Sure, Fringe is full of alternative and queer content, but what if you want something extra, super gay?
Fresh off their Drag Queen of the Year honor at the Philly Drag Awards, artist Eric Jaffe is bringing exactly that: the pomp of musical theater, yet somehow even gayer than one might think.
The South Philadelphia-based musician has been a performer their whole life, and after finishing a BFA in acting, they started producing. They’re known for the wildly popular “Eric Jaffe Show,” a cabaret that has been running for five years at the Tavern on Camac, as well as being a founding member of Haus of Ham, a drag and comedy collective. Jaffe chatted with PW about their offering for Fringe: “Gay Mis,” a decidedly queer take on the classic “Les Miserables.”
What is the inspiration behind “Gay Mis”? How did it come together?
Last summer, I focused a lot of my energy into writing a full-length parody musical, “Thweeny Todd: The Flaming Barber of Fleek Street.” I produced and starred in the show that had a sold out run at Franky Bradley's. It made me realize that combining drag and theater is what I wanted to do. I knew as soon as the show closed that I had to start the next project immediately, and I was certain that I wanted it to be “Gay Mis.” It's a show that I haven't always loved, but I knew the music from an age that was way too young to understand what was happening. I had already written “Les Mis” parody songs as a part of my act, so I tweaked those around, wrote an outline of a script and gathered my team.
I assume most people are familiar with “Les Mis,” but does someone have to have seen it in order to understand “Gay Mis”?
The show will certainly be funnier if you know or have basic knowledge of “Les Mis,” but it stands as its own piece of comedic theatre that anyone will be able to enjoy.
How does queerness factor into your art?
When I was in college studying theater, I was constantly told that if I wanted to get steady work, I was going to have to “pass” as straight on stage. So I was taught to deepen my voice and change my body language in order to do so. When I graduated, I realized that I didn't want to have to do that anymore, so I created the drag character that is Eric Jaffe. I knew that I wanted to blur gender lines and make theatre that anyone could be part of, and where queerness would be celebrated. Many non-binary people are forced to choose a binary when they audition, and that's mostly dependent on their voice part. Just because you have a high voice, doesn't mean you have to play a woman on stage, and vice versa. It is my goal to tear down those walls.
How do you balance the representation and stereotypes of queerness? Do queer artists have an obligation to represent queerness in a certain way or avoid/lean into stereotypes?
As a kid, I was always told that I was weird, too flamboyant and out of the box. For the longest time, I was ashamed of these qualities, and at times I hid them to fit in. But I came to grow and love myself for the genderqueer, fat, femme person that I am. I’m happy to showcase an incredibly queer cast, and they represent queerness just by being themselves. Queer artists have an obligation to represent queerness in any way that they see fit. I feel as though I have an obligation to be as queer and loud as possible if only to show others that they can be too. I remember what it was like to be afraid of who I was, and if I can give others permission to let their queerness overflow, then I'm happy.
17 | The number of days for this year’s Fringe Festival, running in just about every neighborhood in Philadelphia — from small stage to large theater — from Sept. 5-22.
What do you hope audiences take away from the experience that will be watching “Gay Mis”?
First and foremost, this show is a comedy, and I hope that people leave in a good mood and full of laughter. I hope people leave with a newfound appreciation for queer theater. I hope that they feel empowered to create theatre and art for themselves, because that's what I did.
What are the benefits and difficulties of making this a part of Fringe?
I am very excited to be producing [this show at] my very first Fringe Festival. I have already benefited by performing in [Fringe’s] scratch night and having my show in their Fringe Guide. It can be difficult to be a part of Fringe because there is SO much going on, but I am making sure to do as much as possible to stand out and make ourselves be seen.
Which performance from the cast and overall production should Fringe theatergoers really be on the lookout for in “Gay Mis”?
I have an absolutely incredible team. Foster Longo (aka Lili St. Queer) is our music director, teaching and maintaining the incredible sound and harmonies in the show, assisted by TJ Harris. Stage managers Marykate McMullen and Matthew Wojtal really hold the production together. There’s Jordan Leigh as our kooky choreographer, and my assistant director Joseph Lawrence (aka Sutton Fearce). The cast is literally full of LEGENDS, but watch out for Babe Robinson in her role as Fontina. When she sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” there will not be a dry eye in the house! Cabaret star Shannon Turner as Mx. Thenardigay and Topher Laynton are absolutely delightful, and Chris McCollum as the ferociously hairy JaBear sings a ballad that will leave everyone feeling gassy.
What other projects are on the horizon for you? Are there any dream concepts you would love to do?
I am currently reprising my first production of “Thweeney Todd: The Flaming Barber of Fleek Street” on Oct. 22 at PunchLine Philly. My dream is to play Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray,” DUH! But I will be jumping into my next parody musical right after “Gay Mis.” I'm still deciding between a few! Performing and producing in Philly has been a lot of hard work, but I love every second of it. Connecting and entertaining my community brings me so much joy.
Gay Mis | Sept. 7, 7pm; Sept. 8, 7pm and 10pm; Sept. 14, 7pm; Sept. 15, 7pm and 10pm; Sept 22, 7pm and 10pm. $25 ($40 for VIP). Franky Bradley’s, 1320 Chancellor St. (Sept. 22 shows at Punch Line Philly, 33 E. Laurel St. fringearts.com/event/gay-mis/