When we heard from a fellow fashionista that we had to see the Off-Broadway show, "Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions,” we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! As we settled into our seats at the iconic theatre at 80 St. Marks for the FringeNYC festival, we were taken on a journey like no other. The ability of the actors to play vastly different roles with extremely different costumes showed us their talent right from the get-go. The complete mind-body transformation of innocent Josh Crenshaw from Hopeless Romantic to Extreme Rock God showed how your fashion choice can really change who you are. Without giving too much away, we sat down with show playwright and composer Erik Ransom, who also plays the co-main character Damian Salt, to learn more about the origins of the musical, his personal favorite fashion pieces from it (too many for us to choose from!), and even a dating horror story coming to us via Grindr.
Labeling Men: How did the concept of the show come about?
Erik Ransom: In the beginning there was darkness. The idea for the show was drawn from a lot of places. It’s a complex epic with a myriad of themes of religion, fame, love and more. It all started when I was working on a solo album. I was developing my Glam Rock act and, being a disciple of David Bowie, I wanted to nurture my own sort of Ziggy Stardust-like character. Instead of being a “Gaylien,” like Bowie, I decided that my onstage persona was the last heir to the royal lines of Sodom and Gomorrah. I wrote a song called "New Sodom" about decadence in New York, and then the ideas just poured out of me like vodka from a shaker. I realized that “New Sodom” wasn’t just a stand-alone song; it was the opening number to a story bigger than I could fit into a concept album. It began all in fun, but as the story came out, it began to touch on some more serious themes. I thought about Tea Party politics, and the sorts of evangelical politicians who make policy that effects us all, whilst earnestly believing we are living in the End Times and that The Rapture will happen any moment. That seemed outlandish to me, so I decided to take a look at The Book of Revelation and try to figure out how the prophesy would literally happen in a world where Facebook and Twitter exist. Over five sleepless nights, I completed a 60-page first draft with 14 new songs. Damian Salt was born! He was a mélange of things I loved. He was an amalgam of Jareth from Labyrinth, Oscar Wilde, RuPaul, a Disney villain and Lady Gaga. A shock-rocking pop star who was larger than life, over-the-top and very flawed. He was a blast to write and a thrill to play! Honestly, when I wrote the show I thought it was something I’d do for fun with my friends in my living room. I didn’t expect people who don’t know me to appreciate my odd sense of humor or my penchant for the epic. But I’ve been fortunate enough to find that people really seem to like it!
L.M: How does this show compare to "My Big Gay Italian Wedding" [Editor’s Note: Erik Ransom was in the cast of the show]?
E.R: I think both shows share a message of love and acceptance, though stylistically they are extremely different. "Coming" has a darker, edgier sensibility with its graphic representations of sex and drug use. “MBGIW” is a more family-friendly show with sort of a sitcom feel that has delighted audiences for years now. The Wedding is inoffensive, whereas "Coming" basks in blasphemy. “Wedding” has proven that it has a market and staying power. It’s run pretty consistently for about four years now. I actually wrote “Coming” shortly before we started rehearsals for “My Big Gay Italian Wedding” in 2010. I think, on the whole, “Coming” appeals to a different demographic and, though it’s got a smaller cast, “Coming” is an epic. Our dramatis personae includes demons, demigods and angels. There are supernatural elements and, of course, we’re a musical! Both shows actually have the same run-time, though. I’d love if some of the Big Gay Italian fan-base came to see “Coming”, but I can say they’d be in for a shock if they expected the same kind of show.
L.M: Since the costumes in the show are as "out there as possible" for your character, do you feel like you embody that in your personal life?
