Some years ago, New York and Philadelphia-based actor, singer, playwright, and composer Erik Ransom came up with the idea of creating a cabaret theater piece about the gay sex hook-up site Manhunt.net. But the world of online gay dating evolved faster than the piece did. Soon gay men were ditching their laptops for their iPhones and Grindr came into being, further streamlining the man-to-man hook-up process and altering the course of gay intimacy in sweeping fashion.
Ransom’s friends told him to switch the subject from Manhunt to Grindr, and the half-finished musical became a sung-through cabaret opera featuring Grindr as a character within the piece to serve as both narrator and deus ex machina.
Ransom’s background as a musical theater performer led him into opera. He studied classical singing with Metropolitan Opera basso Jerome Hines and Met and New York City Opera tenor Enrico di Giuseppe. Around 2010, Ransom started to write his own shows. While sticking to the musical theater idiom, his classical training attracted him to compose something operatic. The musical “Saga,” which had a trial workshop in Philadelphia, flirted with Wagnerian themes inspired by the “The Ring of the Nibelungen.”
In May 2014, just a few months after completing his first draft, an incomplete “Grindr: The Opera” was given an initial concert reading, which sold out at the West End on the Upper West Side. Further revised, shortened, and recomposed, “Grindr” reemerged for two performances last week at Midtown’s Roy Arias Studios in a staged concert reading directed by Rachel Klein.
The work concerns four very different men representing different “tribes” or archetypes of gay men hunting cyberspace for their fantasy man. There is Devon (played by the author/ composer), the romantic new to Grindr. Devon is smarting from the break up of a long-term relationship and needs to get back in the game. Jack (DJ Bucciarelli) is the millennial bareback bottom twink looking for cock and cum who doesn’t care what comes with them. Don (William Michals of “South Pacific”) is the married, closeted Republican daddy on the down low — his internalized homophobia and self-loathing driving him to his violent, dominant sex role. Olle Roberg is Tom, who is looking for NSA but finds ties that bind with Devon.
Presiding over their fates — part fairy godmother, part the hostess with the mostes’ on the ball(s) — is countertenor Courter Simmons, dragged out as Grindr his/ her/ itself. Attired in a ball gown of canary and black tulle with a black domino perched in her bouffant wig (inspired by the app’s avatar design), Grindr acts as the narrator and explains how it all works for those unschooled in the ways of gay online promiscuity.
Simmons embodies the Internet siren luring these men into her web — though it should be said it is one of willing male flesh. Grindr is maternal when the men are fearful but turns into a woman scorned when she is abandoned for monogamous mating. First the bodies of these men intertwine in Grindr fashion, but ultimately their lives become enmeshed in true operatic fashion.
Ransom’s music freely borrows and parodies Puccini, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the Village People (original Cowboy Randy Jones acted as compère for the workshop reading). The songs are pop-oriented with catchy repetitive hooks, while the lyrics are frequently obscene and outrageous. Particularly fetching is a seduction duet, “You Can Leave,” between Tom and Devon at their first “date,” where Tom tells the shy Devon he is free to go but he is also welcome to stay… and kiss… and… and… Tom also has a solo, “Trick of Mind,” where he contemplates the price of monogamy and the lure of sexual freedom while Grindr stands by to welcome him back.
Ransom delves into the sadder, darker side of the gay sex scene: AIDS, bug chasing, the closet, loneliness salved by anonymous sex, and the difficulties of maintaining monogamy. Given the subject matter, it’s hard to avoid these downbeat themes but they clash awkwardly with the show’s overall lighthearted, comic, satiric tone. The structure and tone haven’t the scope to expand on these serious themes and they kill the laughter. A Brechtian distancing effect might be able to solve this problem.
Ransom does not judge his characters (even the conservative closet case Don gets a moment to show his vulnerable side) and feels that Grindr has qualities that are bad and qualities that are good.
“Depending on what someone is seeking it can be great or awful, and it largely depends on who connects with whom,” he explained. “I found during my research that Grindr and this piece are about people looking for connections. You will find all four of these men on Grindr. I came up in the gay world when it was all about the bar scene — interacting with guys face to face. Now we see guys in the bar on their phones searching Grindr. They send out little scouting messages to other guys in the room and if they are ignored or rejected, it isn’t as direct or devastating. You just click on another guy’s picture.”
Meanwhile the sex hook-up app concept is crossing over into the straight single scene with entries like Tinder.
“I had no idea what I was touching on with this,” Ransom confessed. “I put it out there and the concept just exploded. There is this juxtaposition of this rather sketchy sex app and the mink and diamonds world of opera.”
The tagline for the recent readings was “Where class meets crass comes camp!”
With a small cast of five and a musical ensemble consisting of bass guitar, keyboard, and drums, Ransom has designed “Grindr: the Opera” to be flexible to diverse forms of theatrical presentation: from the back room of a gay bar to cabaret rooms, the small proscenium stage, and perhaps one day the opera house. Meanwhile plans are afoot to open “Grindr: the Opera” Off-Broadway in the fall of 2015.