Fifty. It’s a major landmark as far as birthdays go. Some people celebrate with large, catered parties. Some jump out of an airplane or scale a mountain peak. A day spent in solitary meditation at an ashram? It’s been done. Round-theworld cruise? Check! I’ve known 50-yearolds who wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by their children and grandkids.
Well, I turned 50 last year and, quite honestly, would not have guessed that I would celebrate my first half century wearing just a jockstrap and a pair of black leather boots while standing in front of my parents and most of my friends.
And I lay the blame for that squarely at the feet of William Ivey Long.
The umpteenth-time Tony Awardwinning costume designer had agreed to help me with the wardrobe for my oneman show, Canned Ham. When I wrote the first draft of the script (on a tiny island in the Caribbean called Saba, where I was spending the summer. But that’s another story), I imagined that the show would be about 35 minutes in length and I would perform it at this or that gay bar on an off-night, standing behind a mic and accompanying myself on the accordion. For drink tickets. Only, it turns out the show runs about 80 minutes, has light cues, audio cues and visual projections, and, during the course of the performance, I play 12—count ‘em, 12—different musical instruments.
And I lay the blame for that squarely at the feet of Charles Busch.
The Downtown (and now Uptown) playwright and drag (and out-of-drag) legend was the first person to read the completed first-draft of the play (emailed from Saba, but that’s another story). He encouraged me to think above and beyond my initial modest plans for the piece and sent me a folio of thoughtful notes (pretty much all of which were incorporated into the script), and several drafts later I had a full theatrical evening.
“Congratulations! You’ve written a play!” emailed back Terrence McNally after I sent the script for his appraisal. (Clumsy me, I dropped another name!) Sure enough, my little glorified standup routine is a play, and so, in addition to simply describing how over the course of my varied career I—who possess no dancing ability whatsoever—have again and again found myself in situations where I have been called on to dance (including when I was working in porn!), I demonstrate the above-mentioned nonability by clomping around the stage in musical number after musical number.
And who gets the blame for that?
Mister Dan Knechtges, that’s who.
The Tony Award-nominated choreographer (who, two years after his first Broadway show, had three Broadway shows running simultaneously) offered to help me recreate the “Two Ladies” number from Cabaret as if it had been performed by one person. While playing
an accordion. When we were putting the dance together, he would mutter insidious things like, “Y’know, that cocktail party scene could use a little staging,” or, “I don’t think ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ works just standing in place like that.” The result being, much to my chagrin, that Canned Ham has a choreographer listed among its credits.
(For another aside, it seems this insanity never ends: I just finished playing a role in Varla Jean and The Mushroomheads, a feature film written by and starring Varla Jean Merman. My entrance? Dancing on a bar.)
Lest you think I alone have sat by as my divertissement for solo accordion was transformed against my will by these aforementioned theater artistes into a concerto for actor and orchestra, let me disabuse you of that notion. Kevin Malony is the director/genius behind the TWEED Fractured Classicks series, and it is he whom I blame most of all. He prodded and wheedled and massaged and cajoled my script and my performance until it became the show that is packing them in at Dixon Place. I shudder to think what it would have been without him. (So should you.)
But about that jockstrap… Eighteen months ago, at the first performance of Canned Ham, I wore a white T-shirt, comfy blue jeans and a pair of black sneakers. I thought it was real cute. William Ivey Long begged to differ. When Kevin and I met with him following the premiere, William held up a copy of Falcon Studio’s The Best of Gus Mattox DVD, pointed to the photograph on the cover (in which I wear a sleeveless plaid flannel shirt and oh-so-tight denims) and announced, “Your audience will not rest until they see this! This is what they’re buying tickets for.” (He probably didn’t dangle a participle like that, but you get the gist.) Kevin and I went home and decided, well, if that’s really what they want to see, let’s give it to ‘em. In spades.
And that is why, in a benefit one-night performance of Canned Ham on the night that I turned 50, I stood in front of Mom, Dad, most of my friends and a handful of strangers in a jockstrap and a pair of black leather boots, and that is what you’ll find me wearing onstage at Dixon Place during the month of March.
And I have no one to blame but myself. (Oh, and that other story, about spending the summer on Saba? If you’re interested, that was chronicled on www.tomjudson.blogspot.com.)
Tom Judson (aka Gus Mattox) is currently performing his one-man show Canned Ham at Dixon Place through March 26. The play chronicles the unexpected twists and turns his life took—gay pornography, prostitution, musical comedy—following the death of his partner, Bruce, in 1996 from AIDS. For performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit dixonplace.org.