Musicals about queer people that aren’t afraid to embrace their queerness – or in the words of Lily Tomlin, aren’t trying to imitate heterosexuality – are few and far between. It’s not something you’d expect to find in musical theatre history pre-Rent or Fun Home, and it’s probably not something you’d expect to find in the relatively small Australian musical theatre canon. But Alex Harding’s 1988 musical Only Heaven Knows, now in a revival season at the Hayes Theatre, is proudly, rarely and refreshingly queer, and feels as relevant as it must have 29 years ago.
It’s the 1940s. A war is waging but Sydney’s heart, Kings Cross, is thriving with life. It serves as a refuge for all who don’t conform to society’s view of ‘acceptable’. It’s where Tim (Ben Hall), our young, ever optimistic protagonist, has decided to search for a new life after leaving his troubled Melbourne family.
He finds a room for rent with Guinea (Blazey Best), an eccentric cabaret singer , and is swiftly taken under her wing and ushered into her world: there’s the defiant and caring Lana (Hayden Tee, who also gives a spectacularly rousing performance as infamous drag queen Lea Sonia), the wary Alan (Matthew Backer, with heartbreaking vulnerability), and the charming Cliff (Tim Draxl). Tim and Cliff fall for each other immediately.
This little family will soon be tested as the relatively free 1940s gives way to the harsher, more punitive mid-1950s and the Menzies era; the second act explores the havoc that institutional oppression can wreak.
The cast, affectingly, all balance the creeping darker elements of the story with joy and humour. Hall’s naïve sincerity brings the joyful hope that drives the musical, and he and Draxl create a love that’s honest and heart-warming. It’s neatly contrasted against Backer’s more jaded understanding of the dangers he faces, but Tee’s wise and knowing Lana is the bridge between them, a safe harbour in the journey of self-acceptance. Best’s performance as Guinea, who has been rejected by society for being an independent and single older woman, has found new meaning in caring for and laughing with these men. Her comedy and care is palpable.
Director Shaun Rennie strips this story back to bare bones. With his straightforwardly emotional approach, and simple staging, the work is left to speak for itself. On Brian Thomson’s layered set, most of the details are left to the imagination and we’re able to focus clearly on the people and their emotions. Emma Vine’s costumes keep us anchored to time and place, comfortably period and, in the case of Lea Sonia, impressively extravagant.
Alex Harding’s book has mostly survived the passage of time into 2017 and it unashamedly embraces the pleasures of queer life, with extravagant costume parties and innumerable references to casual sex, and doesn’t shy away from the trauma and constant threats that lurk underneath those pleasures. His libretto occasionally falls short; it has moments that are musically underwhelming, and tends to waver between overly earnest musical trends and truthful storytelling. But it is easy to forgive these failings when this story has the power to bring you to tears and uplift your heart almost at the same time.
The queer identity has been oppressed, silenced, and punished throughout history. Harding’s book was written amidst governmental fear mongering campaigns and the AIDS crisis, and he found both hope and warning by looking back to the past; he recognised the anti-gay government of the 1950s in his modern times. Rennie’s direction examines this rich history while considering our place in it, and the musical never fails to feel profoundly poignant to our society in 2017.
In Australian society today there are ongoing debates about the safe schools program, continued inequality for same sex couples, and ever-high rates of suicide amongst LGBTQIA+ teens, but the resilience and strength of queer people is undeniable.
Only Heaven Knows, in the most raw and heart wrenching way, reminds us of this resilience. With this incredibly powerful cast, and Rennie’s touching direction, Only Heaven Knows is far from perfect, but it’s flawed and raw, always managing to remind us of the joy and beauty of the queer identity while demanding equality. That’s what makes it so beautiful.