Fans of the celebrated pop group Scissor Sisters are now able to catch front man Jake Shears onstage again, only this time the Grammy-nominated musician is making his theatrical debut.
Shears, 36, is appearing in a new production of Martin Sherman’s landmark 1979 play Bent at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Bent tells the story of two gay men who fall in love in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Shears plays the role of a drag queen, Greta, owner of a nightclub one of the men frequents before his capture by S.S. guards. He also wrote (with composer Lance Horne) the ballad "Streets of Berlin" for the show, which he performs in the video below.
Renowned writer and director Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project) is at the helm of the production — the first U.S. revival of the Tony-nominated show since it premiered on Broadway more than 35 years ago.
Shears found time in between rehearsals to talk to The Advocate about his theatrical debut, the importance of LGBT visibility, the secret to his long relationship with filmmaker Chris Moukarbel, and much more.
The Advocate: So this is your big acting debut, right?
Jake Shears: Basically, yeah. I was in musicals in high school and that’s kind of where I discovered I could sing, but this is my first stage show. This is my first big thing.
So the Bent folks came to you? How did this happen?
Yeah. The opportunity seemed so great that, I just thought — you know, I didn’t really have anything to lose to read for it, and I love Moisés's work. I was a big fan of 33 Variations with Jane Fonda, and, you know, and all of the stuff before, The Laramie Project. I just think he’s amazing. So just the opportunity to work with him — I just knew he was going to be a huge challenge for me.
It’s an intense play.
It’s very intense. I knew it was going to make a very memorable summer, and I knew I was going to learn a lot from it. And I had a feeling it was going to be a great experience if I got the part.
It’s challenging on a lot of levels. I’ve never really done drag before! It’s new for me in quite a few different ways. And the learning curve has been really crazy, you know, but it’s been awesome, because everybody’s — like, all my fellow cast members — have just been really, really, really supportive, and Moisés has been amazing. I mean, I was in full panic mode when I showed up for my first rehearsal.
The other cast members have pretty impressive résumés. Is it intimidating?
There’ve been moments where I’m like, Oh, I wish I was progressing faster, I wish I was getting this quicker, and – and there’ve been just moments of inner frustration, but then, when stuff does happen, and when I do discover something and suddenly it all sort of fits, I feel it and go there. It’s really rewarding and, you know, intensely satisfying.
In a way, it reminds me of a little bit of songwriting, or being on stage. All creative work, to me, is like those those 3-D prints that they’ll have in a mall or something, that you kind of blur your eyes and then you refocus them and you see a brontosaurus or something. [Laughs] That’s what it feels like. It’s similar to songwriting. You sort of have to blur your eyes a bit and get to the other side of something. You have to lose focus and refocus in another way. And, when that happens it’s really cool.
Were you already familiar with the play?
I had never read the show. I knew of it; I had never read or seen the play, no. And then I immediately went and got the script and read it and was just floored. It’s such a brilliant show, and it’s such a perfect time to put this show on, right now. It’s a really amazing time for people to see it.
It works as its own story, but it's also loaded with metaphors.
Exactly.When the Supreme Court ruling happened, it was really special. It was our lunch break and we opened champagne. It was really moving. Moisés gave a little talk to the cast, and he was like, you know, this is a really special moment, and let’s not forget that this play’s about all those who came before us. And all this that we have now is because we’re really standing on the shoulders of others who suffered a lot and who are not alive to see what’s happened.
It’s important to remember that there were many here before us and that it’s been a long haul and it still is — it’s still a long haul for a lot of other people around the world who don’t really have as much freedom as we do.
Your character Greta is complex. She’s clearly gay, but she’s married to a woman and has a family. She spends her nights in drag at her nightclub. What’s it like playing her?
We had a historian, actually, who came in the second day of rehearsal and talked to us for a few hours. And she specialized in transvestitism and cross-dressing in Berlin from 1910 to 1930. She talked to us a lot about queer life then and what was going on. I’ve also done my own research, and I’ve just gone back to, like books I'd never read, like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, which paints an amazing picture of the time. But it was very interesting to hear from this woman about how fluid sexual identity was and gender identity was and how there wasn’t yet a language for what being a homosexual was for the gay identity. I was asking her about transgender people and if they were with everyone, sort of in the same group, lumped together, and she was like, “Well, no, it was a very separate thing, actually.”
If you look at the gay identities, there were multiple — there were sort of factions of gay men especially, who were vying for what the gay identity was.
So it’s interesting to look at that time, because it’s actually not comparable at all to where we are now. [In terms of the LGBT community] it was a very progressive time, but they hadn’t necessarily created the language for it.
