How Drag Has Taken the Throne as High Art

Playbill Pride   The Belle of the ‘Ball’: Drag Takes the Throne as High Art
 
With increased accessibility and a pop culture push, drag claims the limelight as a higher art form.
Matt Henry
Matt Henry Matt Crockett

Sequin-dotted gowns and glitter-speckled heels shimmer wildly underneath the limelight of New York stages, where drag queens have become the ticket-selling darlings of the ensemble as well as the outright stars of numerous productions.

Whether helping to resuscitate floundering businesses in Kinky Boots, trekking cross-country in the name of family in Priscilla Queen of the Desert or simply dabbling in drag to pay ever-mounting bills in The Legend of Georgia McBride, onstage “queens” are a resourceful, industrious crew. The only thing more massive than any of these shows’ wardrobe budgets is the general popularity of drag culture. Look no further than an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race or a row of Broadway marquees to witness how pervasive drag culture has become in recent years.

But this drag isn’t the backroom, late-night gimmick ’90s clubgoers cheered on (or jeered at) through the haze of smoke and a few bottles of beer. Because visibility, budgets and artistry have all grown, the drag of yesteryear has evolved and taken its place atop the High Art shelf.
So what about this moment, in particular, has compelled drag to mount the pop-cultural pedestal?

Despite its relatively recent surge in the cultural mainstream, drag is no 21st-century invention. Its origins date back (at least) to all-male Shakespearean productions of the 17th century, before women were permitted onstage. It wasn’t until the 1960s that drag emerged as a stand-alone performance medium, when drag-themed parties, or “balls,” began to proliferate as a part of an urban, gender-transgressive subculture.

At these balls, a drag competitor would be rewarded for his or her creativity and “passing” ability (a.k.a. “realness”): how convincing and well-conceived a queen’s appearance was. These contests, which included vogueing and runway, served as precursors to the lip-syncing performances now synonymous with gay nightlife.

The recent phenomenon of Drag Race and the slew of drag queens onstage symbolize a shift in venue for drag, from the darkened corners of basement-level discos and into the entertainment spotlight. Spencer Liff, who choreographed the recent revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and who has “been going to drag shows since [he] was a teenager,” notes the impressive, boundary-crossing popularity of drag he witnessed upon a recent visit to RuPaul’s DragCon in California. “Thousands of people were there to line up for their favorite drag queen[s] in the light of day, not tucked away in some club,” he says, “and that’s a point of revolution.”

While drag’s widespread popularity may be new, those in the drag community debate whether this newfound accessibility is truly an unconditional endorsement by the mainstream art world. In an interview with Vulture from this past March, RuPaul himself asserts that drag could “never be mainstream.” But famed drag performer and playwright Charles Busch believes “the only thing that separates ‘downtown’ or ‘avant garde’…from ‘mainstream’ is the size of your publicity budget.”

Charles Busch
Charles Busch Frederic Aranda

If a budget can buy visibility, it can also help bolster a sense of legitimacy. The fashion, art and entertainment worlds are full of the same fairytale-like story of people and products being plucked from obscurity and labeled tasteful by a Fairy Godmother-like character such as Mondrian & Pollack or Usher & the Biebs.

The case is similar for drag. Although queens have always been a creative bunch, before the 2000s, that creativity rarely saw the light of day…literally. Busch says that drag hasn’t “evolved that much in the last decade.” But what has changed is publicity and access. For a lot of art and music, the product—the talent and the creativity—already exists and has existed for a while. The timing and circumstances, however, are what spark stardom and fan the flames of a phenomenon.

Along with RuPaul, one of drag’s champtions has been social media. Jerry Mitchell, who has championed onstage drag, having helmed Hairspray, La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots, says that social media, “really opens [the drag] world up to a lot of people.” Exposure via Facebook and YouTube transports the late-night queen from the basement club, beyond the Broadway stage and into the home.

But accessibility and exposure only partially explain the phenomenon of drag as high art. If social media is a fairy godmother, then open-mindedness has been the star-toting carriage. “All influence is cumulative,” says Busch. ”Hit shows like La Cage Aux Folles and its revivals, Hairspray and Kinky Boots all contributed to a climate of ‘live and let live’” among Broadway audiences. Mitchell echoes this sentiment and says audiences understand that “gender expression doesn’t make [drag queens] different from you…[they are] still fighting the same fight and wanting the same thing.” We as audiences relate to drag queen characters because, despite layers of paint and lacefront hair, their humanness is a reflection of our own vulnerabilities.

Thanks to a fateful intersection of broadened minds and changing horizons, drag has entered the realm of a higher brow culture. Entertaining as well as enlightening, drag and drag queens aren’t leaving any time soon—and we couldn’t be happier about that.

Still, the multicultural onstage landscape isn’t complete. Specifically, trans characters, who have gained some screen traction in the last couple years, seldom see their own reflection under the limelight. The dismantling of stereotypes requires many hands, and as theatregoers, creators and artists, we can work to establish a forum that continually lends its ear to and encourages each new voice, be it low, high or neon pink.

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