Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America

Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America

by Sarah Schulman, Sarah Schulman, Schulman

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In Stagestruck noted novelist and outspoken critic Sarah Schulman offers an account of her growing awareness of the startling similarities between her novel People in Trouble and the smash Broadway hit Rent. Written with a powerful and personal voice, Schulman's book is part gossipy narrative, part behind-the-scenes glimpse into the New York theater culture, and part


In Stagestruck noted novelist and outspoken critic Sarah Schulman offers an account of her growing awareness of the startling similarities between her novel People in Trouble and the smash Broadway hit Rent. Written with a powerful and personal voice, Schulman's book is part gossipy narrative, part behind-the-scenes glimpse into the New York theater culture, and part polemic on how mainstream artists co-opt the work of "marginal" artists to give an air of diversity and authenticity to their own work. Rising above the details of her own case, Schulman boldly uses her suspicions of copyright infringement as an opportunity to initiate a larger conversation on how AIDS and gay experience are being represented in American art and commerce.

Closely recounting her discovery of the ways in which Rent took materials from her own novel, Schulman takes us on her riveting and infuriating journey through the power structures of New York theater and media, a journey she pursued to seek legal restitution and make her voice heard. Then, to provide a cultural context for the emergence of Rent-which Schulman experienced first-hand as a weekly theater critic for the New York Press at the time of Rent's premiere-she reveals in rich detail the off- and off-off-Broadway theater scene of the time. She argues that these often neglected works and performances provide more nuanced and accurate depictions of the lives of gay men, Latinos, blacks, lesbians and people with AIDS than popular works seen in full houses on Broadway stages. Schulman brings her discussion full circle with an incisive look at how gay and lesbian culture has become rapidly commodified, not only by mainstream theater productions such as Rent but also by its reduction into a mere demographic made palatable for niche marketing. Ultimately, Schulman argues, American art and culture has made acceptable a representation of "the homosexual" that undermines, if not completely erases, the actual experiences of people who continue to suffer from discrimination or disease. Stagestruck's message is sure to incite discussion and raise the level of debate about cultural politics in America today.

Editorial Reviews

Ted Gideonse

When Sarah Schulman went to review Rent in 1996, unlike almost every other theater critic in New York, she was decidedly underwhelmed. She thought that the rock opera about AIDS and New York's East Village was "a bit flat" and distorted the history of the AIDS crisis. Worse, for Schulman anyway, was the fact that half of the plot seemed ripped off from her own 1990 novel People in Trouble. She didn't mention this in her review, though, and in hindsight probably regrets that decision: Rent went on to win four Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize, and has become the biggest theater success of the last decade. Schulman eventually tried to sue, but her quest to get anyone to listen to her was nearly fruitless. Instead, Schulman, a respected novelist (Shimmer, After Delores) and longtime AIDS activist, wrote Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, a book that combines her bizarre Kafka-esque tale and an utterly damning analysis of the popular cultural depictions of AIDS and homosexuality.

The book is not "My Case Against Rent." Broken into three parts, only the first and aptly titled section, "Rent: The Dirt," deals explicitly with Schulman's failed fight for copyright justice. It's the most engrossing section, though, especially if you follow New York theater. Was Frank Rich's wife really that nasty? Who is the literary agent code-named "Morticia"? You feel for the slightly paranoid and bitter Schulman, because she makes an excellent case and seems to have been victimized. Schulman didn't have the law on her side, however. It seems fairly clear that her plot, characters and setting were stolen, but alas, only words are copyrightable.

After dishing the gossip, Schulman loads her gun and fires. In Jonathan Larson's book for Rent, the gay and lesbian characters of People in Trouble play a big part, but Schulman argues that a heterosexual couple with AIDS (taken fromLa Bohème) becomes the center of the dramatic arc. "Rent was about how straight people were the heroes of AIDS," she says. But for much of the epidemic, she rightly points out, gay men with AIDS were abandoned by straight people. To Schulman, one of the first members of ACT-UP, Rent was a lie.

Her second chapter describes shows that went up the same year as Rent that were truthful about AIDS, homosexuality, race and the plight of the urban poor -- however, she says, no one went to see them. Schulman leaves no one unaccused: In her third chapter, she argues that the gay community, in its search for economic and political acceptance, has been complicit in this deformation of the truth. Why? Popular and monetary success come with playing well in Peoria. "Vehicles like Rent, Philadelphia and other AIDS stories promoted by straight people portray a world in which heterosexuals have nothing to account for, to reflect on, or to regret in their behavior toward people with AIDS and gays and lesbians in general."

