Young Casey’s in a bind — his wife is pregnant, rent is due, and he’s fired from his gig as an Elvis impersonator in a small-town Florida Panhandle bar. So what’s a boy to do? Don a wig and sashay, natch.
And so begins “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” opening Wednesday, April 12 at the Geffen Playhouse. It’s the hilarious latest from writer Matthew Lopez, whose first hit, the very different “The Whipping Man,” has been one of the most widely produced new American plays this decade. We spoke with Lopez last weekend, just as he arrived in Los Angeles for the start of Georgia McBride’s previews this week.
LA BLADE: Your first big hit, “The Whipping Man,” was a serious play dealing with race relations during the Civil War, and “The Legend of Georgia McBride” seems pretty much on the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum in terms of topic and tone. Is it important to you to cover broad ground in your work?
MATTHEW LOPEZ: Writing is obsessive work. I sometimes compare it to digging wells. Once you’ve struck water, you move on to another patch of earth and start digging another well. If I’ve explored a topic, a genre, or historical period to my satisfaction, I am eager to move on to another, to immerse myself in new world. If I kept repeating the same topic/genre/period over and over, I’d run the risk of writing the same play over and over.
BLADE: What was your inspiration for “The Legend of Georgia McBride?”
LOPEZ: A friend of a friend of my then-boyfriend (now husband) had put together a music playlist for her boyfriend who was experimenting with drag as performance art. He was putting together a persona, and the playlist was filled with female country singers: Dolly, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, etc. It’s a great mix, and it got me thinking: What would it take for a straight man to become a drag queen? Who would he be, and what would that journey look like? I’m fascinated by people who leave their bubble and willingly place themselves in foreign territory.
Then I decided he needed to be someone whose bubble is as far from drag as possible: a straight white redneck Elvis impersonator from the Florida Panhandle, where I was raised. I was eager to watch that guy transform into something new and beautiful.
Personally, I spent much of my teenage years with drag queens. I had a friend who had started doing drag and I would sneak in to the one gay bar in my hometown and watch him perform. I’d hang out in the dressing room with him and all the other queens as they prepared for their shows. That energy backstage was intoxicating (sometimes literally) and I wanted to capture my memories of that time in this play.
BLADE: Are you excited to bring Georgia McBride to Los Angeles?
LOPEZ: Deeply. LA is a town I love and I’ve always hoped for a production at the Geffen. As a writer working both in features and theater, you can sometimes feel your life is bifurcated and that the great expanse of continent between New York and LA is a kind of geographic metaphor. I’m very happy to get to do this here at this point in my career. It feels like the fusing of two halves of my life.
BLADE: I know you’re bringing along director Mike Donahue, choreographer Paul McGill and actor Matt McGrath for the LA production. Were you involved with the selection of the rest of the cast for the LA production, particularly Andrew Burnap as Casey?
LOPEZ: Yes, I sat in on all the auditions, which I don’t often do for productions after New York. I love this cast and am eager for LA audiences to fall in love with them the way we have throughout this process.
Andrew is a really special actor. He has shown me new things about this character, things I never imagined were possible. He brings real heart and warmth to the role and makes you care deeply about Casey and his journey. He brings such dignity to the role—even when waddling around in butt padding and falsies.
Andrew was also the very last guy we auditioned for this production. We saw some amazing actors but Casey is a really tricky part. We had to say no to some truly talented young men. When Andrew walked in for his first audition, we just saw Casey. It would shortchange all the hard work he’s put into this to call this role easy for him. But he does make it look effortless.
BLADE: You mentioned in a Playbill interview last year that you’re working on a piece about the American gay experience during the last 30 years. Could you tell me a little more about that?
LOPEZ: It’s my attempt to piece together a kind of continuum and to place myself and my generation on it. It’s about what it means to me to be a gay man. I was a child during the Plague Years. My first understanding of what it meant to be a gay man was informed by what I saw on the news growing up. None of it was encouraging. I came of age sexually in the mid-1990’s, just as the Plague Years subsided. I liken it to being part of the second wave on D-Day, watching the men before me decimated and then being told it was my turn to take the beach. Sex was a frightening experience for me for much of my younger life and I largely dealt with that fear by avoiding sex altogether. I regret that that’s true. I’m happy that it isn’t anymore.
And now I know younger gay men who were not alive back then and who have no experiential understanding of what it was like. As a result, they have an entirely different relationship with their identities and with sex than I did when I was their age. I’m encouraged and heartened by that. And, if I’m being honest, perhaps a little envious.
This play is my way of looking at that 30-year history in the lives of gay men. It’s my way of attempting to understand the calamity that befell the generation that came before mine and also to explain myself (as a representative of my generation) to the younger generation just coming up in the world.