Theater crowd out front in gay activism

Legit support constrasts with Hollywood efforts

In Hollywood, Oscar-winner Sean Penn (“Milk”) is called courageous for playing a gay activist. On Broadway, 2009 Tony nominee Gavin Creel (“Hair”) and erstwhile Tony winners Cynthia Nixon (“Rabbit Hole,” 2006) and David Hyde Pierce (“Curtains,” 2007) are gay activists.

On May 17, Nixon announced her engagement to longtime partner, Christine Marinoni, at a midtown Gotham rally organized by Broadway Impact, an org co-founded by Creel to advocate marriage equality. Speakers and performers included Creel, Hyde Pierce, Gov. David Paterson, Broadway leading man Cheyenne Jackson and the cast of “Hair.” The rally focused on the current bill to allow same-sex marriage in New York, where it needs to pass the state senate before the end of the current legislative session in June.

The activism of Gotham’s legit actors stands in stark contrast to Hollywood’s film community. Back in the early 1960s, major stars like Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman flew to the South to march for the rights of African-Americans. With few high-profile exceptions (James Franco, Drew Barrymore), big movie stars in 2008 essentially eschewed the rallies and marches that surrounded the passage of Prop. 8, which played out on Hollywood’s front lawn.

The Broadway awards have been gay-friendlier in other ways as well. In 2007, the Tony cameras cut to Hyde Pierce’s partner, Brian Hargrove, in the Radio City Music Hall auditorium during the thesp’s lead actor acceptance speech. Similar treatment, however, was not accorded John Barlow when his partner, Scott Rudin, thanked him from the stage of the Kodak Theater as the producer received the top Oscar for “No Country for Old Men” in 2008.

This year, a healthy 10% of the Tony actor nominees are “out” gays. Contrast this with the entire history of Oscar nominees, where the list appears to fall off a cliff after the names Jaye Davidson (“The Crying Game”) and Ian McKellen (“Gods and Monsters,” “The Lord of the Rings”).

Of course, it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, even the Tonys had to be brought into the post-Genesis era kicking and screaming.

Legit producer John Glines made awards telecast history when he thanked his boyfriend during a Tony acceptance speech for 1983’s best play, “Torch Song Trilogy.” Many in the liberal theater community expressed their concern at the awards ball (“You could hear TV sets across the nation flick off!” complained one producer) and that displeasure was seconded the following year when, in a pre-telecast speech, Tony producer Alexander Cohen reminded the gathered live audience in the Uris Theater of this affront to the national TV audience. When Cohen instructed the winners not to repeat last year’s embarrassment, Harvey Fierstein promptly did so when he won for book of a musical, “La Cage aux Folles.” Fierstein, who had won two Tonys the year before for his “TST,” not only thanked his boyfriend but kissed presenter Larry Kert.

Since then, a few more out actors have won the Tony. “The theater is always ahead of Hollywood,” says Bernard Telsey, who casts for legit and film. “That’s the joy of working in the theater. They don’t play the (sexual politics) game.” (Nor did they play the McCarthy game in the 1950s when some blacklisted movie creatives found employment on Broadway.)

Douglas Aibel, who also casts for both media, sees the various venues as being more intertwined than ever. “They aren’t separate. Actors working in the theater are also the pool that young TV and film stars come out of,” he says. “The wall between what is a TV star and a film star has broken down.”

Case in point: Nixon, who went from the “Sex and the City” TV show to the film version. The 43-year-old actress’s future in the youth-oriented film biz may be more affected by ageism than homophobia.

“The real transformation will happen when more than a handful of young gay actors, who are seen as convincing (movie) romantic leads, make that choice” to come out, Aibel says. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

On network TV, it’s already happened with Neil Patrick Harris playing the top hetero Lothario on “How I Met Your Mother.” Intriguingly, Harris is the Tony’s choice this year to host the telecast.

And certainly Broadway’s Jackson (“Xanadu,” “All Shook Up”) has made the choice, but found resistance at the movies. As he put it to the Advocate last year, “To be frank, I think I’ve missed out on big parts because I’m open. … I’m not that naive to think that that doesn’t play into it.”

Even in the world of legit, there’s the agents’ term “too out,” which means gay actors who do profiles in the Advocate or show up at political rallies. It’s sort of like “too Irish” actors who march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or “too female” actresses who appear on the cover of Vogue. From the look of the recent Broadway Impact rally, the 2009 Tonys might just turn into what’s called “too out TV.”