I had a lot I wanted to talk with Marty Thomas about: his time on Broadway both onstage and off, the end of his long-running weekly show, Diva, and the new album he’s been working on. I had my list of questions prepared and began with what I thought was the most elementary of them: What was the impetus for this new album? As you’ll read, none of the rest of my questions mattered anymore. Marty is doing something big and important, voicing something deep and resonate, and is already inspiring many, including myself, with his new project.
As told to Ryan Brinson
I wrapped up my Diva show that I was doing weekly [in New York] in March. It had become a staple to the city and to nightlife which I’m really thrilled about. That was always a goal, but the long term goal was to start traveling the show. I had no intention of it running for eight years in nightlife but I was having a good time with it and the community really enjoyed it. However, it was starting to eclipse my life. I was way overbooked, my health wasn’t doing well, and I was having a tough time keeping up. When you look at your life, you have to take stock and give a rest to the things that are taking up most of your life force. So we put the show on hold for a minute.
It was maybe a month out of not having the day-to-day grind of advertising and writing the show every week that my creative juices started flowing and I began feeling like I remembered who I am and what I do.
I came across a Buzzfeed article that was one of those articles that came and went but I never stopped thinking about it. It was something along the lines of “Boy Goes to Prom.” I see the headline and it’s clearly about a boy who’s at the prom with his boyfriend. My mind immediately went to, “I hope they didn’t hurt him. I hope he’s okay.” The article started with his mom taking pictures of him at the top of the stairs with his date. Next, at the dance, he was dancing with his boyfriend and no one was standing five feet away from him or gawking at how weird he was. Then he won prom king and it wasn’t because he was the gay kid—there were other gay kids too—and no one is saying, “Aww bless him. Good for him.” No one is pitying him, he’s not pitying himself; he’s not over the top, he doesn’t feel the need to be. He’s wearing what everyone else is wearing and going to the prom like everyone else.
I gasped. I was truly shocked that my brain took it to a dark place of, “they’re gonna hurt him.” I expected it to be a tragic story of a boy taking another boy to prom and it dividing the community. Cut to me having a bit of a nervous breakdown over this article and the light bulb went off that I was not only robbed of this basic coming-of-age process but I’ve convinced myself over time that I didn’t deserve it.
I spent a lot of time in high school and college manipulating my feelings and manipulating scenarios in order to convince my parents and myself that I was in love with my girlfriend. And I did love her, she was great, but I didn’t understand what real love was. I don’t think it was because I was too young to understand what love was, it was because I’d convinced myself I wasn’t worth it. My only net value was in lying so that I wouldn’t hurt my family and destroy my potential career.
I knew what I wanted to do for a living but at the time, that couldn’t be done as a gay person. I remember at the time of my coming out process, I was getting major label meetings and major TV meetings that were being squashed immediately because I couldn’t butch-up enough. That cycled into my self-hatred and there have been so many times in my adult life when I’ve hated who I am. A lot of that has to do with those moments in high school when I was squashed and told, “This decision will ruin your life and humiliate your family.” That’s horrible.
Cut to now. I started thinking about how differently my life could have/would have been if that energy I’d spent lying had been spent creating and learning and growing; if I’d been allowed to have that coming-of-age story. And not only allowed but celebrated like this young boy in that article.
I remember seeing my girlfriends in high school, whose parents were so proud they were growing into young women, and they were having a beautiful coming-of-age story at prom. They were able to look around the room and say, “who am I naturally attracted to” and not have that be a point of shame but a point of celebration. I’ve never had that feeling. I’ve never known what it is to have someone look at my relationship as something not dirty and not shameful. So, what if I could do it all again? What if I could go home and say, “I have feelings for this boy, Derek,” which I did—I had deep feelings for this boy—and what if I’d been allowed to share those feelings, to ask him to a school dance, and to slow dance with him?
I started daydreaming and picturing my prom themes and different songs that were important to me at the time. I’m a theatrical, musical person and things translate to music for me. I started making lists of all the songs in which I would have liked to slow dance with a boy and it was therapeutic. When I was younger, I’d fantasize about being able to have that first dance. It’s a moment that seems silly but when you’re robbed of it, it’s not silly at all. I began making arrangements of some of those songs and I figured I’d record them for me and perform them somewhere eventually. But, I quickly realized this was a bigger idea. That’s when my project, “Slow Dancing with a Boy,” began.
I started sharing my story with a few different collaborators and I saw how drawn they were to it. I recorded the album in July with my best friend Jamey Ray and I found an immense amount of support for the idea and for the process. The concept wasn’t to whine about “I didn’t get to do what I wanted at the school dance.” It was about so much more.
I chose a ballad of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong,” and Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” I recorded Tina Arena’s “Show Me Heaven.” It was the first dance song I ever danced to in a dance class in New York. I did a mashup with Mykal Kilgore of “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” and “Save the Best for Last.” I’m just calling that mashup, “Seventh Grade.” Those songs defined it for me.
It was extremely validating to have my best friends work on this with me. Rachel Potter and Jamey Ray are my chosen siblings and are also two of the smartest musicians I know. Knowing that Jamey was dropping everything to work on this and that Rachel flew in from Nashville and was willing to sing backup vocals on my record—Rachel who is a Broadway star—it validated everything this meant to me. Jamey pulled in some of the members of Voices of Liberty—some of the greatest voices on the planet—who weren’t just excited to work on the project but were invested in the concept and the material and me. These people I respect to the moon and back were involved and invested. In my project. It made it feel important; that what I was working on was important.
The thing is, this [album] is the only personal thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never done anything personal before. On previous albums, I was 23. How personal can you be at 23? I had a solo concert a few weeks back and did some of these songs from the album. In telling this story at the concert, I was essentially just trying to talk about the album but seeing the response in the room was borderline debilitating. There are many people who feel they aren’t allowed to talk about this, to have feelings about it, or be sad about it. My story really shattered a lot of people and that made me realize how important this idea is.
Honestly, now I feel like I walk into a room as a different man. I walk into a lot of situations not feeling like I’ve got to put on a show and not feeling like I’ve got to put on a character for anyone to like me or to matter. I think matter is the word for me. I just didn’t feel like I mattered as I was.
Now, if you made a pie chart of my day, I feel like my happy slices have gotten so much bigger the more I have things to work on that represent me. I feel more organic than I’ve ever felt and have more freedom to make decisions without clearing it with anybody. I’m traveling a lot, writing a lot, and spending a lot of time with myself. I feel creatively charged and in control. I finally feel motivated by myself. I’ve never been as okay with myself as I am today.
As told to Ryan Brinson
Photography by Christopher Boudewyns