The history of musical theater teems with boy-meets-girl stories. So you can't blame LGBTQ fans of the genre who grumble about the paucity of new musicals that reflect the diversity of their lives on stage.
Three of the 14 new musicals debuting at Underscore Theatre Company's 3rd annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival ( CMTF ) seem poised to do some redressing by featuring leading LGBTQ characters. And stylistically, these three shows couldn't be more different.
The first of the three out of the gate is the contemporary song revue Planted, co-conceived by director Christopher Pazdernik and songwriter Jeff Bouthiette. ( Rebekah Walendzak is also a lyric contributor. )
"There's a lot of heteronormative song cycles from the 1980s and '90s like Closer Than Ever or even I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," Bouthiette said. "We wanted to do something that focused more on gay men and explore that in a more contemporary way."
Bouthiette said Planted aims to look at family dynamics, relationships and what it means to be single. The six men of the ensemble don't play named characters, though Bouthiette says they do have a dramatic through-line via the "seasons of a gay relationship."
"There is a general arc from the moment of meeting someone," Bouthiette said. "And then all the twists and turns and different possible variations on that."
The musical Pen is more narratively structured in a linear fashion, though the subject matter of a dating pen-pal relationship between a gay prisoner and a lovelorn guy on the outside is far from conventional. Pen previously received a scripts-in-hand reading via Pride Films and Plays, but its appearance as part of the CMTF will be more fully fleshed out.
"[Pen] actually came from a newspaper article about a website where gay prisoners can connect with gay men on the outside," said Schwartz, whose past noble credits include the gay musicals Under a Rainbow Flag and The Book of Merman. "David Zak of Pride Films and Plays actually sent the article around to several of us in a writers network and suggested there was a show in this, so I sent it to [book writer and lyricist] DC Cathro."
Pen focuses on the recently dumped Paul, who starts a correspondence with the prisoner, Rod.
"It's a relationship that Paul feels he can control because the guy is not going anywhere," Schwartz said. "Things get heated between the two of them and they really find that they're interested in each other and where does the relationship go from thereespecially when real life comes along and starts making demands?"
Real-life history is what inspired The Transcivility of Albert Cashier, the third LGBTQ show featured in the CMTF. It's about a Civil War veteran with an enormous secret, which was revealed several years after the title character lived the majority of his life in a small town as a man.
Attorney and playwright Jay Paul Deratany fell in love with the true-life story of Albert Cashier, and he found a very willing collaborator to dramatize his life with director Keaton Wooden. Where the musical aspect came along is when the two reached out to composer/singer Joe Stevens, a trans man.
"We wanted to keep true to the time period," said Deratany "And very much, hopefully, this musical keeps true to the story of Albert."
Deratany had nothing but praise for Stevens, who drew from songs of the 1860s and 1910s to create the bluegrass score of The Transcivility of Albert Cashier. Stevens also served as a consultant to Deratany and Wooten on transgender issues.
"In some sense, was Albert a trans man? Not in the current definition, I suppose, because this individual didn't have access to modern medicine that we have now. But was this person in his heart a male? I think so," mused Deratany. "Was this a woman who just wanted to dress up as a man? Maybe. Was this a woman who didn't want to answer to a man and after the war get paid less for work per hour than a male wage? Maybe… We don't know the complete story, but for whatever reason, this individual wanted to live his life in a male circumstance and our show is about his freedom to do so."
Like the other 11 shows featured in the CMTF, each of these three LGBTQ shows will receive four performances only in rotating repertory. The sheer number of musicals calls for minimal scenery and other production values, but each of these writers are relishing the chance to get their shows before live audiences.
"All of these shows are in some sort of developmental stage and we absolutely have to go through this process," Schwartz said. "I do have some producers and directors from other parts of the country to see the show in hopes of doing future full-on productions."
Underscore Theatre Company's 3rd annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival runs from Tuesday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 28, at the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincolns Ave.
Pen plays 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16, and 6 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, Aug. 17 and 26. Rogue Elephant Productions' staging of Planted plays 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 17 and 25, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20. Permovio Productions and Keaton Wooden's production of The Transcivility of Albert Cashier plays at noon Sunday, Aug. 14, 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16, 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Wed., Aug. 18 and 24.
Individual show tickets are $20. For tickets and an exact schedule of all the productions, call 773-871-3000 or visit cmtf.org .