Fighting the patriarchy, heteronormativity, and all that jazz is a normal part of life at Wesleyan. But last Friday, March 27, a group of performers gathered in the WestCo Café to battle against oppressive forces exclusively through the power of musical theater.
A one-night only, gender-bent cabaret, “Showtunes Sideways” was organized by Maia Nelles-Sager ’17, Philip Heilbron ’18, Aileen Lambert ’16, and Nola Werlinich ’17 in partnership with the Queer Resource Center to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Sign-ups were held in December and January, but besides encouraging group performances, the coordinators let the acts develop on their own.
“Anyone who would want to be involved could be involved in any way,” Nelles-Sager said. “My basic premise for all of this was that I wasn’t going to say no to anything.”
Nelles-Sager’s plan blossomed into a fantastic show, notable for both its diversity and its straight-up entertainment value. The casual backdrop of the WestCo Café, including the live band and cluster of lamps lighting the stage from the front, created an informal atmosphere that blurred the line between audience and performer. Since acts were planned and practiced individually, the final product was a range of song, dance, and dress that left the audience members—including members of the cast—perpetually unsure of what to expect next.
The lineup played on this uncertainty, placing numbers from musicals as diverse as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Legally Blonde” one after another.
Several performances stood out for their energy and finesse. “The Bitch of Living” from Spring Awakening (Nelles-Sager, Lambert, Werlinich, Jess Cummings ’17, Mio Magee ’18, and Alina Whatley ’18) incorporated an active dance number rich with the feeling of teenage rebellion while “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid (Max Luton ’17) featured Luton playing piano instead of the band. Dan Storfer ’15 sang a powerful rendition of “Back to Before” from Ragtime in a pair of stiletto boots that were jokingly rumored to be available for purchase. Throughout the night, the band (led by Heilbron) was consistently excellent, adapting to a wide variety of musical numbers and matching the energy of the performers.
But the two performances that stole the show were Adam Jacobs’s “If I Were a Rich Man, or An Ode to Patriarchy in Bb Minor, in Honor of Leslie Feinberg,” a revision of the song from “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the closing act “The Cell Block Tango,” from Chicago (Dan Bachman ’17, Griffin Deary ’17, Nic de Soto-Foley ’17, Russell Goldman ’17, Ryan Dobrin ’18, and Will McGhee ’17).
Jacobs began “If I Were a Rich Man” in drag, smoking, and waving his hands in the air above his head as he turned in a circle. The number, which started out as hilariously entertaining, turned political in the middle as Jacobs altered the song to include class struggles personal to Wesleyan. In addition to including references to Sun Services in the lyrics, Jacobs handed out copies of Wesleyan Student Assembly Resolution 5.36, a resolution targeting first-generation needs, to the audience members. The audience visibly reacted to Jacob’s take on the song, applauding his changes and calling out to him as he continued to sing.
“The Cell Block Tango” was sheer hilarity. The six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail sported a selection of ripped fish-net tights, blood-red elbow length gloves, and one bright blue bathrobe as they performed choreography by Emily Butcher ’17. The monologues within the song gave each a chance to solo, and their number gave the show a loud and powerful conclusion.
“Showtunes Sideways” was an active and enjoyable change of pace in the Wesleyan theater community, and its success has encouraged the organizers to consider putting it together annually.
“It was very queer and I think there’s not enough queer events on this campus,” Nelles-Sager said. “It’s also sometimes really hard to do theater on this campus that’s not involved with Second Stage…. Everyone did a lot of work for it on their own. We asked for a show without giving any schedule or rehearsals or anything, and they did it, which is awesome.”
Correction: A previous version of this article listed the event name as “Broadway Backwards.” The title of the event was changed after it was hosted.