During the 1930s, at the age of 30, Edward Schweiss was arrested in New York City. His crime? Committing a “lewd and unnatural act” with the man with whom he had been living for three months. Spotted by a neighbor through their open drapes, both men were thrown into jail, ultimately imprisoned on Welfare Island along with other members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Now Welfare Island is Roosevelt Island and Edward—quite possibly a chorus boy who used the stage name Edward Smith—is being brought to life once more in The Gorgeous Nothings, a play with music about the men and women unjustly imprisoned for their sexuality. Conceived by Travis Russ, the show received a concert presentation earlier this year at Joe’s Pub. That recorded concert will be available to stream on Playbill.com as part of our Playbill Playback series, as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Out of the thousands of New Yorkers arrested for being queer, Russ and his fellow researchers narrowed it down to seven real-life stories they discovered over the course of hundreds of hours of research. As he calls it, the seven represent “an assortment of crimes that shed light on how active the LGBTQ+ community was in the ’20s and ’30s.”
From Schweiss to a married Jewish tailor, the characters run the gamut in terms of age as well as location, with prisoners hailing from the Lower East Side to Harlem. “It’s not only gay history, but it’s New York history and how those two worlds collide and parallel,” Russ says. “Some of these men came through Ellis Island, living through the Roaring ’20s to the Great Depression. Their lives were dramatically altered by established institutions [including the New York Times] that would run their names and their addresses when they got caught.… NYC had a prison where they would ship off these outcasts and confine them to a special location!”
One of the reasons that prison caught Russ’ eye while reading George Chauncey’s Gay New York was the annual Christmas follies the prisoners put on in the laundry room. And where there’s a follies, there are songs—which is how what initially started as a play featuring music is morphing into a full-blown musical, featuring many rarely heard songs from the era. “Music is the heartbeat of the show,” Russ says, “and there was so much queer music going on!”
Viewers get the chance to experience The Gorgeous Nothings for themselves when the concert streams on Playbill for 48 hours at 8 PM ET, June 20.
Hosted by Gideon Glick, Telly Leung, and Beth Kirkpatrick, The Gorgeous Nothings stars Kevin Smith Kirkwood (Kinky Boots), James Jackson Jr. (A Strange Loop), Stephen DeRosa (Boardwalk Empire), The Skivvies' Nick Cearley, Aaron Kaburick (Mrs. Doubtfire), Devin Ilaw (Miss Saigon), Seth Sikes (Seth Sikes Sings… concert series), with special guest emcee Beth Kirkpatrick (Hello, Dolly!), and introduces Maclain Whelan Dassatti, Kyle Price, and Benjamin Walker. The show was helmed by Life Jacket Theatre Company Artistic Director Travis Russ, with music direction and arrangements by Joe Kinosian (Murder for Two). Serving as producers for the stream are Tony nominee Jessica Genick, Life Jacket Theatre Company, and Playbill.