opera

Sam Bennett

My first attempt to get through to Erik Ransom takes me to his answerphone, which concludes with him advising callers to “have a decadent day” – hands down the best sign-off I’ve ever heard. I tell him so when he rings back shortly after, and that I wish we’d arranged the interview for that morning instead of late afternoon – it would have set my mood to ‘good’ for the day. “Well, have a decadent night,” he amends.

I begin with the first musical he wrote, Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions. He tells me that initially he wasn’t attempting a musical theatre show. Stimulated by Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack, the musician was taking a stab at a glam-pop album, and “came up with this character who was the crown prince of Sodom and Gomorrah”. The creation named Damian broke beyond the borders of a concept album, though, into “a fleshed out musical theatre character”.

Coming premiered in 2011. Its writer is not a Christian, but due to how religion was presented in the US, “I felt I was still a victim of the kind of Christianity to which I never subscribed.” He calls the musical a response to the extremists, fundamentalists and evangelical Republicans of Middle America who considered a gay or trans person to be sinful. “I had this idea that Damian was the Antichrist because they made him that way; their response to him caused him to declare war on God.” Playing at Vauxhall’s Above The Stag until the end of August is another of Ransom’s musicals – Grindr: The Opera. Part pop-rock musical, part “homage to Gilbert and Sullivan”, it was first performed in 2014, and was his reaction “to the changing landscape of dating life in the gay world. I’m of an inbetween age where I grew up with the internet but didn’t grow up with the apps.” He recalls a time when, while there was online dating, there was also still a bar culture where you would “drink yourself up the courage and talk to the hot guy. Then I saw that start to decline,” he states, “and saw a lot of those bars close. My attempts to utilise the newer technological fads were an exploration – it was a huge shift in a very short amount of time.”

Grindr: The Opera actually started life years before Grindr the app came to be, as Manhunt.net: The Opera. “I had a lot of friends who used that site, and when I went on it, what I happened upon was very dark to me.” This might have just been because of where in the world he was, and thus not a representation of Manhunt as a whole – nonetheless he recollects the abjectness of that particular online visit.  From here he set about penning the show, and then “let it fall by the wayside for a while. When I came back to it, it was too late for Manhunt, and a friend of mine suggested I do Grindr: The Opera.” He was unsure of whether this would work until, as a Grindr user, “I found myself in a sort of relationship with the app – it didn’t matter to whom I was communicating. I’d wake up in the morning and check in with it, I would go to a new city and see how it felt about me, it was all different people but the app itself was the constant. It felt like a relationship. That’s where I had the idea to make Grindr itself a character.” He didn’t want stereotypes, “but archetypes of four different kinds of people who might be looking for different kinds of things on the app. Some of them find it to great success and some of them are very disappointed.”

The show is not the means to judge anybody, he says, or criticise gay dating apps which he thinks are great for certain things. “I’m New Yorkbased; there are a lot of people, a lot of options. But then there are places in rural America and across the world where people feel very alone in their sexuality. And [an app is] the first way they can connect with someone else who feels like them.” Grindr: The Opera is actually a vehicle with which to pose questions about a world making rapid cyber advancements. “What really is this? How are we adapting to it? How are we going to continue to adapt as technology continues to influence our day-to-day lives, from romance to politics?” Some things, however, never change; the night that followed was, for me, far from decadent.

Grindr: The Opera is at Above The Stag until 26 August
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