A hit musical on London's East End, Taboo brings to life the UK's freaky "New Romantic"club scene of the early 80s and two of its most (in)famous inhabitants: Boy George and Leigh Bowery. Last year, Rosie O'Donnell caught the show and decided to pursue a Broadway version. She drafted openly gay actor/writer Charles Busch (Die Mommie Die!, The Vampire Lesbians of Sodom) to write a new book, choreographer Mark Dendy, and original Taboo director Christopher Renshaw. Like in London, the young Boy George is played by Euan Morton, who received an Olivier Nomination, while Boy George himself plays Bowery, a cutting-edge designer/performance artist who died from AIDS on New Year's Eve 1994. The show's 20 songs were also written by Boy George.
Ironically, little has remained Taboo about Broadway's mounting when it comes to the press. For months the New York Post has padded its gossip pages with items about alleged (and some confirmed) backstage dramas, from cast walkouts to canceled performances to rows with O'Donnell. "Certainly those dramas did exist, they were real and really did happen," Morton acknowledges. "I think it makes for an interesting seven weeks! [As creative people] we're all egotistical, everyone wants to have their little bit of a vision put up there, and I think sometimes people take it a little too seriously and it gets turned into a huge, big thing. There were quite a few dramas backstage but it was all part of the natural process of trying to put up something this big and expensive and different."
Boy George, long a source of juicy tabloid tidbits, has also been on the end of taboo -- and privacy -- smashing. Gossip sites caught wind of a personal ad he placed online, while rumors of sexual involvement with Morton also circulated. "Somebody wrote on [gossip website] Popbitch that George and I were having an affair, which is hilarious," Morton notes. "So George e-mailed them back going 'that puts a whole new meaning to go fuck yourself, doesn't it?' which I thought was quite clever."
Broadway's $10 million incarnation of Taboo begins as two old friends -- Philip Sallon (Raul Esparza) and Big Sue (Liz McCartney) -- flashback and "narrate" their seminal club days. Enter Boy George (Morton), an outrageous, flamboyant youth nursing dreams of fame, much like his best buddy, the glamorously beautiful and bitchy Marilyn (Jeffrey Carlson). A fellow attention-seeker, Leigh Bowery (Boy George) turns his talents for bizarre fashion into shocking performance art with help from Nicola (Sarah Uriate Berry), a woman he marries. As the years wear on, Bowery opens his own club and develops AIDS, and George forms self-destructive relationships with a bicurious photographer, Marcus (Cary Shields), and drugs. Yet, when all is said (and sang) and done, both of these men leave their marks on this world and in their friends' hearts.
"I saw it, I loved it and I wanted to do it," recalls O'Donnell of the original London production. "I said to the people who do my money, can I do this? They said yes and I said OK."
Yet O'Donnell admits that playing "Broadway producer" wasn't a career role she considered taking until that moment. "My grandmother used to say to me 'when one train pulls out of the station another comes in,'" O'Donnell muses, "so that's what I held on to when I was leaving my [TV] show, because it was difficult thing to do. It was a successful show and rewarding in many ways, not only financially but spiritually and emotionally, yet I knew I was done, the canvas was full, and I had to have faith that there would be something else to pull into the station and this is what it was. So I didn'tgo looking for a show to do, it sort of found me."
Although a great fan of the London production, O'Donnell felt that changes were necessary once she signed on. To begin with, she felt the show involved "a little too much stereotypical bitchy queens fighting with each other, you couldn't discern one from the other, and you never saw their real life," she opines. "And after reading books on Bowery and [fellow club personality] Steve Strange I wanted the real story to be in the play. I just wanted it to have more heart. That's why we got Busch, who I knew would understand how to put the heart in a story like this."
Busch admits he knew little about Boy George or Bowery before the Taboo gig came his way. However, he had brushes with each, so to speak. At 1993's Wigstock festival, he witnessed Bowery's infamous (and immortalized in Barry Shils' 1995 Wigstock: The Movie) "birth" act. Dressed like a bloated kabuki nightmare, Bowery stormed onstage singing "all you need is love" before moaning, lying down, and giving "birth" to a bloody adult baby (his wife, Nicola), finally biting through the umbilical cord. A muse for painter Lucien Freud, Bowery was also notorious for performances involving vomit, swinging upside-down through a pane of glass, and an audience-spraying enema.
"I didn't quite get it," Busch admits with a laugh of the Wigstock appearance. "Oddly enough I'm on the conservative side in some ways but we're actually doing a version of the 'birth' in the show. it's a very strange thing."
