s closing number. “A lot of things that are the norm now were groundbreaking then. Some of it now feels dated, thank God. Some of it feels prescient.”
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin