It’s hard to pin Martin Sherman down. His work as a playwright ranges across a wide variety of styles and subject matter, and getting him to talk about this work isn’t exactly easy. As I learned from several conversations with him over the past two decades, Sherman can be friendly without being revealing. Now a sprightly septuagenarian, he hasn’t exactly changed his tune.
Sherman’s best-known work, of course, is Bent, arguably one of the most influential gay-themed plays in theatrical history. That 1979 triumph is in large part responsible for raising awareness of the persecution of gay men in Nazi-occupied Germany, and the adoption of the pink triangle as a symbol of gay activism may be traced to Bent’s cultural impact. The American-born writer made London his home nearly four decades ago, shortly after the 1980 Broadway debut of Bent. Today, as Sherman himself ruefully acknowledges, his subsequent plays are better known in London than in New York.
Among those plays that still managed to cross the pond and find success in America: When She Danced, a comedy about Isadora Duncan; A Madhouse in Goa, an apocalyptic satire about art and commerce; and Rose, a one-woman show (starring Olympia Dukakis) that chronicles the life of a European Jewish émigré. In addition, Sherman also wrote the book for the Broadway version of The Boy from Oz, the musical which starred Hugh Jackman as the Australian composer and entertainer Peter Allen.
Sherman was recently back in the United States for the world premiere of his latest work, Gently Down the Stream, which is currently in previews at the Public Theater in Downtown Manhattan. When we sat down to chat, I set out to draw him out enough to learn something about the current play, which is publicized as a funny and moving love story about Beau (played by Harvey Fierstein), an expat pianist living in London who meets an eccentric young lawyer, Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), at the dawn of the Internet dating revolution.
Can you describe Gently Down the Stream for us?
At the center there’s an intergenerational love story with two people who’ve a lot to teach each other. There’s a huge difference in the generations in the play. Rufus is so young and thinks it’s very possible to attain happiness and Beau, who’s old, thinks it’s not. Beau’s attitude has been seasoned by everything that’s happened to him.
What got you started on this particular play?
I wanted to look at gay life over the last hundred years. It’s something that I’ve been trying to write for decades and I just didn’t know how. Finally, one day, the way to do it popped into my head.
So it’s an exploration of gay history?
Our history is rarely talked about. It’s an unspoken heritage. I think it’s terribly important that you know where you come from, and what’s preceded where you are now. I wanted to do what I was doing with Rose, which is looking at the last hundred years of the life of a people. With Rose it was Judaism, with this play it’s gay life, but as with Rose, I don’t think that the events were unknown or that surprising. But I don’t think I was aware when I was writing it that a lot of what I was writing about was so unknown to so many people, to a younger generation. With Bent, I was very aware that [the subject] was unknown. Nobody ever talked or wrote about it, and that’s not true in this case. Everything that I talk about in this play has been written about, and written very well. I only discovered subsequently that younger generations are hugely unaware of much of what the play discusses. I’ve had so many younger people who’ve been to readings, or been in the readings, who’ve come up to me and said they never knew any of this. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. Why would they?
Actually, many people only recently became aware of one historical incident mentioned in the play: the 1973 fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans. And that was because it was referenced in the reporting about the attack on the Pulse club in Florida.
That’s the one thing that I knew was fairly obscure. I remember vividly when it happened, but it was barely reported, just a few gay publications talked about it. It was a shocking example of the disregard for anything gay, and it was very much of its time. But I don’t want to reveal too much here about how it figures in the play.
Do you think it’s just a coincidence that there’s a new musical, The View Upstairs, based on that same incident, currently playing Off-Broadway?
We’re living in a genuinely terrible time and I think there’s a lot of discomfort and disquiet and fear in the air, and deservedly so. So perhaps that instills a hunger for knowing about the past. Maybe you need to know about the past when the future’s very uncertain.
Why does the singer Mabel Mercer feature so prominently in the play? The lead character, Beau, was once Mercer’s accompanist and you intersperse several of her songs through the play.
Mabel Mercer was, in my opinion, the most intriguing cabaret singer of her day. Her phrasing was both impeccable and influential. She sang songs that very often had a coded gay subtext, and thus she epitomized a sophisticated gay underground that played a major part in popular music from the ’40s through the early ’60s. And she was, and is, a pure joy to listen to.
Would you describe this production of Gently Down the Stream as a homecoming? If you don’t count The Boy from Oz, which is a musical, isn’t this the first time since you moved to London that a new play of yours has received its world premiere in New York?
It’s the first time since I’ve been a mature playwright. Yes, it’s a homecoming. And it feels wonderful. It’s really extraordinary being at the Public. I’ve always wanted to have a play there, and having it be the premiere of this play means an enormous amount. Even though the play is set in London, it’s an American play and I really wanted it to be done in New York, and specifically at the Public. I’m overwhelmed by the expertise and the wisdom and the warmth of this theater.
The production is directed by Sean Mathias, who directed the movie version of Bent.
He also directed the first revival of Bent in London, at the National Theater as well. We have a long working relationship. We also did The Cherry Orchard at the Mark Taper Forum [in Los Angeles] about five years ago. Sean is just such a wonderful director for my work, he just gets it. He’s also a very close friend of mine, but that’s not a prerequisite for being a great director of my work. He’s just so good. And rehearsals have been a complete joy, which is unusual.
Did you have Harvey Fierstein in mind when you were writing the role of Beau?
No, I never write with an actor in mind. It was actually Sean’s idea, which is ironic because Sean didn’t know Harvey and I did. Harvey and I are old, old friends and when Sean suggested Harvey, I said, “Why didn’t I think of that!” It was a great idea.
Like yourself, Fierstein is steeped in the history of gay theater. Does he bring that with him into the play?
Well, you can’t help it. Your history comes with you. Especially when it’s as rich as Harvey’s. It’s there, you know. He brings an enormous amount to the role, incredible depth. He’s an extraordinary actor.
What would you like most for audiences to take away from your play?
Well, it’s a play, so I would like them to have a wonderful evening in the theater. But I would like them to come away with a sense of what the struggle has been to get to where we are now, an appreciation of that struggle, a sense of joy about the results of that struggle, and a sense of caution about what struggles might still be lying ahead.