Defiant, Majestic, and Beautiful: a song cycle about a range of transfeminine experiences
Brin Solomon is a self-described transfeminine composer, theatre maker, and bassoonist. They majored in composition at Yale University, then went on to get an MFA in Musical Theatre Writing from NYU’s Tisch School. They are currently the Digital and Social Media Copywriter and Coordinator for National Sawdust, which is a non-profit that provides resources to composers and sponsors an annual grant competition for trans, nonbinary, and women composers. One of Solomon’s recent projects, developed for a class at NYU called “Composer/Lyricist,” is a song cycle about the experiences of various characters who face transmisogyny, told as narratives by transfeminine performers, titled Defiant, Majestic, and Beautiful. In this post, the definition of transfeminine used will be the one that Solomon uses for the purpose of this work; “Someone who was designated as male at birth, whose parents were like, ‘We have a boy now!’ And that person grew up and was like, ‘Actually, I’m not a boy!’”
According to Grove (Oxford) Music Online, the go-to first source for classical music research and a technical sort of Wikipedia, a song cycle is “a group of individually complete songs designed as a unit...for solo or ensemble voices with or without instrumental accompaniment.” Grove’s entry on song cycles is broken into three sections: “Beethoven,” “Schubert,” and “Schumann and other composers.” From this, it is clear that the song cycle, like so many other sectors of classical music, is historically the domain of white straight cis men. Song cycles are most commonly about love –– even if the lyrics are seemingly about nature or death, the songs are often truly meant to be about love. As as they are typically written by straight cis men for either straight male characters or straight female characters, they usually heavily reinforce cisgender and heterosexual roles. In more recent years, song cycles have branched out to other genres of music, including musical theatre, where the mainstages are still dominated by cis white men (who may occasionally be gay). However, Defiant, Majestic, and Beautiful turns a lot of these stereotypes on their heads through Solomon’s presentation of many different angles of experiences with transmisogyny.
Defiant, Majestic, and Beautiful, abbreviated “DMAB” as a nod to the characters’ birth assignments, is a series of twelve mostly-sung vignettes with twenty characters (none of which appear in more than one song) performed by four actors. Solomon says,“As a white transfeminine person, I feel like I have a moral obligation to create roles specifically for trans POC and use my whiteness to, insofar as I’m going to be treated better because I’m white, use that better treatment and spread it around and lift other people with me, so it’s not like, “I got mine!” No, it’s not. I have a moral obligation to hire people of color, and if you want to do my work, you have to hire people of color. I don’t think it’s fair for me to succeed without working to bring other people with me.” Solomon is a firm believer that all characters in theatre should have names, and so instead of “designating each character by voice part, Solomon says, “one singer sings all the characters whose name starts with P, another all the characters whose names start with J, and so on and so forth.”
“Bitter And Queer” is the first movement in the song cycle, and is sung by the full quartet of performers. It serves as a sort of introduction to the set, and its message, while alluding to the daily harassment and microaggressions experienced by transfeminine people, is akin to the oft-repeated chant popularized by Queer Nation, “We’re here, we’re queer!” In the next song, “In My Day,” an older, binary, trans woman named Patricia sings about her experiences in the queer community in the earlier years of queer organizing in the U.S. and her frustration with what she sees as privileged younger people who are claiming transness as part of a fad. In her day, she explains, “there were only men and women. Boys were boys, girls were girls, and that’s a fact. And sure, one or two of us crossed over, but we always left the categories intact.” Patricia tells the audience that the binary-smashing youth of today “chastise [her] because the words [she] fought for are now slurs. But back in my day, there was shit they’ve all forgotten...In their rush to leave their history behind. But I was there, and I will not be silenced,” she sings.
The songs range from, “Float Away,” an upbeat song in a minor key about coping with dysphoria through dissociation, to a song sung by a character who feels like she’s alone and unique in her identity as a trans lesbian Jewish anti-Zionist, and makes a pointed effort not to surround herself with people who are the same or think the same way as her, but ends up kissing another trans lesbian Jewish anti-Zionist when she attempts to escape the like-minded thinkers who have congregated around her on social media..
