Tales of Times Square: Sessums on the City Pride Month reflections by celebrated author and journalist Kevin Sessums
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we asked Kevin Sessums — former Executive Editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview, Contributing Editor at Tina Brown and Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair, theater critic at Towelroad.com, author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs Mississippi Sissy and I Left It On the Mountain, and current editor-in-chief of sessumsmagazine.com , an online magazine of culture, conversation and current events — to reflect on his intersections with Times Square, LGBT history, and the theater over the years, drawing on his life and work. We will share these installments, prepared throughout the month, during the week leading up to World Pride on June 30.
by Kevin Sessums
The Cher Show is currently playing at The Neil Simon Theatre with a brilliant Stephanie J. Block essaying the role of the “head” Cher — or Star, as the character is listed in the program — in the three-in-one way the title role has been divvied up because it takes three actresses to equal the singular single-named star. Block is doing something unexpectedly subtle and filled with grace in this show. It is as if she went and found something gargantuan in the outsized image of the star — that razzle-dazzle diva - then pulled it all the way back to its truest core. Honed that. Cherished it. Protected it. Allows that to preen a bit. There is an effortlessness to her work. Her art. Its ease is seductive. She is Cher the woman and survivor, but it is not at all an impersonation. It is in some mysterious way a manifestation. She is channeling more than Cher and something other than Cher just as Cher channels more than herself and other than herself. That is where the artful part of this performance lies. Jason Moore, her director, must have recognized all this as he shepherded her through this flashy cinematic show to her big eleven o’clock number which has not one sequin in it. It too is stripped down to its core. She is wearing just jeans and a jeans jacket in a spotlight against a black backdrop. Just an artist at the top of her form alone with her truth. It is breathtaking.
The real Cher is part of a prancing pas de quatre of Gay Divas — Bette and Barbra and Madonna and Cher — I interviewed for cover stories during my days at Vanity Fair. Cher did not like the story I did on her for the November 1990 cover. It certainly was not hagiography, but I thought it was evenhanded. Indeed, when Chaz was still called Chastity, he called me along with his grandmother, Georgia Holt, Cher’s mother. Holt was thinking of doing a memoir and was looking for a writer to work on the book with her. They were reaching out to me to do it based on that cover story in Vanity Fair.
“Does your mom know you’re asking me to do this?” I asked Chaz. “She hated that story.”
“That’s the reason we’re asking you,” Chaz told me. “You understood her and didn’t worship her. We thought it was fair.”
I flew out to Palm Springs to talk to Holt about the memoir but decided not to move forward with my role in it even though I really liked her. As for the Vanity Fair cover story, you can decide whether it is fair or not at the link below.
Here’s an excerpt from the opening when I was riding on her tour bus with her and we were lying in the bus’s bed after a performance in Connecticut:
The bus finally arrives fifteen minutes before Cher is scheduled to perform and docks right next to the stage, scattering the requisite rock ‘n’ roll retinue: tough, girly men with hair down to their asses; tough, girly women with skirts up to theirs. A skinny fellow carrying a Styrofoam head with a wild black wig on it scampers toward Cher’s dressing room, grandly allowing the wig’s hair to flow behind him like the flames from an exotic torch. “She’s coming!” shout several fans pressed against the other side of the chain-link fence that separates the backstage area from the rest of the fairground, where 40,000 more fans have shown up to hear Cher’s bad-girl baritone and gawk at her bad-girl body.
Cher is already wearing her Cleopatra stage makeup when she disembarks from the bus. A court of beautiful women cluster around her: her younger sister, Georganne; her best friend, Paulette Betts, who was once married to Dickey Betts, a guitarist in the Allman Brothers Band with Cher’s second husband, Gregg Allman; and her workout partner, Angela Best. “We all live together all the time,” Cher tells me. “Paulette and I ‘live together’ live together. And Ange is almost always there. My sister was there for a long time, but now she’s getting married [to Cher’s close-cropped head of security, Ed Bartylak]. We’re like The Golden Girls. Paulette is Rose. Angela is Blanche. I’m Dorothy. And Georganne is Sophia. We’ve even got robes monogrammed with our Golden Girls names.”
From the first word she sings—“I’m no angel!”—to the last—“If I could turn back time!”—the show takes an hour. In the fifth row sit a mother and her daughter, a child of about six. When Cher appears in one of her see-through costumes, the mother pumps the air with a clenched fist, jumps to her feet, and dances with abandon. The child stares in disbelief at the sight of her mother acting so frighteningly young, but by the time Cher is complaining in her lower register that she’s “driven by perfection!” the six-year-old is dancing, too. Cher turns her back on them and prances upstage; she touches the beads of sweat forming above her lacquered upper lip with the back of her hand, rolls her eyes with exhaustion, then abruptly turns back toward the audience. “You drive me crazy with perfection!” she sings at the top of her tired lungs.
The instant the show is over, Cher races from the stage and is back on the bus, heading toward Jersey, where she has been hanging out with her latest boyfriend, Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora. She is swathed in the costume from her last number - black velvet lounging pajamas covered with crystal-like beads - and wears the black wig that earlier crowned the Styrofoam. “I’m getting too old for this,” she groans, and removes her shoes. Someone brings her a bowl of fresh cherries. She waves it away. “I can barely move around onstage.”
We are in the back of the bus, where a comfortable bedroom has been designed for her in a palette of beiges - her favorite color. “Can you see a spur or anything on my foot?” she asks, putting her sole in my face. All I can see is the seductive swirl of a tattoo heading up her leg beneath a velvet cuff. “Do you mind if we lie down?” she asks.
What sounds like jaded ennui is really Epstein-Barr. Cher discovered she carried the energy-sapping virus during the filming of The Witches of Eastwick in 1986, but she wasn’t fully aware of the disease’s debilitating force until she began her latest film, Mermaids, which opens next month. Production had to be shut down while she regained her strength. “I was so sick I thought I was going to die. I went to doctor after doctor.” During the hiatus, the studio replaced the film’s director, Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog), with Frank Oz (Little Shop of Horrors). Cher, after putting up with rumors that she had had Emily Lloyd replaced with Winona Ryder in the role of her older daughter, took aim at Oz, often questioning his authority. “She emotionally beat the shit out of him,” says someone familiar with the set. Oz finally left the project, and Richard Benjamin (My Favorite Year) was brought in to calm everyone down.
“Look, I’m only difficult if you’re an idiot,” Cher says as we make ourselves comfortable on the bed and she begins to string bead necklaces for the band members. “If you don’t know more than I know, then I’ll be really difficult.”