Commencing their work together, O'Donnell and Busch high-tailed it to London, where they studied the show and spent time with the people on whom Taboo is based, including "Big" Sue Tilly (who wrote a 1999 Bowery biography), Nicola Bowery, and Philip Sallon. However, Busch didn't get to meet Marilyn, whose famously bitchy temperament sabotaged his own 80s music career and -- briefly -- Taboo's mounting ("Marilyn wasn't easy," Boy George confesses: Marilyn apparently had trouble with the term "in perpetuity" when it came to a depiction contract.)
Says Busch regarding Marilyn: "I hear she can be a little scary. But I've always been fascinated by Marilyn. He's very witty and I think the character in this [production] is very much Marilyn crossed with Patsy from Ab Fab."
Mark Davies' original Taboo book took Billy, a heterosexual small town photographer, as its protagonist. Through Billy's -- and his family and girlfriend's -- eyes we experience the Taboo universe. Boy George and Bowery were mere supporting characters. "I thought that was a little screwy," Busch proffers. "I was more interested in Boy George than this fictional guy. So I made the focus of the show the young Boy George discovering who he is and who he is as an artist. I kept [the Billy character] but changed his name to Marcus and made him the love interest for George. That love story is [still] about a gay guy who's in love with a straight guy and, through the force of his personality, somehow gets the guy involved with him but ultimately it's not going to work."
Much like Boy George's romance with Culture Club drummer Jon Moss, a highly destructive yet creatively-stimulating affair well documented in Take It Like a Man, Boy George's 1995 biography. "Marcus is a composite of basically every man Boy George has ever been involved with and suffered from or tortured," Busch notes. "I read George's book, which is so dense and intensely detailed you don't have to do any more research than that. I found a bit of a pattern with his romantic life [falling for straight-yet-curious men] so I created Marcus and we actually comment on that in the show, saying he is a composite."
So how gay is Broadway's Taboo? Has it been straightened up? "No," O'Donnell respondsfirmly. "We didn't clean it up but we didn't dirty it down either. This is a fairly accurate representation for a Broadway venue of what these people's lives were." Boy George, for one, attests that his own love life and the club scene's queerness is very much a part of Broadway's Taboo. To wit: his Bowery makes a grand musical entrance cruising and getting busy with men in a public toilet, sleazily screaming "did you see the size of that?" about a gifted trick.
"People ask is it a watered down version?" he says. "In some ways it's gayer than it was in London! It's emotional. The sexual aspect of gay culture isn't really that shocking anymore because it's so much a part of what people perceive as gay life. Men fuck each other, but the most shocking thing in the world is to see two men being intimate with each other, kissing. Interestingly, what Rosie has cleverly done in this production is centered on an emotional depth and wealth of the characters, so playing Leigh is much more interesting for me because he's a real person with lots of ups and downs. He has relationships and he's real. He's more than just somebody who runs around a club showing off, which he was."
The Australian-born Bowery's extraordinary life and work is chronicled in Charles Atlas' documentary, The Legend of Leigh Bowery, which should be available on home video/DVD in early 2004 (and at Taboo's theater, says O'Donnell) -- Boy George is one of the film's interviewees. Of his most profound moments with Bowery, Boy George proffers "being in this club called The Fridge in London. It was around the time of the 'muscle mary' craze," he notes. "Everybody was in the gym so you had these kind of perfectly toned bodies dancing around to high energy. In walked Leigh, 6'2" and very large framed, pretty much buck naked except for -- what do they call those vagina wigs? -- a merkin, these huge glittery platform boots, this pushup bra and big puffball on his head. I remember looking at him and thinking 'you are so brave.' People used to laugh and make comments but he wouldn't give a shit. He really didn't care. And he was actually quite beautiful. He had a great shape so even when his fatty bits showed they were quite gorgeous. Leigh would do things like walk into a club like that and do splits. He was a very agile person and it was so incongruous. That's what I loved about Leigh -- everything about him was a contradiction. The fact he was married was an interesting idea as well. I think of Leigh as a kind of Picasso that walked. An ordinary person will take the most surreal, disturbing work and put it up on their wall and not question it. And then you see someone like Leigh and they'll have a real issue with that. Therein lies the hypocrisy of human nature."
Asked if he ever witnessed get up to trouble in a lavatory, Boy George fondly recalls an incident on an airplane. "When MTV first opened in Europe they flew a load of us over to Amsterdam," he reminisces. "Leigh had this tiny little leather 1940s brown suitcase, it couldn't havce been more than ten by about five inches wide, and he went into the ladies toilet and said 'I'm gonna go get ready.' Off he went. Twenty minutes later this little door came bursting open and out came Leigh in this sassy green cape affair with a bust and these two kinds of lids from aerosol cans stuck on the sides of his head. It was like Superman, but drag. When I asked 'was all that stuff in that bag?' he went 'yes, it'squite compact.'"
