Gay icon Bruce Vilanch—the man who, for decades, has given Bette Midler, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and others their zingers—was expected in town Nov. 13 to promote a screening of Naked Boys Singing! ( which he co-wrote ) as part of Reeling 2007, the gay and lesbian film fest. ( The film begins a commercial run this Friday at the Music Box. ) The hysterically funny, multi-talented Vilanch, who put down the pen ( and shaved his beard ) to star on Broadway and tour in Hairspray and, for several seasons, quipped on the new Hollywood Squares, recently spoke with Windy City Times.
Windy City Times: How did you get involved with Naked Boys ... Singing?
Bruce Vilanch: ( laughs ) Singing … in a professional way. There's a theatre out here in Hollywood called the Celebration and I was on the board for a while. Nobody was coming to see anything except when we had naked boys onstage. So Bob Schrock, the artistic director, said, 'Let's just do a show called Naked Boys Singing! and then everybody will show up.' We put together this very innocent type of musical revue with a bunch of really great songs and I was basically supplying the interstitial material and as we mounted it—if you'll pardon the expression—we discovered that when people are onstage naked, no one listens to what they say. It became an all-singing, all-dancing musical revue with a couple of lines thrown in to keep it going. It was a huge hit and it spawned, like, 45 productions around the world and now a movie. Next, maybe a space shuttle.
WCT: Now the last time I remember you being in Chicago was on tour with Hairspray and emceeing that benefit for Marc Shaiman at the Gentry, which was fabulous.
BV: We were at the Oriental for, like, 10 weeks and it was great. The audiences were great and the theatre was fabulous. Then I was back for the Grabbys this year. I went to the Grabbys and the year before I did the IML at the Chicago Theatre.
WCT: So when you come back to Chicago, what do you look forward to?
BV: Everything that I liked is gone. I lived at Wells and North; I lived at Piper's Alley—and there was a real alley then. I lived in a big Victorian above a delicatessen and an art gallery. And there was a little cinema where they showed I Am Curious Yellow and scandalous movies of the day, and it's now a six-plex.
WCT: I think maybe that's where I saw Hairspray.
BV: I heard of that one.
WCT: Any chance that you and Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta are going to get together and watch the DVD?
BV: ( laughs ) Slim to none—which is the only time you can say that about the three of us.
WCT: You wrote a great piece recently about the changes that we've seen about gays on the screen, but there hasn't been anything since Brokeback Mountain with gay characters. Are we ever going to see acceptance in mainstream movies?
BV: I would take exception to that. I mean there was a picture called I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry [ that ] was a huge box office success this summer, and it was all about straight people pretending to be gay people.
WCT: But the attitudes in the picture seemed so old-fashioned to me.
BV: It may be old-fashioned if you're gay but I think, for straight people, it's a fairly new concept—the idea that, 'Oh, we get better points if we're gay; we get better benefits.' I mean that's kind of revolutionary. Now I haven't seen the movie but I'd like to point out that this is all part of gay culture.
WCT: You shot a new movie last summer from the creator of Coffee Date that we're going to see eventually. It's called Tru Loved and in it you co-star with another former Chicagoan, Jane Lynch.
BV: We're in it together but it's not really fair to say we co-star. It's actually a love story about two teenagers and we play the older generation. I am the gay single dad of one of them and Jane is a teacher in the high school. It's basically about how organizations in schools [ that ] combat bullying got underway. It's about how these groups started that address the idea that there were gay students in the schools that needed to be dialogued about. But that sounds so clinically serious; really, it's a funny comedy about mistaken sexual identity that tells that story at the same time. It's really cute and sweet.
WCT: This past Halloween saw the release of the Paul Lynde special from 1976 [ that ] you co-wrote. Then, you became the center square on Hollywood Squares, following in his footsteps. What are your memories of him?
BV: I worked with him; I knew him very well. We were shooting Donny & Marie and he was a regular on the show; when we finished rehearsing on Donny & Marie we'd get in the car and go over to Hollywood Squares, which was nearing the end of its 14-year run—the first time. By then, he was the center square and he would say to me ( imitating Lynde's voice ) , 'Come with me to Squares; I haven't got shit!' We'd ride over in the car and we'd do jokes and then he would do them on the show. So it was like I was writing for him for Hollywood Squares on the sly.
WCT: That's great trivia.
BV: Yes, and then I worked on his nightclub act, which he used to tour in the summer and then we did that Halloween special.
WCT: Are you working with Bette Midler on her Vegas show?
BV: I am; I am. We open at Caesar's Palace Feb. 20.
WCT: Any little 'tid-bettes' you can tell us?
BV: It's going to be huge. You know, it's a gigantic space—we're taking it over from Cirque du Celine.
WCT: You're going to see groups of gay men arriving at the airport weekly as you know.
BV: Between Bette and Elton, I think they're going to rename it Caesar's Bathhouse.