Schulman is right. But if Rent's central plot was about lesbians and gay men, the show probably would not have become the $1 billion industry it is; the much more brilliant and true Angels in America didn't even make a profit. Anger doesn't sell, and it doesn't permeate the walls of the dominant society. Whether Schulman would like to admit it or not, Rent, with its straight-friendly narrative, has enabled thousands of people to see, and at least partially understand, the way the other side lives. -- Salon

Michael Paller
What Schulman asks is simple: Must we continue sacrificing the memories of those who have died in this epidemic to hawk another album, a T-shirt, and a bottle of Absolut? Her answer in this powerful, provocative work is equally direct: Don't lie about our lives. -- Village Voice
Library Journal
Schulman, a lesbian activist and 1997 winner of the Stonewall Award, joined ACT UP in 1987. Shortly thereafter, she completed her fourth novel, People in Trouble (NAL Dutton, 1991), which featured a group of East Village artists struggling with homelessness and AIDS and was based on her personal experiences. After attending a performance of Rent in February 1996 and writing a review of it, Schulman realized that the storyline of this mega-hit was, in fact, taken directly from her novel. Stagestruck is an engrossing narrative of Schulman's mainly futile struggle to gain recognition and legal restitution for the use of her material, but more than that is an expose of how mainstream theater has twisted gay and lesbian culture and themes such as AIDS to make it more palatable to mass audiences. Schulman also provides a look at some off-Broadway plays and performance pieces by gay and lesbian artists that give a much more authentic depiction of gay life and issues. As the struggle continues for gays and lesbians to gain acceptance and to see themselves portrayed accurately in literature and drama, Schulman clearly comes out a winner with Stagestruck. -- Howard E. Miller, M.L.S., St. Louis
Michael Bronski
As in her best novels, Schulman's observations on culture and politics are astute and startlingly original. Stagestruck is an incisive and important work of social criticism.
Out Magazine
Ok, so Schulman trashes Out in the final pages of her book. So she implies that you're a bad queer if you buy this magazine. Promise not to cancel your subscription if we tell you to read her book anyway? This combination manifesto/exposé is a cracking read. Apparently Jonathan Larson, that famously dead Broadway wunderkind, used a hell of a lot of Schulman's 1990 novel People in Trouble, in his hit musical, Rent. Initially, Schulman thought she'd sue. But after locking horns with the lawyers, she realized that a dyke who wrote a novel some other dykes liked wasn't going to get anything from Broadway big boys. Instead she wrote Stagestruck, which is much more than the story of Schulman's wrongs. She examines the Rent case as representative of a larger epidemic: the dominant culture's systematic harvest of queer experience. Written in outrage, this book is often outrageous, but don't let the bombast get you down-it's meant to get your blood boiling and your eyes flashing in righteous fury
This fascinating, angry, politically charged, and highly readable account of `the commodification of ideas about AIDS, homosexuality, neighborhood, artistic production, and theater' paradoxically reinforces `the superiority of heterosexuality. . . .' Schulman's best work to date, this wise exploration should be used in every gay studies classroom. A wonderful addition . . .
The Nation
Schulman's books are rife with artists and activists-many are both-whose stories closely mirror the real-life toll on the social and artistic landscape that is her long-time creative base. She offers a visceral description of that culture and its devastation in Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America. . . . She discusses plays about AIDS and those written by gay men, lesbians, and black women, in marvelously lucid, observant prose. I have not read such outstanding commentary about them anywhere. Such criticism, with its intense immediacy and personal investment in the theatrical experience, is sadly rare today. . . . With passionate intelligence, Schulman argues that mainstream images of gay men, lesbians, and AIDS `pave the way for the selling of a twisted history and dishonest depictions' of all three. . . . In writing Stagestruck, Schulman harnessed deeply personal, painful experiences to elicit an extremely effective discussion of cultural production and visual representation
Lambda Book Report
If Schulman was unable to rescue her rights from the underworld of corporate entertainment, she has not returned from that inferno empty-handed. Stagestruck is a stunning act of courage and political truth-telling
Bay Area Reporter
Whether you are familiar with People in Trouble, Rent, or recent gay and AIDS plays on Broadway, Stagestruck is worth reading. The politics are progressive, the jokes give chuckles, and Schulman's creative spirit flourishes throughout.
Boro Park Community News
This could easily be the most philosophically compelling, compulsively queer book I have reviewed in months.
Stagestruck showcases Schulman's persuasive voice in all its energy and eloquence. . . . Schulman is persuasive and passionate as she guides the reader to her final indictment of our entire consumer culture, one that has reduced the gay community to a marketing niche. A
Womens Review of Books
In her readable and sure to be controversial new book, novelist and long-time lesbian activist Sarah Schulman offers an impassioned analysis of the packaging and selling of US gay identity at this moment in captialism.

