Larry Kramer (photo by David Shankbone via Wikipedia)
The long and winding road of Pulitzer- and Oscar-nominated writer Larry Kramer’s controversial play The Normal Heart which begins a U.S. national tour in June, headlines Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this autumn and is slated to hit the silver screen in 2014, thanks to Brad Pitt
By Richard Burnett
Not everyone likes writer Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart which was crowned one of the Hundred Best Plays of the Twentieth Century by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain.
“The Normal Cash Register – that’s what Robert Ferro called it,” my longtime mentor, the Godfather of Gay Lit, Felice Picano, told me in 2004. “It’s a terrible play. The idea of making money out of AIDS is appalling to me.”
Felice can say that because he was there when Gay men were dropping like flies in the early 1980s. “I remember the day when a friend and I were out at Fire Island and saw the sexual connections. We literally said, ‘We’re dead men.’”
Truer words were never spoken.
|Picano (via Wikipedia)
Felice’s great friend Robert Ferro – the novelist who famously got his start as a charter member of the NYC writers group The Violet Quill, the pathbreaking Gay male literary nucleus of the 20th century, alongside Picano, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, Christopher Cox, George Whitmore and Ferro’s life partner Michael Grumley – would himself die of AIDS at the age of 46 in July 1988.
In fact, Ferro died a few months after his partner Michael Grumley also died of AIDS, also at the age of 46, in April 1988.
Which is why The Normal Heart picks up where Larry Kramer’s landmark 1978 novel Faggots left off. Faggots lambasted pre-AIDS Gay male promiscuity and Kramer was widely eviscerated by the Gay male community before the onslaught of AIDS.
But a couple years ago Mr. Kramer told me, “Do I feel vindicated? Let’s just say the book has never been out of print.”
While Faggots eerily presaged AIDS, The Normal Heart eulogizes an era that people today – including many young Gay men – deludedly believe is finally behind us.
It is not.
Which is why I am delighted there will be a U.S. national tour of The Normal Heart starring some cast members from the 2011 Broadway revival – notably hot (and openly-Gay) Canadian actor Luke Macfarlane (who you know from the ABC television series Brothers and Sisters) – beginning with a seven-week run at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., from June 8 to July 29.
The play will coincide with AIDS 2012, the International AIDS Conference that returns to America after 22 years, from July 22-27.
Interestingly, the pivotal 1989 International AIDS Conference was held in Montreal at the height of the first wave of the AIDS crisis – and Larry Kramer came to Montreal from New York City with a ton more ACT UP activists and crashed the convention.
Arena Stage will host a special benefit performance of The Normal Heart at the Mead Center for American Theater on July 23 to benefit the Washington AIDS Partnership.
|Greenberg (courtesy Buddies in Bad Times)
“The Normal Heart was written at a time when there were hundreds of AIDS-related deaths and no one was talking about it,” Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith said in a press statement. “Larry Kramer’s powerful play gave a voice to the victims of this epidemic. Today, D.C. has one of the highest rates of HIV in [the United States]. We are pleased to be partnering with the Washington AIDS Partnership to spread awareness of the on-going fight against HIV/AIDS.”
More Normal Heart cities and tour dates will follow the play’s seven-week run at the Arena Stage. Meanwhile, in Canada, Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre will remount their 2011 Studio 180 Theatre production of The Normal Heart, from October 19 to November 18, 2012.
Directed by Joel Greenberg, Studio 180’s production brings back cast members John Bourgeois, Mark Crawford, Paul Essiembre, Mark McGrinder, Jeff Miller, Sarah Orenstein, Jonathan Seinen, Jonathan Wilson and Dora Award-winning actor Ryan Kelly.
“It’s always ironic that minorities of all stripes seem to be very nervous about having internal conflict in a public forum,” Greenberg told Fab magazine on the eve of The Normal Heart’s first run at Buddies. “[Kramer] was a minority even within his own community. Even his community didn’t want to hear him.” (cont'd)
Normal Heart Cast, Studio 180/Buddies in Bad Times (photo: John Karastamatis)
Kramer’s controversial play chronicles the rise of the AIDS crisis in New York City as seen through the eyes of Kramer’s fictional alter-ego, writer/activist Ned Weeks, the Gay Jewish founder of a prominent HIV advocacy group (Kramer himself would found ACT UP in the 1980s). It unfolds like a thriller – what is this Gay disease? – though today The Normal Heart is clearly an AIDS play.
When The Normal Heart debuted Off Broadway at The Public Theater in NYC in 1985, it polarized the Gay community.
“I think it’s important that people, Gay men and women, see things like The Maids and The Normal Heart and read books by Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano and Ethan Mordden,” says Greenberg. “Without it you get the post-mo mess, which really divided the community and made people angry at ‘the new Gays.’ It gives you perspective. Without perspective you lose identity.”
Meanwhile, a Hollywood version of The Normal Heart – screenplay adapted by Kramer himself, directed by Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy, produced by Brad Pitt and starring (so far) Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Alec Baldwin, and Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons – is slated for release in 2014.
|Streisand (via Wikipedia)
But if Robert Ferro’s The Normal Cash Register comment made you cringe, remember that Larry Kramer has a pretty nasty mouth himself sometimes.
About Barbra Streisand, who first purchased the film rights to The Normal Heart after seeing the original production at The Public Theater (that 1985 stage production starred Brad Davis who would die of AIDS in 1991), Kramer accused her of rewriting the script to make her character the star at the expense of all the Gay characters.
“She cut Ned’s part so much that when she offered the movie to a major star who had played the part on stage, he said, ‘I can’t play this. The character has no motivation anymore,’” Kramer fumed. “She subsumed all of the motivations into her part, as the doctor.”
“Larry wouldn’t accept their highest offer of $250,000,” Streisand shot back. “He wanted a million dollars. Larry held out for the money. I didn’t. Why not advance your cause? Why keep this movie unseen for all these years?”
Kramer claims he never heard about such an offer and says Streisand repeatedly abandoned the project to work on other movies.
Says Kramer, “She never put her money where her mouth is.”
The Normal Cash Register? Ain’t showbiz grand?
Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre presents The Normal Heart, October 19 to November 18, 2012. Click here for more details and tickets.
The Normal Heart opens on Broadway