Over the past fifty years, the pink triangle has become closely identified with LGBTQ+ pride, but some may be unfamiliar with its dark past; it was originally a badge of shame created by Nazis to mark concentration camp prisoners who were incarcerated for being gay men.
As Hitler viewed gay men a threat to his plans to “purify” Germany, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested for violating anti-gay laws under Nazi rule. About half were imprisoned; an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps, where according to one scholar, “they were subjected to the harshest conditions and treated as the lowest of the low in the camp hierarchy.”
Later reclaimed as a positive symbol of self-identity, the pink triangle has been adopted by both the LGBTQ+ community and the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
In “Chanteuse: A Survival Musical,” a new show opening this weekend at Richmond Triangle Players, audiences are transported back to the era of the pink triangle’s genesis. Created by local actor Alan Palmer, “Chanteuse” tells the story of Werner, a gay man raised in London who comes to Berlin for college in the 1920s, a period when the city was a mecca for gay culture. As the Nazis take power, Werner tries to avoid imprisonment by adopting his landlady’s guise after she passes away. Over the course of the show, Werner begins performing nightclubs in her persona.
For “Chanteuse,” Palmer did five years of research, including at the memorial and museum for the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside of Berlin and at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
“I’ve been fascinated with the Holocaust,” says Palmer, who also stars in the one-person show. “I ended up doing some research on the gay men that had been taken away, and there’s not a lot of stories on that. … With the Jewish population, they passed down stories from their heritage from generation to generation, whereas the gay men of that period, families didn’t really talk about [them].”
Palmer has previously performed on Triangle’s stage, including premiering his cabaret “The Fabulous Divas of Hollywood” where he portrayed 18 different divas of the silver screen. He has an extensive career on stage and screen that includes 1,500 performances of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” appearing in “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” at Radio City Music Hall with Michael Crawford and playing Corcus, an Alien Ranger, on the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”
“It was really just a blip of work that I did,” says Palmer of his three months of filming as a Power Ranger; he still attends comic conventions and other events as a guest. “It’s been fun to meet fans.”
To create the musical, Palmer collaborated with friend and colleague David Legg, who has performed events at Carnegie Hall and appeared in musicals. Palmer wrote the lyrics for “Chanteuse” and Legg composed the jazz-influenced score. In the Richmond show, Palmer will be backed by a four-piece of saxophone, bass, piano and percussion.
Helming the show is Dorothy Danner, an accomplished director of more than 200 operas, operettas and musicals, including with Glimmerglass, Julliard, the Boston Pops and the Virginia Opera. As a performer, she’s appeared numerous times on Broadway, as well as in the film version of “The Producers.”
“Boy, did she jump into [the show] feet first. It’s been such a fun collaboration to work with her,” says Palmer of Danner, adding that she’s been living with him during this final stage of getting the show ready. “We just eat, sleep and breathe this production. She constantly brings things to the table.”
The production also received an assist from Danner’s film and TV actress sister Blythe (Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother), who loaned the show a German trunk that fits the period.
In Triangle’s lobby will be a “pop-up” museum of exhibits that provide additional information about the time period, including photos of men who were imprisoned for being gay, memorials, a replica of a concentration camp shirt and displays about gay life in Berlin at the time.
Palmer says he planned to take the musical to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago, but the pandemic quashed those plans. Though Palmer previously performed a 15-minute staged reading of “Chanteuse” in San Francisco, Richmond will be the show’s first full performance. Palmer plans to premiere the show in London later this year.
“I really hope people come out and give new works a chance,” Palmer says. “[‘Chanteuse’] is a very solid, truthful piece that really gives heart to this time period.”
Richmond Triangle Players’ “Chanteuse: A Survival Musical” runs Jan. 13-23 at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1200 Altamont Ave. For more information, call (804) 346-8113 or visit rtriangle.org.