The sixth song, “I Enjoy Being A Girl,” takes place in a psychologist’s office, where Sonya sings a time-tested stereotypical trans narrative in a commentary on the pressure to present an established trans narrative in order to receive a letter from a therapist to begin medical transition. In 1966, Harry Benjamin, a German-American endocrinologist and sexologist, published a textbook of case studies that would become the standard diagnostic tool for transsexualism, The Transsexual Phenomenon. Soon after, when trans people were trying to prove their suitability for surgery, they matched Benjamin’s criteria perfectly. For years, researchers thought this was due to the widespread accuracy of Benjamin’s text, but eventually they realized that the book was being circulated throughout the trans community, so that the patients could present narratives that would deem them eligible for medical transition.
“I Enjoy Being A Girl” takes musical and textual quotes, as well as its title, from a song by the same name in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1958 Broadway musical, Flower Drum Song. I am not sure whether Solomon knew this when writing DMAB, but the original “I Enjoy Being A Girl,” an ode to normative gender presentation, gender roles, and heterosexuality, was actually performed and recorded in cabarets by Christine Jorgensen, who says it “became her theme song.” As Emily Skidmore writes, white trans women such as Jorgensen “were able to articulate transsexuality as an acceptable subject position through an embodiment of the norms of white womanhood, most notably domesticity, respectability, and heterosexuality.” The character who sings this song in the original Rodgers and Hammerstein version is asked about her ambitions and responds with the following before launching into song; “I want to be a success as a girl. Oh, it’s nice to have outside accomplishments like singing, cooking or first aid. But the main thing is for a woman to be successful in her gender.” It is easy to see why Jorgensen felt such a connection to this song. After her medical transition, the media constantly analyzed every detail femininity, her attractiveness to the heterosexual man, and consequently, her “success as a girl.”
Some songs are light-hearted, such as the seventh song, “Hey Sugar,” which takes the form of a breakup phone call, with the performer telling sugar that they’re leaving it for salt. This is a reference to the effects of a medicine taken by many transfeminine people known as Spiro, which makes the body retain potassium and lose sodium. Therefore, many people on Spiro get salt cravings.
Likely the heaviest material of the set is in the next to last song, which, as the title suggests, confronts “Passing” in three different contexts of use of the verb “to pass.” First, Sasha and Jamie are being coached by an older trans woman, Polly, in passing as women. Then, Jamie and Sasha discuss passing in relation to Polly’s death, as a victim of violent racialized transmisogyny. Finally, it is Sasha alone on the stage, processing Jamie’s life and their recent passing, also from death, but suicide this time.
The final song, “New Year's Eve,” opens with Selena being invited to Alex’s party and debating whether to accept hir invitation. Eventually, Selena does go to the party and realizes, with a jolt of joy, that this is their first time in a physical space where everyone was trans. Thus, the arc of the story told in this song cycle goes from “We’re here, we’re queer, so deal with it” to a party where everyone is trans and it’s a complete non-issue.
According to National Sawdust, Solomon’s “latest one-act, “Have You Tried Not Being A Monster,” has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano (sic.)”. Arguably, DMAB could be considered the same, as it leaves behind the stereotypes that have come to characterize transfeminine people in the media. Although physical appearance and dysphoria are certainly discussed, none of Solomon’s characters are “on a quest to make [them]selves as pretty, pink, and passive as possible,” as Serano describes the typical portrayal of trans women in media.
Solomon’s characters do not pursue prettiness and pinkness without at least careful examination and criticism of the surrounding societal nuances, and none of their characters are passive by a long shot. For the most part, all the characters in DMAB are overtly aware of the binaries and archetypes present in the media and dominant narratives and are actively challenging them. There is no presumption of heterosexuality between the characters –– none are explicitly straight, and several are lesbian or bi/pan. DMAB tells a broad range of stories and experiences, but very intentionally, according to Solomon, none are about the character realizing that they are transgender, as Solomon feels that this is overrepresented in trans narratives.