That helped me a lot coming into who Greta is. What’s amazing is playing a part — what I’m learning is basically — to assist in the writing. You take what the playwright has there, and you piece together your own story underneath it. Which is really fun!
And that’s something really great too for me to be in this process, because I write musicals. I’m working on my second musical now with Elton John. And it’s —
Oh, no bigs.
[Laughs] But it’s making me realize when writing lyrics and stuff, it’s giving me another perspective on writing for theater that I never had — a full actor’s perspective on it. I feel like I’m getting a lot out of this, even just from the perspective of writing for theater. I’m just learning a ton.
It’s like Hedwig. There’s a character that’s just fleshed out over an entire show. So of course people bring their different [interpretations].You know, everyone’s got their own Hedwig inside of them.
Let’s back up — what’s the musical with Elton about?
I wish I could say! We haven’t made an official announcement about it, but I’m very excited.
What musicals did you do in high school?
I was Baby John in West Side Story and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. It’s right when [columnist and LGBT advocate] Dan Savage had taken me under his wing. And one of my favorite memories ever is Dan came to see me in Guys and Dolls in my junior year. He came back at intermission and I remember him walking down the hall with his face sort of like, you know, he was sort of like, struck. He was one of the first people who told me I could ever sing.
Can you talk about your friendship with Dan?
I was calling in to his radio show when I was in high school asking whether I should come out to my parents — I was at boarding school, I was a junior in high school — and I did come out to my parents at the end of that year. And then just by coincidence, I ended up meeting him in person about three days after that. And I was like “I’m the kid who’s been calling your show, and I just finally came out to my mom and dad and they’re freaking out!” [Laughs] He just looked after me. And he still does look after me. He and his husband have always been like my brothers. I’m really fortunate to have them in my life.
And, now, of course, with your LGBT visibility and your advocacy work — for example, by appearing HBO’s documentary The Out List — you’re helping a new generation of young gay kids. It’s like a circle. Now you’re the older person who’s helping.
When I think about my relationship with Dan, and other people in my life — he had such a massive effect on me as a 15-year-old. He really shaped a big portion of my outlook on life. It just goes to show that as older queer people, you can really make a big difference in someone else’s life, and on younger people. It can be a really special thing.
So you’re so entrenched in the theater right now. What does this mean for the Scissor Sisters? Is the band still happening?
Oh, yeah! There’s no plans right now, but we just went so nonstop for so long, we finished the last record, and then when “Let’s Have a Kiki” came out, it was one of those things where it just went beyond all of our expect – like, we had no idea that that was going to happen.
What an unlikely phenomenon that song was. Were you all just like, What the hell is happening?
It seriously came out of nowhere. I mean, it was never a single, nothing! It just suddenly sprouted these legs. And it was just so much fun when that happened, and so exciting. And then I think I hit this point personally where I was like, I don’t know if I’ve got anything left to say right now.
So acting and writing musical theater is perfect because you don’t have to be Jake Shears right now.
Yeah, yeah! I love having the crew around. I love trying new things. By the time I kick the bucket and die, I want to be able to say that I did a gajillion different things, and have all these different experiences. That’s my goal in life. Although that said, I can’t wait to get in the studio. I’ve been writing a lot of songs. You know, Baby Daddy from the band and I still hang out all the time. He’s got a place here in L.A. He’s back and forth to New York a lot. He’s like my brother. We’re so tight. So, you know, Scissor Sisters will ride again.
For all the Kylie Minogue fans out there, what’s it like being her friend and her sometime collaborator?
We’ve got a special bond, you know, we always have. And she’s just one of my favorite people in the world. We have a lot of fun together. She’s always running around the world, we can always just pick up right where ever we left off. We write great together. We have a song coming out together, actually! The Nervo girls from Australia, they’ve written this song, featuring me and Kylie and Nile Rodgers. It’s called “The Other Boys,” and it’s really, really, really fun. I feel like the gays are really gonna love it!
Your life sounds like a lot of fun.
I’m very happy with my life. I have a very good time. I’m a lucky, lucky man.
Also also lucky in love. You’ve been with your partner, Chris Moukarbel [director of HBO’s documentary series Sex On], forever.
We just had our 11-year anniversary. We fell in love 11 years ago!
So what’s the secret to a long, happy relationship?
Oh, God, I don’t know. You just — you just keep the switch on, you know?
What does that mean?
It’s just like — we just get on great. We’re both creative in our own ways, and we’re just really lucky to have found each other. We have an amazing rhythm to our relationship, you know? It works, and we’re in it for the long haul.
Now in previews, Bent officially opens July 26 and runs through August 23 at the Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum. For more information see the CTG website.