“The breathing gets heavier and more frantic, like a dinosaur is sitting on Santa and tickling him at the same time. Finally, as it all crescendos, TINY COOPER comes into the world…”
And so read the stage directions on the opening page of David Levithan’s musical novel Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story. This may sound like gibberish. It is gibberish. But when an autobiographical musical written by a fictional, big, gay, ironically-named teenager demands the birth scene of its star (the stage directions later describe spread legs, but without “amniotic fluid. That’s gross”), what comparison is more appropriately fabulous than the prehistorically festive? It makes no sense but – with Tiny – it makes perfect sense.
Hold Me Closer budded from the novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the story of two identically named boys – one whose voice is written by Levithan and the other by the wildly popular John Green of The Fault In Our Stars fame. Levithan’s Will is a depressed, homosexual teenager whose extrovert best friend Tiny is putting on a musical. Hold Me Closer is the script of that musical – and is appropriately big, bold and gay.
Why did Levithan choose Hold Me Closer to be a musical in novel form? Greeted with this gold, glitzy book, I theorised greediness, indecision, or perhaps a creative genius I was yet to discover. It has all the technicalities, wittiness and entertaining pizzazz of a musical, complete with big musical numbers and scenes worthy of any stage, but it also has the introspection of a novel. Though Tiny is less overtly vulnerable than the character Will Grayson, Hold Me Closer still shoulders the relevant and poignant themes of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and puts them directly in the spotlight, proving even those who are the happiest and loudest on the surface can still harbour the same emotional depth as the more stereotypically reflective.
In his script, Tiny projects an ideal of himself: centre stage, singing, bathed in a spotlight and – as clearly directed by Tiny in the script – with “Sparkles, people. Lots of sparkles. Do not get stingy with the sparkles”. But Levithan does not let Tiny’s vulnerabilities hide backstage. Stage directions, rather than being directive or helpful, are Tiny’s wild, but polite and endearingly hesitant fantasies, aspirations and sometimes inane mutterings: “… the audience is going to gasp,” he envisions. “Moments later, they all jump up in a single motion and the song starts up again. (Or, if you can’t do that, just make it fun.)”. Or: “At this rousing finish, the audience will hopefully drown you in thunderous applause” – not an instruction, but a dream.
From weight issues to a whole host of ex-boyfriends (numbered #1 to #18, for the readers’ ease and amusement), Tiny faces the normal struggles of growing up – and the not-so-normal. The musical novel explores insecurities, puzzles over self-identity and hopes that are pertinent to readers whatever their age, even though the target readers are young adults. It is also about relationships, whether being in one or not. Tiny’s heroine and lesbian babysitter Lynda guides Tiny after she suffers in love. “Don’t get trapped into thinking people are halves instead of wholes,” she says, an important tip easily-forgotten by Tiny as he parades into his sexual awakening.
Mostly, though, Hold Me Closer has an approachable, self-depreciating and tongue-in-cheek humour. The character The Ghost of Oscar Wilde is directed to float onstage giving random, often insightful advice, his first stage direction being “the Ghost of Oscar Wilde emerges” with no further explanation. I found this hilarious – but it also makes sense. By letting Tiny’s imagination run free, Levithan allows the reader to glimpse how Tiny views himself and his sexuality. All of us, especially in our teenage years, can be easily swayed and influenced, lightly and effortlessly amassing heroes, and the theatrical, homosexual Oscar Wilde is an appropriate and endearing one for Tiny.
Hold Me Closer is a dizzying, frantic script that is above all funny and warm. It lends itself to the current teenage generation, overflowing with popular culture. “I like seeing Draco in Harry’s arms,” proclaims Tiny, and “I like keeping photos of [Benedict Cumberbatch] in my Sherlock stash”, replies Brad (aka ex-boyfriend #1). Levithan provides an uniquely expressed reflection of modern life, written with tenderness and a big, gay heart that Tiny himself would be proud of.
Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story was released March 17. For more information, see http://davidlevithan.com/ew2014/