Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Bruce Vilanch, The Divine Mr. V
Expanded Edition of 11-14-07 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Bottle Blond Bruce, the DVD cover of the charming, funny and fabu-lush 1999 documentary Get Bruce! and the Divine Mr. V. with
the Divine Miss M, his muse, in April of 2007
Gay icon Bruce Vilanch, the man who for decades has given Bette Midler, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and others
their zingers was in town to promote last night’s screening of Naked Boys Singing! as part of Reeling 2007, the gay and lesbian film
fest (the film begins a commercial run this Friday at the Music Box). The hysterically funny, multi-talented Vilanch, who put down the
pen (and shaved his beard) to star on Broadway and tour in “Hairspray” and for several seasons quipped on the new “Hollywood
Squares,” recently spoke with Windy City Times. Highlights:
WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): How did you get involved with Naked Boys…Singing?
BRUCE VILANCH (BV): (laughs) Singing…in a professional way. There’s a theatre out here in Hollywood called the Celebration and I
was on the board for awhile. Nobody was coming to see anything except when we had naked boys onstage. So Bob Schrock the
artistic director said, “Let’s just do a show called Naked Boys Singing! and then everybody will show up.” We put together this very
innocent type of musical revue with a bunch of really great songs and I was basically supplying the interstitial material and as we
mounted it – if you’ll pardon the expression – we discovered that when people are onstage naked no one listens to what they say.
It became an all-singing, all-dancing musical revue with a couple of lines thrown in to keep it going. It was a huge hit and it
spawned like 45 productions around the world and now a movie. Next, maybe a space shuttle.
WCT: And you’re coming to Chicago…
BV: …to promote the movie. I was in the audience when they shot it. My essential material is the glue that holds the show
together. I’m involved with the movie because I appear to have become a gay icon in my old age and I’ve made at least a dollar
and a half off of this show. There were 14 writers so there isn’t a whole lot of money to be made for the writers. The interesting
thing about Naked Boys Singing! is how universal the appeal is because it’s about nudity; it’s about being naked. It’s not just a bunch
of people parading around onstage. It’s about the many different kind of nakedness there are in the world and the show has never
been about, “Come look at the Chippendale dancers” because we’ve never had any. I mean, they’re all “guys” – guys who can sing
and dance and they’re funny and they’re willing to appear naked.
WCT: (laughs) Yes, that would be a prerequisite one would suppose.
BV: Yes. Now in the movie we’ve got a crop of guys who are really attractive. But onstage you’d see all different types of guys
(physically) and the idea was not to do “thunder from down under.” It was not a show about looking at gorgeous, naked men. I
would like to sign on for that show wherever it happens to be (laughs).
WCT: Perhaps you could host auditions for that when you’re in Chicago?
BV: (laughs) Yes, perhaps. What’s always made the show a success is that after the gay audience comes to see it we discover that
it becomes like a bachelorette party thing where there’ll be groups of women who will come and they’re expecting to see gorgeous
guys. And they do see some gorgeous guys but what they also get is a peek into what the gay world is like and they also
understand the idea of men being naked and it being objectified because women get objectified all the time. So it really relates to
them in a way that we never anticipated.
WCT: That’s pretty cool.
WCT: Now the last time I remember you being in Chicago was on tour with “Hairspray” and emceeing that benefit for Marc Shaiman
at the Gentry which was fabulous.
BV: We were at the Oriental for like ten weeks and it was great. The audiences were great and the theatre was fabulous. Then I
was back for the Grabbys this year. I went to the Grabbys and the year before I did the IML at the Chicago Theatre.
WCT: So when you come back to Chicago, what do you look forward to?
BV: Everything that I liked is gone. I lived at Wells and North; I lived at Piper’s Alley – and there was a real alley then. I lived in a
big Victorian above a delicatessen and an art gallery. And there was a little cinema where they showed I Am Curious Yellow and
scandalous movies of the day and it’s now a sixplex.
WCT: I think maybe that’s where I saw Hairspray.
BV: I heard of that one.
WCT: Any chance that you and Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta are going to get together and watch the DVD?
BV: (laughs) Slim to none – which is the only time you can say that about the three of us.
WCT: Did you think it would be the big musical hit of the year?
BV: Well, there’s no underestimating it. They just opened the stage production in London and it’s a smash and it’s opened in
Johannesburg which is more like Baltimore in 1962 than any other place and apparently, it’s quite moving there and is a big hit. So
you can’t underestimate it. I mean that’s what John Waters knew when he was writing it originally. It’s a subversive little piece and
it gets its message across. It energizes and dazzles the audience but at the same time they have to think about what’s going on.
He’s quite the artist in spite of what he says about himself (laughs).
WCT: You wrote a great piece recently about the changes that we’ve seen about gays on the screen but there hasn’t been anything
since Brokeback Mountain with gay characters. Are we ever going to see acceptance in mainstream movies?
BV: I would take exception to that. I mean there was a picture called I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry which was a huge box office
success this summer and it was all about straight people pretending to be gay people.
