Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Stephen Sondheim

Update: Mr. Sondheim died suddenly on November 26, 2021,
at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.
He was 91 years old.



Photo: Fred R. Conrad/NY Times

Original post from 2012 - I have not changed the verbs from present to past tense:

On September 15, 2010, eighty-year-old Stephen Sondheim, one of the greatest theater composers of our time, joined other legendary theatre artists who have had Broadway theatres named after them – Ethel Barrymore, David Belasco, Edwin Booth, George Broadhurst, George Gershwin, Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne, Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Eugene O'Neill, Neil Simon and August Wilson.

Sondheim (born March 22, 1930) gave a speech during the unveiling ceremony of the new marquee on the former Henry Miller’s Theatre at 124 W. 43rd Street. The signage on the marquee is Sondheim’s signature. The  restored neo-Georgian brick façade, which dates back to 1918, fronts an entirely new 1,055 seat theatre placed below street level. The restoration retained the “Henry Miller’s Theatre” letters, still visible etched in stone high above the Stephen Sondheim marquee



It should not be lost on my readers that Stephen Sondheim is a homosexual Broadway artist. Sondheim did not come out as a gay man until he was 40 and did not live with a partner (dramatist Peter Jones) until he was 61. Update: In 2017 Sondheim married Broadway singer/actor Jeffrey Romley, who survives him. Romley (b. 1980) is 50 years younger than Sondheim.

Sondheim wrote the lyrics for the landmark musical West Side Story (1957) in collaboration with bisexual Leonard Bernstein’s music and gay Arthur Laurents’s book. Laurents, born in 1918 (the same year as Bernstein), died on May, 2011. Sondheim, the baby of that creative team, was just 25 years old when he was hired to work on West Side Story. He followed with another smash hit with his lyrics for Gypsy in 1959.

Sondheim helped establish what is known as the “concept” musical, which sought to tell stories in fresh ways – Company (1970), Follies (1971) and Pacific Overtures (1976), for example. He changed the nature of musical theatre forever and has influenced subsequent generations of writers.

Sondheim is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park with George), an Academy Award (for Sooner or Later, as performed by Madonna in the film Dick Tracy) and multiple Tony and Grammy Awards. He was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center Honors (1993), the National Medal of Arts (1996), the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal for Music (2006) and a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre (2008).

Sondheim (above left) with Leonard Bernstein in 1965.

Among the many shows for which Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics are Into the Woods (1987), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Sweeney Todd (1979), A Little Night Music (1973), Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). Five shows are anthologies of his works: Side by Side by Sondheim (1976), Marry Me a Little (1981), You're Gonna Love Tomorrow (1983), Putting It Together (1993/99) and Sondheim on Sondheim (2010).

It is a lesser known fact that he has composed film scores, written songs for television productions and provided incidental music for stage plays.

Sondheim is currently working on a new musical, tentatively titled All Together Now, in collaboration with playwright David Ives, whose play Venus in Fur (2010) is enjoying an extended run at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre.

In 2009 the Signature Theatre, in my home state of Virginia, established a new honor, The Sondheim Award, as “a tribute to America's most influential contemporary musical theatre composer.” The first award was presented at the Arlington, VA, theatre’s gala fund-raiser. Sondheim himself was the first recipient of the award, which includes a $5000 honorarium for the recipients' choice of a nonprofit organization. The 2010 honoree was Angela Lansbury, and in 2011 the recipient was Bernadette Peters.

Losing My Mind ("Follies" 1971) performed by Jeremy Jordan:

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Gary Burton

Jazz Musician: the undisputed king of vibes

Gary Burton (b. Jan. 23, 1943) is an American jazz vibraphonist. After many years of marriage Burton came out as a gay man in 1985, making him one of only a few openly gay jazz musicians. He chose a public means to declare his homosexuality, by coming out during an interview on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" radio show with Terri Gross. That interview is frequently re-broadcast. Burton fathered two children from his marriage to Catherine Goldwyn, granddaughter of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn (of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame).

Burton is the undisputed master of the vibraphone, not just a vibes player, but THE vibes player whose rule spans from the 1960s to the present. Today he lives in South Florida, where he shares a newly built house with his partner, Jonathan Chong. They were married in 2013.

