Here is an incomplete list of things I have compared my gender to: the atmosphere of Venus; the infinitesimal space between one moment and the next; un-asking a question; the way the electronic and magnetic part of each ray of light travel at right angles to one another; a lack of weather; iridescence; the abstract concept of self-referentiality; a massive pane of glass smashed into pieces and then held fast in a bundle by an uncuttable rubber band; birds (all of them, but also specific ones).
What’s behind this menagerie of metaphors? The problem is that the inner psychological experience of gender, abstracted from bodies and clothes and so on, is pure subjectivity—it can only be described in terms of itself. The experience writhes away from the confines of language; you can say what it’s like, but never what it is.
Faced with this difficulty, some trans people retreat from trying to capture their nuanced inner gender landscape in its full glory. But others lean into poetry, setting out to convey an emotional truth instead of a logical one. Soft Butter: a trans fantasia on edible themes, created and co-directed by Éamon Boylan, falls firmly in the latter category. Somewhere between a musical, a song cycle, and a psychedelic fever dream, Soft Butter premiered at Ars Nova’s ANT Fest in June 2018.
Most of the experimental trans-centric theatre works that pop up with some frequency around NYC are ephemeral affairs; if you don’t see them in person for their brief runs, the most documentation you can usually hope for is a few production stills on an artist website. But Soft Butter is bucking this trend: A demo album featuring members of the original cast is now available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and other streaming and download sites. (Full disclosure: I have worked on past theater projects with several of the people involved in Soft Butter.)
The premise is macabre: In a meat freezer, an unfeeling Doctor hangs the bodies of his deceased wife and children, so he can eat them later. The bodies’ genders, trapped in flesh even after death, emerge to sing, remember, and plot their revenge. Some of these genders are familiar, run-of-the-mill types – like Boy or Little Sister – while others are far from the beaten path — The Moustache of Tennessee Williams, Snake With A Hat, and, yes, Soft Butter. Each actor plays multiple genders over the course of the show, sometimes expressing different facets of the same self and sometimes showing how that self has changed over time.
The lyrics are as surreal as the genders, and the influence of Gertrude Stein is unmistakable. The opening number, “Genders Are Meant for Eating,” begins with Soft Butter crooning, “We are edible, a body for eating, a body/A body for knowing the body…/what a casserole the body is. Each gender a different vegetable.” (Cannibalism is a running theme in the show, most gruesomely with Philomela, a character from a particularly ghastly Greek myth, and her Raw Tongue, both of whom appear throughout the show.)
Later, in an eponymous ballade, Blue Butter recalls, “There was a doctor who spread me on his toast/and he spread me on a hot piece of toast/and the toast was hot, so I dripped off the toast/and I dripped and I dripped and I dripped… and I dripped on the floor, and his wife came through the door.” The text is all like this, viscerally suggestive images bumping up against obsessive repetitions of fragmentary phrases. If the words are dauntingly abstruse, the music is emotionally transparent. The overall mood is somber, many of the songs built over brooding, roiling piano textures. Even when the tempo picks up, as in the pensive “Mother Said,” the air feels grim and heavy.
Still, there are scattered moments of release. “Pink and Pretty” features a pair of Pink Boys conjuring a hallucinatory party over an infectious beat, two Hells Kitchen twinks determined to go dancing in an empty nightclub at the end of the world. (Danny Ursetti plays drums on the album, alternately tight and splashy as the mood shifts.) The high-camp “Séance” reaches a climax of deep, exultant joy, inextinguishable as gleaming brass, as the genders channel the spirits of Judy Garland and Nina Simone.
At first blush, the directness of the music may seem at odds with the inscrutability of the words. The effect is vertiginously dissociative at times: the music suggests the words convey familiar sentiments, but the words refuse to resolve into a legible message. On their website, Boylan says the show invites audiences “to experience before they understand,” and I found this a useful approach to the album as well.
The first time I listened, I didn’t try to make sense of anything; I just opened my ears and let the songs wash over me. By my third time through, pockets of meaning began to bubble up. Sometimes, these were logical meanings: “The Body Fills” uses the endless baking of bread and hunger for meat to critique toxic masculinity. But more frequently they were purely emotional, inexplicable moments of deep recognition where I went “oh, yes, wow, it really is like that.”
I can’t guarantee that you will find the same resonances—in fact, I strongly suspect you won’t. Boylan’s songs resist being boxed into tidy interpretations; if their wayward strangeness could be pinned down the same for everyone, they’d be essays instead. What you find here depends as much on you as what’s in the songs.
Those familiar with the trans theatre scene will recognize many of the voices here. L Morgan Lee is poised and cutting as ever, channeling an unearthly beauty as Big Edie in “The Mirror,” an eerie duet with Milo Longenecker (as the Potato of Promise), who has a chance to come back to earth with unapologetic narcissism in “Pink and Pretty” as one of the Pink Boys. Esco Jouléy mostly serves as a solid member of the ensemble, but ze comes to the fore in the bittersweet “Philomela’s Cry.” Dana Levinson steals the show at the eleventh hour with an incendiary performance of “Melatonin’s Lullaby.” Boylan themself tackles several of the numbers, their distinctive, warbly voice aching with desire in “Blue Butter.” Along with Ursetti’s drums, Luna Skye’s rich cello and Jacob Jarrett’s nimble piano round out the instrumental ensemble. (The orchestrations are credited to all three instrumentalists.)
Soft Butter is a staunchly DIY affair. In this, it captures the spirit of so much trans art that’s happening right now. More and more major institutions are haltingly beginning to notice trans existence, but trans artists, by and large, aren’t waiting for them to make room for us. We’re making room for ourselves, making vibrant, violent, campy, catastrophic experiments all around town and seeing what sticks. It’s nice to see that spirit documented along with this score. I still can’t tell you what gender is, but sometimes it sounds like this.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.