Liza and Barbra and Bette! Oh My! was staged in the GDS dance studio on June 3 and will be on June 4, presented by the GDS Theater Lab. It was written and performed by former GDS teacher Jim Mahady and is about his journey as a gay man in the 1970s.
The show was presented as a kickoff to the Theater Lab—“an inclusive theater where all participants are valued, respected and engaged,” according to Maria Watson, high school dance and acting teacher. Watson currently serves as artistic director of the Theater Lab, alongside administrative director of the Lab Jason Strunk, who is also the high school’s performing arts department chair.
“This is something I’ve been thinking about for over five years,” Watson said of the Lab. She hopes to allow students, such as those who participate in athletics or live far from campus and can’t commit to the more time-intensive plays and musicals, an opportunity to take part in the performing arts.
“I know we needed to have a place where smaller plays could be performed, and I wanted to make something that was more accessible to all the diverse students at GDS,” Watson added. Mahady’s show was a convenient way to “see how the space works,” she said in reference to the dance studio where she plans to put on future student Lab performances.
Mahady worked as an acting teacher at GDS for 17 years and retired in 2020. In the 1990s, before his teaching career, he wrote and performed about his life at cabaret clubs in New York. Those shows eventually helped inspire Liza and Barbra and Bette! Oh My!
Mahady’s husband encouraged him to compile his life stories into a complete production. “I just like putting together a show, and I like performing,” Mahady said in an interview with the Bit. He ended up performing it for his husband’s birthday in 2011. “That was the beginning of it,” Mahady said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, I should do this other places.’”
After years spent auditioning in New York, Mahady said he didn’t want to “start from the beginning again.” By choosing to make Liza and Barbra and Bette! Oh My! a one-man show, he was allowed a sense of freedom. “I can write a show and just perform it,” he said. “I don’t need to go through auditions and trying to get people to hire me; I can just hire myself.”
Liza and Barbra and Bette! Oh My! follows Mahady’s high school experience in musical theater, his time in college and the people he met along the way, with an emphasis on his sexuality. “This was the 1970s, so it’s a different thing now,” he said of sexuality. He hopes that members of the gay community will find points of connection in his show. “Gay people will definitely identify with it,” he mentioned. “And I think other people will be interested in knowing what that’s like for people if they don’t know from somebody who’s gay.”
There is also a focus on Mahady’s experience meeting gay icons Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler—the namesakes of the show. “I don’t want to give away all the stories,” he said. “They just said some things to me, and it turned out to be advice that helped me.”
Mahady performed the show twice at GDS in 2012. “There’s nothing like a high school production that’s that fun or that amazing, because it’s an audience of parents and people who love you,” he said. “The feeling is like a love-fest.”
After watching the production, a director in Virginia, Matthew Gardiner, approached Mahady and encouraged him to rewrite and refocus it. “It wasn’t a gay man’s journey anymore, and there was this hole in it,” Mahady said of the show pre-rewrite. “The updated, much better version tells the story completely as opposed to just sort of jumping around.”
Mahady performed the first five minutes of the rewritten production at GDS’ Cabaret in 2019 and received a positive response from viewers. He had intended to perform the full version at GDS in 2020, but it was put off due to COVID.
After his run at GDS, he plans to perform the production in various places across the United States such as Bloomington, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; Buffalo, New York and elsewhere in D.C. and Virginia. “I’m kind of more excited about doing it for the students than for anyone else,” Mahady said.
“Our class is planning on going,” junior Lauren Petrilla, who was in Mahady’s acting class her freshman year, said. “We’re excited.”