Standing on stage in a black-and-yellow dress, blond hair teased high and a face of makeup akin to every contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a sassy (and sultry) character introduces herself.
“Find a guy you like and click,” she sings, “pick a made to order trick / Want it nice and quick? / There’s an app for that…it’s me!”
Those sitting at a staged reading of Grindr the Opera on Tuesday knew exactly who she was.
Her looks and persona mirrored the smart phone app that’s far too familiar to those within the LGBT community (and even some who have yet to openly join). Grindr, as the show’s title reveals, is portrayed by Courter Simmons (Jersey Boys).
It’s “where class meets crass comes camp,” the show’s writer, Erik Ransom, described to The Daily Beast, and follows four gay men from various “tribes”—niche-identifying groups for Grindr users—as they search for different forms of intimacy through the app, who completes the cast. This "unofficial parody" is directed by Rachel Klein.
Songs like “No Strings Attached,” “Looking/Into,” “We Met on Grindr,” and “Cum-Dumpster” use brilliantly vulgar humor to explore more serious themes of love, lust, health, and relationships, while the title blends high and low culture, evoking an over-the-top aesthetic of the opera—fur coats and opulence—and the dirty, seedy side of Grindr, “which is basically people sending selfies of their dicks,” says Ransom.
So if you’re expecting something similar to grand operatic pieces like Carmen, look elsewhere.
The music, under the direction of Charles Czarnecki (Jersey Boys, Broadway Rox), is accessible to all, not just the elite, and pays homage to operatic greats like Mozart, Puccini, and Gilbert & Sullivan,” while also giving a nod to more recent artists from the era of The Village People and contemporary pop.
“It’s just a funny juxtaposition to have the classy concept of opera with the crass concept of Grindr,” Ransom said of choosing to title the show an opera while including a mash-up of various musical styles.
When the smartphone program, billed as the first GPS-based dating app, appeared in the iTunes store in 2009, it completely revolutionized how men who have sex with men sought out their partners—hundreds of guys immediately became accessible through a grid of smiling faces and headless torsos.
With a few simple taps anyone could order up a nearby companion quicker than their Seamless delivery.
Now, millions of users from over 180 countries log in to find a connection of their choice, even though some, like Vanity Fair, consider it to be the “world’s biggest, scariest gay bar.”
And to be honest, it can seem that way.
First-time users are often flooded with a stream of vulgar remarks and lewd photos, which is why one of the show’s opening numbers is pretty abrasive.
The number of times “cock,” “fuck,” and “cum” are said will have you shifting uneasily in your seat, as you laugh from both pure shock and the show’s rapid-fire humor.
Oh, and there’s a real life dick pic.
“There is a certain expectation to what a show like this is going to be when you hear it’s an opera about Grindr,” Ransom said. “But I would like to think that we are offering more than just a ‘smutty for the sake of smut’ cabaret show.”
Ransom’s aim is to be “more of an exploration of this very paramount shift in the gay culture” that is now “beginning to bleed into straight culture.”
Those who aren’t familiar with the app will be caught up to speed through the character of Devon (performed by Ransom), who is fresh from a long-term relationship.
He is introduced to Grindr through a musical number about its purpose, how it works, and navigating the app’s various features.
“It has enabled a more impersonal form of communication,” Ransom said. “I came up in more of the bar hookup era where you would have to drink up the courage to talk to someone. That no longer exists because you can go to the bar and see the person you want to talk to, find them on Grindr, and message them. If they don’t respond to you, then you can just write them off. It’s a softer rejection.”
App developers have attempted to bring the same aspect to the straight community through other GPS-based dating apps like Blendr, 3nder, and Hinge.
Even Tinder has been billed as “a hookup app that women actually use.”
Grindr the Opera began years before the app had even come into existence, when those dabbling in online dating or seeking a random hookup chose to resort to the World Wide Web.
Websites like Manhunt, Adam for Adam, and even Craigslist became the cruisiest places to connect one lustful body to another.
“Manhunt the Opera” was Ransom’s original title, and it was while exploring the website that he found his first source of inspiration.
A profile of a “bug chaser” (someone seeking to become HIV positive through sexual intercourse) became “the genesis of the entire piece.”
“It was just so dark to me,” Ransom said. “I read the profile and found out about what this very small, very specific culture was seeking and it was absolutely fascinating to me. I really wanted to write an accurate and respectful reflection of what they’re seeking.”
This character is seen through Jack, the “twink” who is barely 18 and holds pride in his reputation for being a “cum dumpster” while sleeping with as many people as he can to obtain his sought-after status.
“I want to get seeded / I want to get breeded,” Jack, played by DJ Bucciarelli (Jesus Christ Superstar, Saturday Night Fever) sings. “I’ve got a hot, hungry mouth and your seed’s gonna feed it / Then you can fuck me sore until I’m bleeding… I’m bleeding! Yay!”
His encounter with Don, the closeted “daddy” who identifies as the “very model of a Reaganite Conservative,” entices him to his hotel where he is literally hiding in a closet, waiting for the right moment to get in bed.
“Every single hookup is a gamble for my life,” Don, who is played by William Michals (Beauty and the Beast, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera, Chicago), sings. “I’ve got a good career, a summer house, a boat, a wife / But I’ve got a good two hours ’til a business conference call / And for a lay, I’ve got to say, I’d risk the yacht and all.”
The exchange turns sexually violent and leaves Jack both terrified and disgusted, before revealing the motives behind his “bug chasing” ways.
Having moved from a small town to New York City, where “pretty, young boys are a dime a dozen,” he wanted the status to confirm him place and rightful belonging within a community. For him, that was the HIV community.
A more positive side of the production is found in Devon and Tom, who represent the “geek” and “average” tribes. The two find a seemingly solid relationship through a should-have-been-one-night-stand initiated through the app.
“I don’t like clubs / I don’t like bars / I’m not afraid of LTR’s,” Tom, who is played by Olle Roberg (Rent, Rocky Horror Picture Show), sings. LTR stands for Long Term Relationships. “Just don’t be old / And don’t be fat / And we can have some fun all NSA / No strings attached.”
Over the course of year, the two have their ups and downs of what looks like a perfect soon-to-be nuptial. But before long, the relationship is thrust into turmoil ignited by the enticement of Grindr.
“I think it’s very easy to get addicted to it,” Ransom said of the app and the characters’ swift ability to access it. “It’s so easy to create a relationship with the app as opposed to other human beings. You can talk to different people and have conversations throughout your day and its almost like you’re dating it.”
Ransom admitted he once felt addicted to the app. The relationship that people often create with it is one of the reasons he chose to make Grindr a character in the show.
“It’s this instant gratification that we get from Facebook likes and whatever else and it’s exceedingly present in [Grindr], where the stakes are higher because it’s about sex and relationships and how attractive you are and how much you’re wanted.”
Sure, the musical numbers use humor to address serious topics such as rape fantasies, sexual health, and promiscuity, but the issues aren’t explored lightly.
Ransom and the cast have found the sweet spot that balances comedy and drama, quickly shifting between the two genres to expose and explore delicate themes with a deft lightness of touch.
While the plot culminates in a twist-of-fate that brings all four characters together, that surprise will not be revealed here, but instead hopefully unveiled this fall. The team is seeking investors for its Off Broadway debut.