Calamity Jane: wild woman of the west
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Calamity Jane: wild woman of the west

Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane.

Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane.Credit:Marnya Rothe

Virginia Gay, who plays the title role in the musical Calamity Jane, says that for her, the show is about "the joy of live performance".

The production has been performed in venues large and small, adjusted to the environment in each case, which adds to the spontaneity of the performance. Gay says, "It's gotten bigger and better at every new venue we go to. A lot of it is inspired by and dependent on what the audience gives us."

And, she says, the feeling of the show will be immersive: in this production, some members of the audience will get to sit on stage amid the action in the saloon and the cast members play most of the instruments, including trombone, tuba and guitar.

Calamity Jane is a 1961 stage adaptation of the 1953 Warner Brothers movie musical starring Doris Day and Howard Keel. The film won the Oscar for best song for Secret Love, a big hit for Day that became a much-covered standard.  The theatre version includes the movie score, with numbers such as the folk-like Black Hills of Dakota and the new songs by movie songwriters Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster that were not in the film.

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In the story, the tomboyish Calamity goes to Chicago to fetch the star all the Deadwood City townsmen want, Adelaid Adams.

Instead she gets Adelaid's maid, aspiring performer Katie Brown, who pretends to be the star, and brings her to Deadwood. Katie falls in love with calvary lieutenant Danny Gilmartin - whom Calamity hoped would love her.

"It was a response to Annie Get Your Gun," Gay says, though Calamity Jane went from screen to stage whereas Annie Get Your Gun began was an Irving Berlin Broadway musical, filmed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1950. The two musicals share some ideas besides the Wild West setting: both feature a feisty but vulnerable heroine who has a love-hate relationship with a man (played by Keel in both films: in this production Wild Bill Hickok is played by Anthony Gooley).

But Calamity Jane, particularly in its film version and far more than Annie Get Your Gun, garnered a large gay and lesbian following attracted by subversive possibilities of the subtext in its story and characters. Secret Love became a gay and lesbian anthem, particularly in the days when homosexuality had to remain in the closet.

The drag song A Hive Full of Money and the relationship between Calamity and Katie - who set up house together and sing the duet A Woman's Touch - also have queer appeal even if the story's resolution is conventionally heterosexual. In the days when Hollywood's Motion Picture Production Code forbade "any reference to sex perversion", filmmakers had to be subtle if they wanted to include such elements. Sometimes, even when such references were not intentional, gay and lesbian audiences would draw their own inferences from movies. (See breakout).

For this production, Gay says, "We had to adapt it ... we made the subtext a little more present." Though the text itself is not changed, the show is "written with such possibilities" and while its course may be predictable, she says that just like a production of a familiar play such as Romeo and Juliet, "it's how you get there".

At the original Hayes Theatre presentation in Sydney, Gay says, "We had many members of the queer community turn up ... It's an amazingly important text for the queer community."

Calamity Jane, she says, "is a woman who absolutely follows her heart. It leads her all over the place. She falls in love so fully she doesn't know where to put it."

Being neither male nor conventionally female in her behaviour, she exists on the fringes of society but longs to be a part of it.

But Calamity is also "a wonderful clown", she says, following in the tradition of funny women like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Kath and Kim.

Gooley – last seen in Canberra in Of Mice and Men – says Calamity Jane is the first musical he's done in 10 years, since he was at drama school, and he's landed in the deep end. With Bill's songs ranging from the ballad Higher than a Hawk to the comedy duet I Can Do Without You, as well as having to play an instrument, he says, "It's been quite a journey."

In playing Bill, he sought to subvert the stereotype of the Western gunslinger, giving the supermacho Bill a softer, even slightly camp, side.

Gooley says of Bill's relationship with Calamity, "They spend much of the show behaving like bickering siblings."

Underneath it, in classic romantic comedy fashion, they're attracted to each other, but "neither has the faintest idea what to do with this," Gooley says.

"Part of the joy of Bill is watching him grapple with archaic views of masculinity and femininity," he says, and Bill and Calamity come to recognise the qualities in each other they know they both possess and to acknowledge their mutual attraction.

Convention may triumph, but there's enough subtext in Calamity Jane, as with many older movies and shows, to provide more than is on the surface.

Calamity Jane is on at the Canberra Theatre from August 15 to 19. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.

Some more classic movies with queer subtexts (intentional or otherwise).

<i>The Wizard of Oz</i>. From left, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Judy Garland and Ray Bolger.

The Wizard of Oz. From left, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Judy Garland and Ray Bolger.

Gilda (1946): While this film noir has the indelible presence of Rita Hayworth singing Put the Blame On Mame, the relationship between Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) and his boss Ballin Mundson (George Macready), both ostensibly obsessed with Gilda, has a distinctly homoerotic feeling.

Rope (1948): This Alfred Hitchcock film manages to convey subtly the homosexual relationship of murderers Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger). Since the story, based on Patrick Hamilton's play, has clear similarities to the real-life Leopold and Loeb case, where two young male lovers committed a thrill killing, it's apparent the filmmakers knew what they were doing (confirmed by co-writer Arthur Laurents).

All About Eve (1950): Conniving would-be actress Eve (Anne Baxter) is out to usurp the place of stage star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) both professionally and personally. She makes a play for Margo's husband but there are clues (like the ending) - apparently intended by writer-director Joseph Manckiewicz - that she is a lesbian. George Sanders' acerbic columnist Addison De Witt also gives off a queer vibe.

Strangers On A Train (1951): Another Hitchcock film, in which Robert Walker's effete, decadent mother's boy Bruno Anthony has a very queer vibe, especially when interacting with Guy Haines (Farley Granger).

The Wizard of Oz (1939): The movie that gave rise to the phrase "a friend of Dorothy" and stars gay icon July Garland also features Bert Lahr's camp Cowardly Lion.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955): Sal Mineo's Plato seems to be more than very friendly  towards Jim (James Dean) who may reciprocate his interest, despite the presence of Judy (Natalie Wood).

Ben-Hur (1959): Co-writer Gore Vidal claimed he suggested to director William Wyler that Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) had been young lovers and that Messala wanted to resume their relationship but Ben-Hur didn't, giving rise to their enmity. Heston denied this, though Vidal said it was only between him, Wyler and Boyd and that Heston wasn't told at the time.

Rebecca (1940): Yet another Hitchcock film, based on Daphne du Maurier's novel, where jealous, obsessive housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) seems to have had a very intimate relationship with the deceased former mistress of Manderley.

The Maltese Falcon (1941): The effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) as well as superficially jolly Kaspar Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) and his "gunsel" (young man kept for sexual purposes by an older one) Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr) make for a memorable trio of gay villains alongside Humphrey Bogart.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953): Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy (Jane Russell) may be searching for husbands but their closest bond is clearly with each other. And Russell's Ain't There Anyone Here For Love? number, which she sings to the scantily clad men's Olympic team who show absolutely no interest in her, seems pretty blatant.

Ron Cerabona is an arts reporter for The Canberra Times.

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