Her highly critical assessment of the commodification of gay identity is joined to a discussion of the ways in which homosexuality and AIDS are being represented in popular culture, especially the New York theatre world, which Schulman knows so well. . . . The strongest part of this book, the part that I hope won't get lost in arguments over the charges of plagiarism that launch Stagestruck, is Schulman's demolition of the rhetoric of tolerance and diversity . . . [T]his is a powerful and persuasive exposure and indictment of the work representation does to construct margin and center. . . . I mean no diminishment of Schulman's creative contributions when I say that Stagestruck, with the passionate political and moral convictions that underwrite every page, is a didactic book. May we have more such didactic and even cranky works of art

The Boston Phoenix
The surprise is how sweeping a punch Schulman packs into this little book. What begins as a j'accuse regarding the plagiarism by composer/playwright Jonathan Larson of Schulman's 1990 novel People in Trouble, which she says was the source for his blockbuster `rock musical' Rent, evolves into a broad-based analysis of the mainstreaming and marketing of gay culture. Schulman's vocabulary has visionary clarity, and her cultural and political analysis has implications far beyond the gay community she is speaking for.

When Schulman is offering her own readings of the broad range of theater that opened during the first season of Rent (from star-packed Tennessee Williams revivals to off-off Broadway basement productions), or analyzing the content of ads and feature articles in gay and mainstream glossy magazines, or deconstructing media depictions of gay life and the AIDS crisis, I'd put her on a par with some of our most provacative cultural critics, gay or straight. Her work here belongs beside the media and advertising criticism of Mark Crispin Miller and Leslie Savan and the pop-culture analysis of Todd Gitlin and Greil Marcus.

Gay & Lesbian Harvard Review
Stagestruck is an attack on commercialism in an age when such critiques are unfashionable. Schulman's breadth of experience-twenty years in New York's theatrical community and almost as many years in the feminist, gay, and mainstream publishing worlds-gives her an unusual range of reference.

Her analysis glides seamlessly from Jonathan Larson to Ntozake Shange to Tennessee Williams, from The Wall Street Journal to The Village Voice, from theater to television, and enables the reader to understand the connections among these cultural phenomenal. In only 151 pages and without any academic jargon, Schulman powerfully challenges queer readers to re-think-and change-our relationship to art and consumption in America.

From the Publisher

“Sarah Schulman is one of this country’s best cultural critics and novelists, and what she has to say in this book needs to be heard.”—Alexander Doty, author of Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture

“Sarah Schulman writes from a highly-scorned community whose members are generally cast as anonymous freaks in someone else’s play. As Stagestruck makes clear, the titillating history and ideas of these ‘freaks’ are consistently stolen and then corrupted by uptown ‘art’ marketeers out to make a quick buck. But you cannot change the story without changing the moral of the story. ‘Soul stealing’ is punishable in older societies. It is time we caught up.”—Diamanda Galás, performer and composer

“Utterly engrossing. . . startling and scary. . . . I have never read a more persuasive account—a wonderfully written one too—of the commodification that has overtaken us, and the disparity of power between the haves and the have-nots. . . . Stagestruck establishes beyond cavil the gross colonization by yuppie straight America of all that is special about gay life. Sarah Schulman remains what she has been: a rare, fearless teller of unpleasant truths.”—Martin Duberman, author of In White America and Stonewall

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

What People are saying about this

Martin Duberman
Stagestruck establishes beyond cavil the gross colonization by yuppie straight America of all that is special about gay life. -- Author of In White America and Stonewall

Meet the Author

Sarah Schulman is an award-winning playwright, novelist, and non-fiction writer. She is the author of seven novels, including After Delores, People in Trouble, Rat Bohemia, and, most recently, Shimmer, and the nonfiction work My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan/Bush Years. A longtime activist, Schulman was one of the first members of ACT UP in New York and a co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers. Over the past twenty years she has contributed to numerous publications, including the Village Voice, the Nation, the New York Times, Gay Community News, and Interview. A recipient of the 1997 Stonewall Award, Schulman lives in New York City.

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