“Everybody’s talking ’bout the boy on the stage who broke out of his cage.”
Jamie is 16 years old. He’s openly gay and a closeted drag queen. He is also the protagonist of the charming musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. The show transferred from Sheffield to the West End in the Fall of 2017 and opened to rave reviews. It features likeable characters, an interesting story and an uneven score. Some folks think it could transfer to Broadway and impress the fans of Kinky Boots and Be More Chill. Others, myself included, think it needs a pruning and an Off-Broadway test run.
I’ll be taking a look at the libretto’s structure. Mild spoilers ahead.
The Heroes Journey
The original Jamie, John McCrea, gave a breakout star performance. Luckily the production was filmed for posterity before he aged out of the role. McCrea integrates the conflicting sides of Jamie’s personality, creating a complex leading man that you can root for despite the occasional selfish act. The first two numbers establish Jamie’s bravado (“And You Don’t Even Know It”) and his self-doubt (“The Wall In My Head”). He wants to perform but his cruel father has damaged his self-esteem. Goals and conflict are established. I found these Jamie’s best songs in the score.
Friends and Foes
Jamie has several cheerleaders: his loving best friend, his sassy neighbor, his drag queen mentors and his enabling mother. The first three sing generic inspirational songs. They lack specificity and could be mix and matched between the characters. The drag queens are particularly disappointing. If they’re supposed to be bad drag queens they could still have sung a “Gotta Have a Gimmick” level show stopper.
Mother gets the complex songs. She supports her son but has taken it to an unhealthy level. She’s shielded Jamie from the knowledge that his father, her ex, despises them both. She’s gone so far as to send Jamie birthday gifts with the fathers’ name on them. It’s clear Jamie will need to learn the truth about both of his parents and move beyond it.
Sadly their resolution is rushed as the show tries to make room for multiple antagonists. The self-loathing bully isn’t necessarily closeted but there’s plenty of subtext to feed the shippers. Some nameless gay bashers raise the stakes. A frustrated teacher gets an interesting number. Jamie’s applied a bad makeup job in the girls’ bathroom. The teacher catches him and forces him to keep it on in class. She mockingly sings that he’s made himself a “Work of Art.” Halfway through the song Jamie takes over, defiantly singing that he is indeed a Work of Art. She gives Jamie the courage that five inspirational songs couldn’t. Jamie learns that a “f*** you world!” mindset is a useful tool in any drag queens arsenal.
Act one builds to Jamie’s debut at the Legs Eleven drag show. The students kick off the second act with the title song as they rave about his performance. Now that he’s won over the student body he wants to attend the prom in drag. This makes Jamie the third contemporary musical about a gay kid at prom (alongside The Prom and Prom Queen: The Musical) and the second one based on a documentary (Jamie: Drag Queen at 16). Turns out if you tell a teen they can’t go to prom they become a lovable underdog.
Here’s where things fall apart for me. I know high school shows tend to end at prom but I found act ones’ drag show more important for Jamie’s future. The show doesn’t find the prom important enough to show, ending the story in the school parking lot. Mother’s already gotten the 11 o’clock number, a torchy ballad reminiscent of Mame’s “If He Walked Into My Life, ” leaving Jamie with an self-actualizing monologue and a dull song over the curtain call. It’s one thing to end act one before Jamie’s drag performance. It’s another to end act two without a proper “You Can’t Stop the Beat” style prom finale.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is already a success. It lost the Olivier Awards to Hamilton but so did everybody. If it transfers to Broadway it will gain prestige, expand its audience and attract regional producers. The show isn’t perfect but, like Jamie himself, it has the chutzpah to overcome adversity.