By Robert Hilferty
Originally published on Advocate.com May 01 2009 12:00 AM ET
Before Stonewall and
Harvey Milk there was Harry Hay. Pulitzer-nominated gay
playwright Jon Marans resurrects this fascinating figure and
his daring cohorts in
which opens May 4 at the Barrow Group Studio Theatre in
Manhattan. Hay was the brilliant, difficult guy who, with his
lover Rudi Gernreich and a few others, in 1950 started the
Mattachine Society, a seminal homosexual activist organization
that conceived of gays as a cultural minority. Thomas Jay Ryan
and Michael Urie of
fame play the dynamic duo of Hay and Gernreich,
Marans in a Chelsea café to get the lowdown.
Advocate.com:Where does the title of your play come from?Jon Marans:
Back in the early '50s where the play takes place, there were a
lot of code words for guys who were homosexual: "the nervous
ones," "that way," and "temperamental" -- all
wasn't even a word back then, but that's how gay guys saw
How did you hit upon the character of Harry Hay?
I was hired by San Jose Rep to write the book for a musical
Coming of Age
based on Studs Terkel's book of the same name, which is a
series of interviews from activists and anarchists over age 70,
placed in different categories. And there was one category
called "The Others" that featured a guy named Harry Hay,
whom I hadn't heard of. But I put him in the show because he
had such a specific point of view, and every time he appeared,
he stole it. Then I continued to do research, and this play is
Well, who was he?
He was an obnoxious, aggressive human being who had this great
idea that gays were a minority, which was novel and
revolutionary at the time. But because of his off-putting
personality he needed help to get this idea across. That's
where Rudi Gernreich comes in. He was a Viennese Jewish guy who
had gotten out of Vienna in 1938 right after the Anschluss.
Most of his family killed in Auschwitz. Rudi was wildly
charming, a costume designer who worked with Edith Head, so he
was connected to the Hollywood crowd. Everyone adored him.
You could have called the play
When Harry Met Rudi.
So they started they Mattachine Society together. That's
another odd word ...
Harry found that medieval word, which refers to
Saturday Night Live
-like comedy troupes that would tour in Italy and France.
Underneath the comedy was a serious political message they were
trying to impart.
So what's the drama?
It's basically this mission-impossible story about Harry and
Rudi trying to start the first gay political party during a
very dangerous time, at the height of the Red Scare. Anyone
could be a cop. In a nutshell, if Harry hadn't come along in
1950, there would never have been a Stonewall. He, Rudi, and
three others -- Bob Hull, Dale Jennings, and Chuck Rowland --
were the founding fathers of the gay movement. The fascinating
thing about these guys is that they were all Communists,
because only Communists would be crazy and political enough to
form this sort of organization. They were literally risking
their lives and reputations to do what they did.
Is there a love angle?
Yes. At the time Rudi was involved with Harry, he was becoming
more and more famous as a costume designer. So he had to decide
if he wanted to go back into the closet in order to pursue [his
career], or stay with the organization. So it's very much a
love story of which he's going to choose. He chose fame. Harry
later started the Radical Faeries.
Your 1996 Pulitzer-nominated play,
Old Wicked Song,
integrates music extremely well. Is there music in the new
Definitely. When Hay worked for the Communist Party, he taught
a music class because he believed in music as political
theater. A lot of music was actually code. When the slaves
would sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," for instance, the
chariot referred to the underground railway. And the gay world
in the '50s was jam-packed with code. So I use "Sleepers,
Awake" by Bach and even composed a bawdy, silly little song
for the show, just like the Mattachine members did.
In addition to coming away humming your tunes, what do you
hope the audience to leave with?
To really understand a piece of history nobody really knows
that should be honored, remembered, and studied. Almost no gay
guys today know who Harry Hay was or the Mattachine
You're a very political guy, buddy.
Well, I did grow up in D.C. My father is the most published
angry-letter writer in the D.C. area. He writes 1,000 letters a
year. People think he's an organization, not a person.