E.R: I like to be a glam chameleon. Glameleon? I won’t say I don’t own the 8-inch platform fetish boots that I wear in the show, but I certainly don’t wear them every day. There is absolutely a part of me that loves to be larger than life through fashion apotheosis. As the prophet Bowie once said, “I always had the repulsive need to be something more than human.” That’s actually a theme in “Coming”, where we see Damian lose his humanity after he faces tragedy in his personal life. That is actually reflected in the evolution of his costumes throughout the show. Those who’ve seen the show will know that we took some inspiration from Queen Elizabeth I, whose make-up and fashion choices so distinguished her from a world in which she was set apart. Bobby Fabulous designed a beautifully outlandish costume piece that Damian dons at the end of Act I that tends to drop the jaws of the audience. As for Erik? I like to be able to blend into a crowd, sometimes. More often than not, I dress pretty conservatively. Once I've washed off my contouring, and doffed my platforms, I can appear very mild-mannered. People frequently don't recognize me after the show.
L.M: What is your favorite part of the experience so far?
E.R: “Coming” was the first musical I ever wrote, and it’s the only one I’ve seen remounted. Some of the musicals I’ve written since have yet to be produced. Perhaps they never will, but it’s been really great to be able to remount this show. It matures with every new rewrite and every new cast. I love hearing from people who’ve seen previous versions of the show and learning what they like from the new production or miss from older drafts. It’s fascinating! It’s also new enough that I’m still struck by the work people put into my show. The actors really work hard to develop their characters, and flesh out backgrounds that aren’t in the script to layer their portrayals. They do really beautiful work. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the other two members of my Unholy Trinity! Charles Czarnecki has done exquisite work on the orchestrations and vocal arrangements for this production. He’s brought the music to a whole new level, and his sensibilities mesh very well with mine. And our Directrix, Rachel Klein, has been a fast friend and amazing collaborator since I met her less than a year ago. She and I share a lot of the same influences, inspirations and aesthetic tastes so that was a big selling point, but all the glitz and glamour she puts into the show are not distractions. They are ornaments she places over her nuanced, carefully crafted oversight of the show. People who’ve had lukewarm responses to past productions have raved to me about this one. Rachel and Charles are a huge part of that, as is the current cast, and creative team.
Right now, I'm sort of beaming over the audience response to our first three performances. It's been a few years since this story was last told onstage, and I've been thrilled at the reactions. I can tell that people are really along for the story. There are funny bits and tearful parts and our audiences have been strapped in for the rollercoaster.
L.M: Have you ever gone on a date with a super fan who was waiting for you backstage or asked you out based on the show?
E.R: I don’t know that I have that kind of game! Super fans? I’m not at the Damian Salt level quite yet! I’m just starring in a scrappy musical in the New York International Fringe Festival. I’ve forged a lot of friendships based on the show and people’s reactions to it. The show has sort of a cult feel that draws some people back to multiple performances, which is incredibly flattering. I love hearing what people pick up on subsequent viewings that they missed the first time around. In spite of my onstage persona, I actually consider myself quite shy, particularly when it comes to the romantic end of things. I am terrible at flirting and even worse at picking up when someone is flirting with me. I’m told I come across as aloof, but it’s really my anxiety about the whole thing. Dating is so different now that apps have become such a big part of it. I’m still having trouble assimilating. This seems like a good time to plug another of my musicals, which is about this very subject! Be on the lookout for “GRINDR The Opera”, coming soon to a theatre near you.
L.M: Fashion plays a huge part in the show. Tell us about some of your favorite pieces…
E.R: Rachel and I are really into Isis wings. I have sort of a drag Egyptian goddess outfit that I really enjoy. There’s a headpiece/wig that sort of reminds me of Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, so that’s awesome. I’m all about platforms. Go big or go home. Damian starts the show in 6-inch patent leather platforms boots with spikes protruding and he ends two inches taller. I mentioned the Elizabethan-inspired piece by Bobby Fabulous, who refers to the look as “Queen Elizabeth’s Gay of Thrones bondage fantasy”. I’ve also felt much more like Damian since we started incorporating a corset. And, of course, we’re using a jacket from the original production of Boy George’s musical masterpiece, “Taboo,” which I saw on Broadway years ago and has been a huge inspiration to me ever since. I totally think, with “Kinky Boots” and “Hedwig” on Broadway, now is the time to remount “Taboo”! It was ahead of its time, but mark my words: Its time has come!