O'Donnell studied up on Atlas' film while putting Taboo together and insisted upon projecting footage of the real-life Bowery during the show's penultimate musical number, "Il Adore." "At first everyone said 'you can't do that on Broadway!'" she recalls. "'You're going to project onto a scrim the real people?' I said yes we are. I'm sure there are many people who think it's a bad idea but you know what, we're going with it because it's the one thing that made me want to do the show."
Besides the changes to its characters, story, and dialogue, Taboo has undergone musical alterations. Unlike the recent surge of pop group-related musicals, which utilize known catalog songs (like Billy Joel's Moving Out, ABBA's Mamma Mia, Queen's We Will Rock You, and Madness' Our House), Taboo saw Boy George write a completely original slate of songs, barring a couple of Culture Club and solo tunes. Now, at least a pair of London ditties ("Touched By The Hand of Cool," "Pie in the Sky") was snipped and a couple added ("Dress to Kill," "The Fame Game"). Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," "Church of the Poison Mind," and "Karma Chameleon" also make appearances.
Scotland-born Morton brilliantly embodies the young Boy George. Asked if Morton's butcher than the genuine article, Boy George puckers. "Oh, don't be ridiculous! In some ways Euan is very much like me, in other ways nothing like me," Boy George says. "He does weird things, like I saw him marching off to the park yesterday with his lunch to sit on his own which is something I would never do. I'm a people person and I have to constantly be around people. And he burps a lot and has a lot more resonant burp than I have. Does that make him butcher, I don't know."
However, both Morton and Boy George are quick to clarify that Taboo's Boy George is a character interpreted with artistic leeway -- NOT an impersonation. "One of the things I love about Euan is he evokes that kind of edginess I suppose in a way was eroded by success," Boy George continues. "He's added this kind of predatory kind of quality to me. When you're seventeen you're fearless. You think you rule the world. And you are much more spiky and edgy and go for things in a much braver way. When I watch Euan I think I was like that. He's a fantastic actor. He's not doing a cartoon or caricature. If I can watch and actually care, that says a lot. And bloody hell, that voice."
Morton, who indeed packs a mellifluous set of vocal chords if there ever was, admits that he occasionally tortures Boy George backstage by warbling refrains from his least favorite gems like "The War Song." "I think at first he wanted to hit me, but he thinks its funny now," Morton laughs. By the same torture-token, Morton has experienced a share of run-ins with the real life Marilyn. "He hated [Taboo]," he proffers. "He wasn't very supportive of the piece or the actors playing him. Needless to say they were bloody good anyway. He's mad, completely insane. But I love Marilyn, he is what he is, he's very honest. You get what you see."
Opining that Broadway's Taboo is a more polished production than London's "rawer" incarnation, Morton adds that he's "had to start fresh" with his performance. "It's been quite difficult to put down the knowledge I've had before and start fresh," he admits. "The first couple of weeks I was quite resistant to it. Once I was able to stop resisting the fact we're changing it's been going very well."
Morton's mother, a Culture Club fan, asked her son to procure an autograph from Boy George upon learning he landed a role. Since then, Morton has become something of a guest star within the group: he sang "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" at their Albert Hall show, and at Edinburgh's New Year festivities. In doing so, he's spent time with all the band members, including Jon Moss. Asked what he thinks of the dysfunctional, physically abusive relationship Moss had with Boy George, Morton responds "that was years ago. George beat him back! At the end of the day you have to have had these experiences to become the person you are. I wouldn't mind having a violent relationship! (pauses and laughs) No, don't put that in there!"
Although unwilling to discuss his own sexuality and specifics of his love life, Morton insists that he would avoid someone like Marcus offstage. That said, has he ever acted like a Marcus? "Yeah, everyone has," he opines, "at some point in life everyone had to go through that 'I wonder' [phase]." He also cops to enjoying the onstage love action with Shields. "He isn't bad [at kissing] actually," he admits. "But I'm bloody good as well!"
How does he feel about the quote Boy George famously made about preferring a cup of tea to sex? "Irn-Bru is better than sex," he laughs, referring to Scotland's beloved soft drink. "My parents have to bring me bottles over because I have withdrawal symptoms!"
Taboo is possibly not the last we'll see of Boy George's life dramatized. A film version of his autobiography has been in various stages of development for years. Morton is up for playing the icon again when that comes to pass -- "I'll have the makeup tattooed on" he jokes -- but "I wouldn't want to travel the world being Boy George because I feel I have a lot more to offer than that."
Like playing Leigh Bowery?
"I'd love to do an enema over a live audience!" he laughs. "He certainly did push the boundaries."
FROM THE BUZZ ARCHIVE :: ISSUE 160
Lawrence Ferber, Special To Buzz
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