Forgotten Musicals Friday: Laughing Matters WHEN PIGS FLY

The original production of WHEN PIGS FLY in Howard Crabtree's fabulous costumes. The cast members are each wearing a dress in the shape of a vanity.
The original production of When Pigs Fly in Howard Crabtree’s fabulous costumes.

We’re headed Off-Broadway for today’s Forgotten Musical to celebrate the life of the composer, musical director and accompanist, Dick Gallagher, who passed away on this day in 2005. The show is When Pigs Fly, a revue conceived by Howard Crabtree and Mark Waldrop, the latter of whom wrote the sketches and lyrics. Crabtree would also design the costumes for the show. Of the shows that Gallagher would compose, this was his most successful.

When Pigs Fly celebrates the gay experience. On the surface, it is playful and delightfully camp. The show glitters with joy. But underneath the veneer, there is irony. There are nods to the tragedy of the closet, although the show never becomes tragic. There is also a proud resistance to homophobia in the show’s use of drag and its reclamation and celebration of stereotypes and tropes. It’s a response to gay history as well as the then-present context of the late 1990s and when revisiting it in 2023, When Pigs Fly feels as fresh and relevant as ever. The times have changed, but there is still a long way to go.

Listening to the cast recording of When Pigs Fly offers delight after delight. The title song gets things off to a jaunty start before the show dips into some delightful puns and witty observations in “You’ve Got to Stay in the Game.” There’s a playful defiance in “Light in the Loafers,” which in its staging had shoes that lit up, one of the genius costume conceits for which Crabtree was famous in New York. A delightful trio of torch songs gives voice to people in the queer community who are sometimes invisible to their own. That When Pigs Fly is unafraid to take on the biases held by the very people the show celebrates makes it all the more brilliant.

This all happens before one even arrives at the gay anthem, “A Patriotic Finale,” which recentres the gay experience in US states and settings. It’s insistent and bursts with pride. In fact, celebrated musical theatre writer Peter Filichia once said it should be an official anthem for gay Americans. Perhaps, the most poignant of all the numbers is “Laughing Matters,” a reminder of the need for and power of laughter in a world where so many hateful things happen. Laughter can be weaponised, and we should all arm ourselves with it for our own good.

A 2017 Off-Broadway revival of When Pigs Fly never came to fruition, which is rather devastating. It is a show that deserves to be in our consciousness, an entertainment that holds profound meaning. Seek it out, my pretties!

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