As a whole, Brin Solomon’s Defiant, Majestic, and Beautiful is an important step towards filling the large gap that is trans representation in musical theatre and opera. As One is a modern opera about a transgender woman named Hannah. A collaboration between a cis gay man (Mark Campbell), a cis lesbian (Laura Kaminsky), and a trans woman (Kimberly Reed); the design, casting, and media surrounding this opera is unfortunate at best. There are two roles in this work, “Hannah before,” played by a baritone, and “Hannah after,” played by a mezzo-soprano. Although the creators profess that this is not their intention, the names of the characters alone reinforce the widely-held assumption that transition is an event that happens, dividing the trans person’s life into two; pre-transition and post-transition, ignoring that transition and growth are continuous throughout all lives. It seems that out of the 23 past productions – and the 4 scheduled upcoming productions – there has only ever been one trans person playing Hannah; a trans man, a soprano named Liz Bouk, playing the role of “Hannah after.” Alamo City Opera’s casting of Bouk received media attention and this iteration was heralded as the “first to feature a transgender person in the lead role, in an article that neglects to use any pronouns for Bouk or otherwise even allude to his male identity.” This article would lead most readers to assume by default that the trans actor playing a trans woman would be transfeminine, as should be the case. Certainly, one could make the argument that it is better to have a trans actor of any gender than a cis actor playing a trans character, but on the other hand, at least in the other productions there were women playing a trans woman (even if they were cis), as opposed to having a man playing a trans woman, even if he might be able to relate to her transness. Finally, to be frank, As One is clearly intended for primarily cis audiences, and an uninformed cis audience is already prone to confusion over “which direction” of transition a given term implies, so seeing a production where a trans woman is played by a trans man could lead to further confusion.
Kaminsky came up with her idea for an opera about a trans woman after reading a New York Times story about marriage legality issues surrounding a married couple; a cis woman and a trans woman. Kaminsky’s immediate reaction to this article was; “Whoa — this is the stuff of opera.” She was instantly “fixated,” telling her wife, “I have to make an opera around this.These quotes reek of someone who knew very little about trans issues and suddenly decided to become a supposed advocate for the melodrama of it all.
Within the limited and inadequate collection of trans characters who exist in mainstream musical theatre, transfeminine representation is generally for a laugh and/or negative, villainous, etc, and transmasculine rep is almost nonexistent –– with the exception of Southern Comfort, based on a documentary of the same name –– about a transgender man who is dying of ovarian cancer because no doctors will treat him. Southern Comfort received its first production in 2011, and it was not until 2019 that all five transgender characters in the show were played by trans actors for the first time. The lead role, transgender man Robert Eads, has usually been played by a cis woman, while his girlfriend, a trans woman named Lola, is typically played by a cis man. This is confusing, as production photos show Annette O’Toole (playing Eads) with a full beard; presumably the result of several years on testosterone. Why, then, have a woman play this role, and not a (trans or cis) man, even if producers claim a “dearth of trained singers” makes it “difficult to hire transgender singers,” if not to reinforce the transphobic claim that trans people are truly their assigned gender?
Transfeminine and drag (often blurred) representation is at least more common, if not more positive than its transmasculine counterpart. The character of Angel in Rent dies, and although she is arguably the most lovable character, she still kills a puppy. Not great for a start. In Rocky Horror, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the self-described “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania,” is portrayed as a sex-crazed mad scientist and deceptive seductress. Zaza/Albin, Lola, and Hedwig in La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots, and Hedwig, respectively, are all larger-than-life figures whose femininity is seen as an unnatural spectacle. Although La Cage Aux Folles and Kinky Boots are about drag queens, justifying some of the performance element, what does it say about musical theatre that these are among the least tragic portrayals of gender-non-conforming, genderqueer, and transgender individuals?
The answer is clear; it says that more everyday and diverse experiences of transgender people need to receive their moments in the spotlight, and Brin Solomon’s Defiant, Majestic, and Beautiful is undoubtedly a leap in the right direction.