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Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical

by D.A. Miller. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 141 pages. $22.

D.A. Miller loves broadway musicals in spite of himself - and the "in spite of himself" is what allows him to write about them without dying, of embarrassment. In fact, he approaches his subject with eyes so narrowed that he begins Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical with what is essentially a repudiation of the form. The book belongs to the same subgenre - whatever it is - as The Queen's Throat, Wayne Koestenbaum's peculiar 1993 rumination on opera and gay men. Miller, who teaches literature at Columbia, writes from the same gay academic perspective, and like Koestenbaum he has an appetite for exaggeration, for outrageousness, and for getting psychosexualiy naked. And he is breaking even firmer ground here, partly because - as he knows - nothing you can say about the musical amounts to a desecration. (Merman is his Callas, but, of course, Merman is no Callas.) The note that most persistently recalls Koestenbaum, though, is a sad-sack take on gay behavior, beginning with his own; at times it requires a finely tuned ear to distinguish his musings from the pronouncements of homophobes. Miller hones in on the weakness, the sadness, the loneliness of growing up gay. When he talks about show queens at the piano bar, he's as lethal as Proust can be.

But he is clearly onto something. His portrait of the "musical" boy of the fifties, who would seclude himself and sing and dance to his parents' original cast albums, certainly rings true (truer than I'm comfortable admitting) to my own adolescent experience. There's no dismissing what Miller calls the "summons" of the Broadway musical, "inaudible except to the fine ears of the boy so justly called sensitive, but who, though he picked it up consistently, over several decades, and often in social regions quite remote from the Broadway beam, was nonetheless as deprived as everyone else of any means of knowing to what strange vocation, in hearing it, almost as if he had held in his hands some divine divining rod, he was being pointed."

That passage is typical of Miller's style - witty, astute, and convoluted. A Miller sentence is a knot to unravel, a little puzzle with a joke embedded as a reward for its solution. He is big on the notion of gay identification with female stars, but on actually finding himself in the limelight, it's as though he suppresses the impulse to belt out "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and starts yodeling twelvetone rows out of Moses und Aron. Why should he feel the need to restrict his audience to academics? Does he really have to prove his credentials by turning himself into the anti-Merman?

Miller writes about the musicals that entranced him as a kid and about a few others that have spoken to him, if only negatively, since then; he doesn't pretend to comprehensiveness. He's at his best skipping aphorisms off the surface of his subject, which is too flimsy to support heavier analysis anyway. Here he is, for example, on "If My Friends Could See Me Now" (from Sweet Charity):

In true Broadway fashion, this song of exuberant, overbearing triumph conjures up a state of being all alone and friendless that it never altogether conjures away. For what real amicability exists between me and the friends on whom, by calling them to witness - but not share in - my success, I can only be hoping to visit a plague of envy, which in the worst case will exact retribution for their contempt and in the best impel them to make it up to me before (returning the contempt on them) I desert the stumblebums for good in favor of the top-drawer first-rate chums I now attract?

On Merman in Gypsy:

So well, for instance, did her inimitably timbred voice preserve the memory of its glorious past performances, giving to every word it intoned the density of a concordance entry, that it had scarcely sung three syllables before "Some People" was overwhelmed in thrilling recollections of "no people but show people."

Gypsy holds a special place in his pantheon as the first stage musical he ever saw - and he saw it with Merman as Rose. Alas, he spends most of the last half of his book on a close reading of the show. His two principal theses - that Louise (the girl who will grow up to be Gypsy Rose Lee) is, within the structure of the musical, a boy in drag, and that Rose (her overbearing mother) metamorphoses, in the climactic "Rose's Turn," into a man in drag - are enchantingly cracked. Once again the intricate machinery of criticism has run amok, like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, seizing control for its own dark purposes.

In other words, Place for Us is a brilliant exercise in overreading. That early encounter with Merman definitely imprinted something on Miller, but since he can't fulfill his fantasy of becoming his idol on the stage, he has retreated to his original cast albums, winking as he sings along and giving the familiar words ever stranger and more secret meanings.

Craig Seligman is a writer based in New York. His feature preview of Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine appeared in the October issue of Artforum.
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Author:Seligman, Craig
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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