A standoff was forming outside city hall in Silverton, Oregon, a quiet Mayberry community of fewer than 10,000 people—and more than 20 churches—that wasn’t fond of controversy. Some strangers had sauntered into town, wielding protest signs that shot off hate like a bullet from a gun. “You’re Going to Hell.” “God Hates You.” “Fag Media Shame.”
These mal mots came courtesy of four representatives of Westboro Baptist Church, an antigay Kansas congregation known for picketing events nationwide to promote its cause. (Just to hammer home the point, the church’s website is godhatesfags.com.) In the past year, Westboro said it planned to picket the funerals of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings and the Boston bombings, but on this November day in 2008, the object of its wrath was Silverton mayor Stu Rasmussen, America’s first openly transgender mayor.
To an outsider, Rasmussen looks to be straddling the line between Mars and Venus. He’s a tall man with broad shoulders, long curly fire-kissed hair, expertly manicured nails, and a pair of surgically augmented breasts. He also has smile lines around his eyes and can rock a miniskirt. Rasmussen had “transitioned” well before being elected, he told me when we met in February. Now, at age 64, his identity “spectrum goes from macho male to…”
“…fairy princess,” finished his partner Victoria Sage. She sat close to him during the interview, sometimes holding his hand. The couple met nearly 40 years ago, when Sage was working at 5th Avenue Cinema in Portland and Rasmussen was a regional projectionist. “I saw this cute little thing at this theater, and then it became one of my regular stops,” Rasmussen said. “The projector always seemed to need some adjusting.” It’s an old-fashioned love story—with a twist or two. No one knows Rasmussen better than his life partner, though in his hometown of Silverton, the mayor is still much more than his gender, Sage noted.
“They know Stu with so many different hats on,” Sage said. “As the cable guy, the guy who crawled around in your living room. You’ve seen him tearing tickets at the movie house for years and years. You’ve seen him on the city council. It’s like, okay, it’s Stu.” So when word got out of his mayoral victory in 2008, making national news and prompting protests, “Silverton kind of resented it. They were like, why is this news? It’s just Stu.”
So the good people of Silverton took action. A crowd of about 200—grannies and strollers, mothers cradling babies, and men dressed in drag for the very first time—marched to city hall to face off against the four members of Westboro Baptist Church. They banged drums to drown out the homophobic chants, but their homemade signs spoke even louder. “My love is bigger than your hate,” read one. “We love Stu (and so does God),” read another.
“Even now—and it’s five years later—when I talk about this I tend to tear up,” Rasmussen said. “It’s such an incredible community.” True to his word, he paused to fight back the tears that welled in his eyes. “It’s not a Stu story. It’s a Silverton story.”
And soon, it will be a musical.
That’s right. A musical. The world premiere, produced by Seattle’s Intiman Theatre and championed by artistic director Andrew Russell, has been in the works for years. Russell had heard the story of Stu that aired on NPR’s Radiolab in 2009 and decided, “If this isn’t a musical, people aren’t doing their jobs.” He enlisted New York singer-songwriter Breedlove, a Lady Gaga collaborator, to compose the music and lyrics, and asked Peter Duchan, who penned the libretto for the off-Broadway musical Dogfight, to write the book. Based on early workshops, Stu for Silverton had an air of The Book of Mormon—irreverent and sweet in turns—and like 2012’s surprise Intiman success, Miracle! (a drag adaptation of The Miracle Worker), offers an underdog story with a lesson on compassion.
Since reorganizing last year as a summer theater festival rather than as a regional theater, Intiman has found a receptive audience for its riskier fare. Last season’s lineup balanced Miracle! with classic dramas (Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Romeo and Juliet), but this summer Russell has picked four plays about topics that are verboten around a Seattle dinner table: sex, race, politics, and money. In addition to Stu for Silverton, Intiman’s repertory company will perform Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress’s Obie-winning 1955 dramedy about a racially integrated acting company; Aristophanes’s sex-strike story Lysistrata; and We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!, one of the most famous political farces by Nobel Prize–winning satirist Dario Fo. The shows run June 21 through September 15, but there will be much ado about the Stu-sical. Even Rasmussen is excited to see how his life story plays out in song and dance.
“This tickled my funny bone,” Rasmussen said. “When they said it’s a musical, well, that’s a hoot!”
Sage, without missing a beat: “What could be funnier, an opera?”
Published: June 2013