WCT: But the attitudes in the picture seemed so old fashioned to me.
BV: It may be old fashioned if you’re gay but I think for straight people it’s a fairly new concept – the idea that, “Oh, we get better
points if we’re gay; we get better benefits.” I mean that’s kind of revolutionary. Now I haven’t seen the movie but I’d like to point
out that this is all part of gay culture.
WCT: I’m talking about gay characters. Both Chuck & Larry, Blades of Glory and a lot of these straight comedies now seem to have
these gay themes but we haven’t really seen a movie with gay characters. I just find that a little disappointing.
BV: Yes it is but things take a while to develop and to gel so there may be things out there in the pipeline that haven’t been
released yet. It’s not a precise science, you know.
WCT: Well, you’re right and who would’ve ever thought you’d see some of the things that are integrated into mainstream TV. I
mean now “Ugly Betty” has a wonderful subplot with the gay assistant involved in a romance with a large and lovely guy.
BV: I like that (laughs)! I approve.
WCT: I approve of that, too. That reminds me, you shot a new movie last summer from the creator of Coffee Date that we’re going
to see eventually. It’s called Tru Loved and in it you co-star with another former Chicagoan, Jane Lynch.
BV: We’re in it together but it’s not really fair to say we co-star. It’s actually a love story about two teenagers and we play the older
generation. I am the gay single dad of one of them and Jane is a teacher in the high school. It’s basically about how organizations
in schools to combat bullying got underway. It’s about how these groups started that address the idea that there were gay students
in the schools that needed to be dialogued about. But that sounds so clinically serious but really it’s a funny comedy about
mistaken sexual identity that tells that story at the same time. It’s really cute and sweet.
WCT: This past Halloween saw the release of the Paul Lynde special from 1976 which you co-wrote. Then later on you became the
center square on “Hollywood Squares” following in his footsteps. What are you memories of him?
BV: I worked with him; I knew him very well. We were shooting “Donny & Marie” and he was a regular on the show and when we
finished rehearsing on “Donny & Marie” we’d get in the car and go over to “Hollywood Squares” which was nearing the end of its 14
year run – the first time. By then he was the center square and he would say to me (imitating Lynde’s voice), “Come with me to
Squares I haven’t got shit!” and we’d ride over in the car and we’d do jokes and then he would do them on the show. So it was like I
was writing for him for “Hollywood Squares” on the sly.
WCT: That’s great trivia.
BV: Yes and then I worked on his nightclub act which he used to tour in the summer and then we did that Halloween special.
WCT: Do you remember another game show regular Charles Nelson Reilly who we sadly lost recently?
BV: Sure. He was a friend of mine. I loved him. He was hysterically funny. I never worked with him except we did benefits
together but I knew him socially and he was great fun and he was pretty brilliant. The last time I saw him he was in San Francisco
directing an opera. He became a big stage director and he specialized in these one-woman shows with Julie Harris and then he did
his own one-woman show (laughs).
WCT: Which I believe is going to be documented in a film.
BV: (imitates Charles Nelson Reilly’s unique vocal mannerisms)
WCT: (laughs hard) I could talk to you for ever and ever but I know you don’t have the time. Do you have time for three more
BV: Yes – I have three more questions time.
WCT: Are you working with Bette Midler on her Vegas show?
BV: I am; I am. We open at Caesar’s Palace February 20th.
WCT: Any little “tid-bettes” you can tell us?
BV: It’s going to be huge. It’s like a half acre stage so we’ve got lots of mermaids in wheelchairs and it’s going to be insane. What
we want to do is a really funny show. Bette’s got like five hits that she has to sing and the rest of the time it can just be funny and
she can carry on. You know, it’s a gigantic space, we’re taking it over from Cirque du Celine.
WCT: You’re going to see groups of gay men arriving at the airport weekly as you know.
BV: Between Bette and Elton I think they’re going to rename it Caesar’s Bathhouse.
WCT: You’re famous for putting funny words into the mouths of others and that’s suddenly come to a halt with this writer’s strike.
You were quoted in the New York Times saying, “try to have an Oscars without the writers, baby.” Can you talk about the strike for a
BV: Sure. What can I say about it? I think it’s just going to get real ugly. This is like my fourth writer’s strike because I’ve been
around for so long and the Guild is being helmed by people who weren’t around for the last one and so I don’t know if they’re
prepared for what really happens in one of these things. So I’m just sitting back and watching it. At the moment I’m not involved in
any television shows that are affected until the Oscars comes up and certainly I won’t be able to do the Oscars if it stretches that
far. I will be curious to see what they do because the last time the strike happened like six weeks before the Oscars so the show
was already in gear. But the show is nowhere at this point and they have John Stewart who is a Writer’s Guild member who can’t write
for himself (laughs). So who knows if he’ll be able to host it and who knows? Just in general – who knows?
WCT: Maybe they could do the naked boys singing Oscars?
BV: (laughs) That’s right!