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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) iv-xii
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And when I die
And when I'm gone
There'll be one child born
And a world to carry on.
--"And When I Die," Laura Nyro
Laura Nyro, the extraordinary singer songwriter, wrote "And When I Die" in the mid-1960s. At the age of seventeen she sold the song to Peter, Paul, and Mary and thus launched her musical career. Her soulful music helped chronicle the turbulent times of the 1960s, and she was one of the first in a string of successful female singer songwriters to address women's issues in popular music. You can hear her influence in the music of nearly every woman singer songwriter from Joni Mitchell and Phoebe Snow to Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. Nyro was also one of the first women to have her songs cross over into mainstream radio. Her songs were recorded by Barbra Streisand ("Stoney End"), The Fifth Dimension ("Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues"), Three Dog Night ("Eli's Comin'"), and Blood, Sweat, and Tears ("And When I Die"). Even as these artists scored major hits with her songs, Nyro's own recordings such as Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat were themselves critically acclaimed. She achieved nearly instantaneous cult status among her thousands of fans.
I listened to Laura Nyro throughout my teenage years. Her music opened me up to a dramatic world that had little to do with the one I was living in South Jersey. At the time, I wasn't always sure what her songs were about--she sang of sex, drugs, and war; she was a generation older; and she lived in New York City--but they touched a deep chord in me. It seemed the stakes were always very high in her songs, and she sang them with such conviction that they sometimes were almost too painful to hear. Even if I didn't completely understand the music, its emotional effect on me was palpable. She was a hippie and a feminist, two ways of being in the world that held enormous appeal to me. Apart from Joni Mitchell, there is no other female singer whom I most associate with the formative years of my adolescence. It might sound pat and even drenched in cliché, but I believe listening to the music of Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell helped me make it through a queer adolescence marked by fear and confusion. Both were a lifeline to something other, something outside the tight constraints of a normal world. Full of mystery and possibility, their music moved me inward so that I could eventually come out.
I stopped listening to Laura Nyro with any regularity shortly after I came out in 1979, when I found a different life soundtrack in disco and club music. She herself seemed to disappear. There wasn't a high demand for progressive feminist hippie music in the early Reagan years even if there was more the need for it than ever. At nineteen years old, I was beginning to have a life of my own with its own set of dramas. For me, coming out wasn't simply a sexual awakening; it was also an introduction to an entire set of cultural practices that included, not insignificantly, theatre-going.
The very first play I chose on my own to see--and I went by myself--was Martin Sherman's Bent on Broadway starring Richard Gere and David Dukes (Fig. 1). It was the January 2, 1980 Wednesday matinee performance (Fig. 2). I was on my college winter break from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I distinctly remember leaving my parents' house in South Jersey for the three-hour bus ride into New York City. They had no idea where I was going. And I didn't either, really. I had read about the play, and its story of homosexual oppression during the Nazi era, while in Madison and made the decision right then to get to the New Apollo Theatre once I was...