L.M: Were these pieces all designed by you? Tell us about the process that went into each piece?
E.R: Rachel Klein designed most of the costumes. She’s so multitalented. And, it being a Fringe show with a Fringe budget, a lot of the costumes were repurposed from elsewhere. As I mentioned earlier, I was a glam rocker, so I have my own collection. Rachel has a warehouse-worth of glamour which she was kind enough to lend to the project, and Bobby Fabulous, who designed all the costumes for our Philadelphia premiere, lent us a few pieces and constructed “Elizabeth: The Dragon Age” especially for this production! It was very important to Rachel that we highlight costumes to display this piece for what it is: A glamageddon spectacular! FringeNYC has a very strict policy of 15 minutes to load the whole show in and out between performances, which means there’s not much in the way of set. We’re sharing a theatre space with 8 or 9 other shows, and there’s nowhere to store things in between, so we have to pack and unpack a van every time. Because of those limitations, we wanted to ensure that we made up for the minimal set by making sure all the costumes and props were well adorned with rhinestones, sequins and glitter as befitting the nature of our take on the Rapture.
L.M: The innocent character's transformation is remarkable. How would you label his style at the beginning of the play and then after the transformation?
E.R: Well, at the beginning he’s so wholesome and fresh-faced. Glen North, who plays Josh, is sort of an Aryan Adonis, which is what I feel like the Sarah Palin crowd would expect of Jesus. Just a heartland kid who wouldn’t dream of sex before marriage, singing about love, peace and togetherness. Then, after Damian becomes the Antichrist and declares war on God, he gives Josh an Extreme Makeover: Homo Edition. Less clothes, more wigs, tighter pants. From David Archuleta to Adam Lambert. I think Glen plays the transition beautifully. The wide-eyed, innocence seems to come rather naturally to him, but he found his inner rock-demon, too, which our audiences will see in Act II. There’s also this inner turmoil that plays out as he tries to fit a mold that is not his own.
L.M: Has the current "dating world" affected your show in any way?
E.R: Well, insomuch as I have plenty of time to work on the show, because I never date! I will say that I have a really wonderful, committed relationship with vodka, though. Honestly, I have had a really busy, sort of inflexible schedule of late. This past Spring I was hired to write lyrics for “The Anthem” which opened Off-Broadway in May, meanwhile I was rehearsing a concert version of “GRINDR The Opera”. The week that went up I found out “Coming” had been accepted to Fringe, and then I had to raise money to budget and produce this big-ass show in like two months. It’s been really gratifying to have so much going on, but hasn’t left much time for dating. At least that’s what I keep telling my dear, beloved vodka!
L.M: Tell us a funny or horrible dating experience…
E.R: Whilst doing my – ahem - research for “GRINDR The Opera”, someone contacted me on that fateful app. He saw that I spoke German and so we had an exchange auf Deutsch, which was all very tame. Nothing graphic. He asked me about work, he told me he was busy studying. Then all of a sudden he asked, “Wie groß ist dein Schwanz?” which translates to, “How big is your dick?” Cut ahead a few hours, and he messaged me again and said he was still studying, to which I replied: “Jesus Christ!” “Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain!,” he responded. “LOL!,” I answered. “I’m serious,” he said. “So, your interpretation of Christianity is strict about exclaiming Christ’s name, but it’s all cool with asking random strangers about their phallus size in what I can only assume is the prelude to a proposition for a hookup?” And he blocked me.
L.M: Any dating advice for NYC?
E.R: Not that I’m anyone’s authority, but I’d say first of all, get off your phones, especially if you’re in a bar, people. The alcohol is there to embolden you to talk to strangers. Why do you think vodka and I have had such a healthy relationship for so long? You’re out! Talk to people in person. Buy someone a drink. I’ll have a Chopin on the rocks, no lime. My only other advice would be that you should take your date to see “Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions” before it’s too late!
Learn more about the musical on Facebook and the show's website here
Interview by Nisim Frank
Photos provided by the show’s production team