A true original on the vibraphone, Burton developed a pianistic style of four-mallet technique as an alternative to the usual two-mallet style. This approach caused Burton to be heralded as an innovator. His sound and technique are widely imitated. But have a look and listen. Here Gary Burton plays a vibes solo (performance dating from the 1960s): “Chega de Saudade” (No More Blues), composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes. Do your best to ignore the dated fringed jacket and concentrate on his mind-blowing four mallet technique.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga

I first learned of Balenciaga (1895-1972) from a pamphlet at the San Sebastian (Spain) tourist office. In a list of famous people who had made San Sebastian their home, he was in the second position, right behind the Queen of Spain. My female traveling companion, speaking in reverent tones, informing me that he is regarded as one of the greatest couturiers of the twentieth century.

Counted among his clients were the de Rothschilds, Bunny Mellon, Helena Rubinstein, the Duchess of Windsor, Countess Mona Bismark, Doris Duke, Marella Agnelli and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Jackie upset John F. Kennedy for buying Balenciaga's ultra expensive creations while he was President, because he feared that the American public might think the purchases too lavish; her haute couture bills were discreetly paid by her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy. While Dior dressed the rich, Balenciaga dressed the very rich. During the 1950s, it was said that a woman “graduated” from Dior to Balenciaga.

Balenciaga, who had quit school to go to work for a local tailor at age 13, opened his first shop in San Sebastián, Spain, at age 19, and by the age of 24 he had his own couture house, which later expanded to branches in Madrid and Barcelona. All three were called Eisa, after his seamstress mother. He learned every aspect of the couture business. While apprenticed to the San Sebastián tailor, he learned the skill of cutting, an art few dress designers possess.

At seventeen he went to Biarritz, across the border, to learn the French language and their clothes-making techniques. By the age of eighteen, he was learning the women’s wear trade back in San Sebastián, in a luxury shop, Louvre, where he became adept at fitting ladies and finding gowns for their personal requirements. His clients loved him and followed him when he opened his own fashion house in the Basque capital at age 24. Among his clients was the Spanish Queen Mother, Maria Cristina, for whom San Sebastián’s great luxury hotel is named. His business was run with the help of his sister, brother and other relatives, and was very much a family firm, though on a substantial scale; 250 people worked in the Madrid house alone, plus an additional 100 or so in Barcelona.

The Spanish royal family and the aristocracy wore his designs, but when the Spanish Civil War forced him to close his stores in 1931, he fled first to London, then to Paris in 1936, eventually opening a couture house on Avenue George V in 1937. His success was immediate. Customers risked their safety to travel to Europe during World War II to see Balenciaga's designs.

Below: A Balenciaga design from 1951.

It was in Paris that he met the lover of his life, Vladzio Zawrorowski d'Attainville, who was also his business associate. At the time he partnered with Cristóbal, Vladzio was a Franco-Russian milliner. Balenciaga was devastated when he died in 1948, to the point that he considered closing down his business. While Balenciaga had affairs with other men after Vladzio's death, he remained an intensely private man, rarely socializing.

Several designers who worked for Balenciaga would go on to open their own successful couture houses, notably Oscar de la Renta, Emanuel Ungaro and Hubert de Givenchy. Balenciaga’s influence on these men cannot be overstated.

His greatest period of innovation and influence was from just after WW II until he closed his couture house in 1968. His “sack dress” created a sensation in 1957 and was even parodied on an episode of “I Love Lucy”. Unlike other couture houses, Balenciaga never produced a ready-to-wear line: "I will not prostitute my talent." Tapping the deep roots of his Spanish heritage, Balenciaga found inspiration in flamenco and Velázquez paintings, clerical vestments and bullfighters’ boleros. Later, in designs that re-envisioned the female silhouette with gestures that flouted the traditional waistline, he created his unfitted middy blouse and tunic dress, the barrel-line jacket and balloon dress. In 1960 Balenciaga received the Légion d’honneur for services to the French fashion industry.

When Balenciaga died in his native Spain in 1972, Women’s Wear Daily declared, “The King is Dead”. He died a very rich man, with houses and apartments in Paris, at La Reynerie near Orléans, in Madrid, in Barcelona, and in Iguelda in his native Basque country. Although his couture house remained dormant from 1968 until 1986, in 1992, for the summer Olympic Games, the House of Balenciaga designed the French team's clothes to give them a more sophisticated look.

The Balenciaga name is best known to young people today as the label in a sought-after handbag with punkish hardware. Balenciaga is now owned by the Gucci Group.