Jun. 7–23, 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat./3 p.m. Sun., $15–$22

North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre, Raleigh

Jonathan Keebler, the playwright and lyricist of the new coming-of-age musical Gay Card, still remembers his finest hour of nightclubbing as a college student: drunk, crushing hard on the designated driver, and determined to win him over with an improvised, end-of-movie-style carpe diem speech. 

“It was so dramatic, and I think it lasted a good twenty minutes,” Keebler says, snickering. “I remember saying, ‘When you look back on this date, do you want to be the person who tried something, or the person who chickened out?’” Keebler got the guy—that is, until they broke up the following week.

For most, college is a time of trial and error, experimentation and discovery: a mix of breakthroughs and blunders made while young adults figure out who they are. That’s certainly the case for Logan, the gay central character of Keebler and composer Ryan Korell’s funny, fierce new musical, which premieres this week at NRACT.

Having come out at the end of high school, Logan is optimistic that the hardest part of being gay is behind him. But the introverted teen, who’s still a virgin at the start of his freshman year, doesn’t know how to begin exploring and defining his sexuality. When his lifelong friend Melanie and his boorish dorm mates aren’t helpful, Logan turns to a dubious how-to-be-gay blog and starts flipping wildly through a Rolodex of dodgy stereotypes in search of the perfect fit. As his desperate search for validation deepens, it threatens the only real relationships he has.

“We really wanted to write a show for our adolescent selves: the show we would have wanted to see when we were eighteen and nineteen, struggling with what our identities meant and what we should and could be going into adulthood,” Keebler says. While he and Korell have fashioned Gay Card into an homage to the teen movies they both loved while growing up in the eighties and nineties, there’s a sharpness in the reason why. 

“To put it simply, in all those years, we had never seen a teen movie or rom-com, on stage or on the screen, about a gay person. I’d never seen myself in any of those stories that I loved so much, and it still doesn’t happen very often today,” Korell says.   

“When you’re not inundated with examples of how to grow up as a gay man, a trans person, or a lesbian, in the real world and in the media, you’re sort of off-footed,” Keebler says. When most of the gay characters in popular culture are tragic, as Keebler recalls them being in the nineties, the available social templates present no way forward. “You can either not really progress or progress on someone else’s narrative,” Keebler says. “That can set you back by years.”  

Korell concurs. “Maybe that’s why our story is set in college instead of high school, when a lot of the stories we were inspired by were set,” he says.

In their musical, a Greek chorus of enabling peers outfit Logan with bad ideas and a fake ID—and then provide snarky color commentary as he stumbles through a series of contretemps, first at a gay nightclub and then a Pride parade. 

To Keebler, Gay Card resembles “a long conversation with your old college friend about allllll the stupid things you did.”

“I think I’ve been every single one of the characters in the show at some point,” he says with a rueful laugh. 

Because the creators wanted to show gay characters falling in love and actually finding a happy ending, their protagonist finally gets the guy. (The question remains, which one.) Keebler believes this is a necessary corrective in a culture that remains too hesitant to depict gay romance. 

“It’s still tiptoed around a bit. Even if it exists, it can’t have the passion and emotional intensity that’s given to straight couples,” Keebler says, pausing for a moment, then adding, “But not here.”

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