A diverse group of five actors stand embracing in front of a panel of purple lights.
Queer Eye: The Musical Parody at Second City's UP Comedy Club Credit: Timothy R. Schmidt

If you spend any time breathing, you may have noticed polarities everywhere these days, most emanating from a belief gulf that is exponentially widening between conservatives and liberals with every Twitter post. One polarity being heightened not just in social media, but also in government chambers and around dinner tables, is the divide between LGBTQ+ people and the cisgender straights. 

This divide is certainly not new—the original Queer Eye cast tried to bridge the gap between queers and straights back in 2003 by being “Out to make over the world. One straight guy at a time,” hence offering up some skills to thrive on their reality TV show. The trope of gay men who really have their shit together (around grooming, decor, emotional regulation, and cookery) was played out as a fantasy that challenged historically cis-male obliviousness on a case-by-case basis. The idea was to gently hug and shoo away toxic masculinity in favor of a friendlier, rowdier, albeit more organized—and often more gentrified—life experience. 

Queer Eye: The Musical Parody
Through 8/28: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM; Second City UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com, $29-$79.

The even more popular reboot of the show (2018) was almost a parody of its former iteration, all while taking things further in a good way by modeling emotional intelligence, radical acceptance, and owning trans identities. The show embraced its mission with the same corny if joyous earnestness, and also added a layer of diversity (and made many of our hopes come true) by inviting in non-cis and queer people for makeovers at last. Taken in correct doses (binged), the Fab Five can act as a balm against the relentless news cycle or any feelings one might catch about humanity as a whole sucking. That is why I have loved Queer Eye, uncritically accepting its absurd premise—the one where five visibly queer people turn up in American towns, pop up in the life of their subject like a storm front, cheerfully ignore stunned locals, and joyously improve the confidence, setting, and curb appeal of an individual who may have voted for the limitation of their human rights. 

Do I sound cynical? Let me assure you I am not. I have seen every episode of Queer Eye, in all iterations, from the somewhat directionless Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!, to Queer Eye: Germany (where all of the experts were swapped out with actual German people).

And so when I heard that Second City was mounting Queer Eye: The Musical Parody right here in my hometown, and in time for Pride Month, picture my joy. Unless you happen to know my opinion on musicals. With a few exceptions (Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Grease), my avoidance of musicals is palpable for a theater critic. Yes, it is ironic that I accept the blithe Queer Eye story line, yet can’t suspend my disbelief during musicals long enough to imagine how folks might opt to express their feelings in song. Why not angrily journal or call a friend instead? So you see, this is why Queer Eye: The Musical Parody is the perfect conundrum for me. 

One question I asked myself, and then, somewhat rudely, asked talented composer/music director/lyricist/orchestrator Heidi Joosten was, “Can my love of the Fab Five (and their relentless shenanigans) override my fight-or-flight urge when that first actor belts out a tune?” Joosten politely described her faith in the show’s ability to win me over. “In the same way that we set out to honor the people that we are parodying, the music for this show is meant to honor lots of people’s different tastes. We make fun of many musical theater tropes, but the music does not feel like Rodgers and Hammerstein 2.0. . . . I would suggest that anybody that’s comfortable turning on their radio is going to find something to like about the music in this show.”

But: “Can the pleasure of watching gay men crush the patriarchy one makeover at a time be enhanced with music?” I asked, clearly just unable to let this go.

“I believe in musical theater that you are obligated to tell an honest story. This particular show to me made a lot of sense to parody because there is no true human villain (in it),” Joosten explained. “The villain is societal expectations, and trying to just find the true person within that gets to shine. Everybody there is just trying to find the happiest version of themselves.” 

The first run of Queer Eye: The Musical Parody played to sold-out audiences in a pre-pandemic 2019. I asked Joosten if the show has changed much since. “It honors the last show that we did and it is a completely different show. We have cut characters, we have added characters, we have expanded characters. It is now a full two-act musical when it was a one-act before. It’s been exciting to see the show grow from the playground version through the pandemic as we grew as people.”

Growth is good. But, I wondered, will parody be applied in a punch-up or punch-down direction? For example, in parodying a show that already is a parody, couldn’t things veer into satire territory? Evan Mills, co-director/writer/creator, is certain that is not the case. “They are real people, and we’re parodying real lives . . . taking their qualities and just heightening it to a fun and playful level. When you start writing parodies, you immediately pick up on the things that maybe they get teased about, but then you take it and you’re able to flip it and to twist it and showcase everyone’s strengths in humor.” 

Seasoned actor Evan Tyrone Martin, who plays culture expert Karamo, agrees, explaining how the Queer Eye series has captured his admiration. “It wasn’t something that I necessarily would’ve seen myself watching initially, but once I got into it, the relationships that these men built with each other, with the people that they were helping and even with families . . . these people truly care for each other and want to help each other. What Evan and Heidi put together is so smart and really funny, but also cares so much about these people and the message that they’re trying to convey. They did an excellent job of being funny without losing the heart that exists with the show.”

I wondered if the show would involve improvisation, since it was taking place at Second City. “While there could have been pockets for a scene that we could improvise, we didn’t want to take the risk of anything feeling out of place. And we wanted to really make this a musical and not an improvised musical,” Mills explained. 

Fair enough—inviting audience commentary on LGBTQ+ identities in today’s climate (even in queer-friendly Chicago) could potentially get dicey. I picture well-meaning drunk audience members suggesting inappropriate things, like I dishearteningly once endured at a dog improv show not long ago. (Second City performer Peter Kim left the 2016 Second City e.t.c. show, A Red Line Runs Through It, in the wake of what he described in a Chicago magazine piece as “increasingly racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments [hurled] at me and my castmates.)

Mills explained, “It’s significantly important that we are opening that first weekend of June. We wanted this to be a Pride show, but we also didn’t want it to just be a Pride show.” The run is all summer long, giving the show the opportunity to showcase queer identities beyond the rainbow-bloated month of June.

Martin added, “So many of the messages around Pride itself are about inclusion and acceptance and just celebrating the person that you are. And this show is all of those things.”

In The Pride Issue

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Jeremey Johnson has chronicled nearly two years of pretrial house arrest.