By Bridgette M. Redman
Scott Burkell believed it was high time the gay guy in art got to be ordinary.
“Where is the play where being gay doesn’t mean you’re going to die, be the butt of every joke or be the quirky neighbor?” lyricist and director Burkell asked. “Where is the fuller character who is living a (normal) life?”
Two such characters can be found in Burkell and Paul Loesel’s new musical, “The Extraordinary Ordinary.” There is also one very confused man who isn’t quite sure what he needs from a relationship and whether he is gay or straight.
The musical premiered Sept. 16 at Kalamazoo’s Farmer’s Alley Theatre. While the musical played in New York, Burkell and Loesel revamped it extensively, adding songs, taking out numbers, rewriting lyrics and changing some of the character stories. They were unhappy with much of the New York production and welcomed the chance to revise it to something that was closer to their vision for the show.
“We cut off some of the fat,” said Burkell. “It was winnowing down to whose story we are really following the strongest. There were certain characters that seemed to be lagging behind while others had too much.”
The result was a musical following a year of somewhat ordinary events in the lives of six mostly middle-aged characters: a married heterosexual couple, a gay couple, half of a heterosexual unmarried couple and a single woman whose perfectionism has driven away any potential partners. Throughout the year they find themselves questioning the relationships they have with each other and with themselves.
Central to this questioning are Sam and Zach. Sam is a gay man who pursues unrealistic relationships and is currently with a college boy who is much younger than himself. Zach has been married to Bev since college, but now feels isolated in the relationship. Sam and Zach turn to each other and find their long-time friendship evolving into something different and more intimate. Sam’s attraction to Zach grows, and Zach must make a crucial decision about whether he will “jump” and find happiness in a new way.
“The Extraordinary Ordinary” is not, though, a story about a man coming out of the closet. Burkell said he drew upon his own experiences in which he’d had relationships with straight men who were very confused, much like Zach.
“Someone can get confused about intimacy versus sexuality,” Burkell said. “The question isn’t whether Zach is gay or not. He is having intimacy with a man. In our culture, there is an outlet for women to be intimate with each other, but we have weird uptight things going on with guys.”
While Zach squirms through conversing with Sam about being gay, “The Extraordinary Ordinary” contrasts his discomfort with Kate and Karen who are painting each other’s nails and singing about what it would be like if the two of them were gay.
“The girls have an ease with it. It’s just a question of how far they would go,” Burkell said. “They’re both very comfortable being physical with each other. (With Zach) it is so uncomfortable he can’t even say the word ‘gay.'”
The women can comfortably be intimate with each other and even talk about being gay without becoming uneasy about their sexuality. Zach, meanwhile, and the audience, through him, have to struggle with whether his being intimate with a man alters his sexuality.
Burkell reports that this dichotomy has made for lively talk-backs, and that the musical seems to have a polarizing effect on audience members who either love or hate the show. Among those who dislike it, a common complaint is that “nothing happens,” which Burkell said is somewhat the point.
“‘Our Town’ had some weird profound affect on me – does anyone really live their life while they’re in it? We hear that message in many ways, but really doing it is difficult and against our nature. We need to be in our life right now and enjoy those moments. When we get to the end of our life, maybe those are the moments that will stand out the most.”
‘The Extraordinary Ordinary’
Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 9
Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo