Meet John Kenley, the Intersex Individual Who Changed American Theatre Forever | Playbill

Special Features Meet John Kenley, the Intersex Individual Who Changed American Theatre Forever

The life and times of the midcentury impresario are now a musical: A Complicated Woman at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut.

John Kenley Billy Rose/The New York Public Library Digital Collections

In the American theatre, there have been a handful of top-billed tastemakers whose work offstage influenced the proliferation of onstage talent. These creatives, often referred to as impresarios, go beyond the usual bounds of producing work, enfolding mentorship and industry shaking ideas to implement their vision, in addition to the financial requirements their position demands.

While Florenz Ziegfeld is perhaps the most famous American theatre impresario, thanks to his mythologized Ziegfeld Follies, many others have come and gone across the centuries, moving the artistic needle for future generations even if their names disappeared from the popular imagination. One producer, John Kenley, is now the subject of a new musical A Complicated Woman, running at Goodspeed Musical's Terris Theatre in Chester, Connecticut, through June 2. The musical, composed by Jonathan Brielle with a book by Ianne Fields Stewart, promises to provide Kenley with the recognition he has long deserved.

"Mr. Kenley created what Broadway has become," says Jeff Calhoun, the driving force behind A Complicated Woman. The project is the culmination of a multi-decade promise the Tony-nominated director-choreographer made to Kenley while working as a dancer on the eponymous Kenley Circuit. "On his 90th birthday, I asked Mr. Kenley if the rumors were true. And he proceeded to tell me much about his life. The next day I woke up, and there was an unpublished autobiography at the front door of my building. And he asked me to tell his story."

Those whispers, that Kenley lived a private life in Florida during the off-season as Jean, were true. Born to Slovakian saloon keepers in post silver boom Denver, Colorado, Kenley was intersex, outside the medical binary of male and female. Kenley's parents raised him as male, and Kenley used the name John in all professional dealings. But behind closed doors with trusted friends, Jean lived a life of secluded comfort.

Nora Brigid Monahan Samuel Avery Giardina

The story of Kenley's early life reads like a fantastical pre-Code Hollywood screenplay: getting his start choreographing for a burlesque troupe as a teen with next to no experience, he worked his way up to performing alongside Martha Graham as a dancer and acrobat in the 1920s before finding a job as a play reader and assistant to the Shubert Brothers on the cusp of the Great Depression. Working closely with the Shubert Organization, every actor and playwright that came to New York had to go through Kenley, and he steadily built up a little black book of the greatest talents in the industry, calling his network of friends and collaborators his “Kenley Players." 

In 1940, he created the first official Kenley Players theatre, launching a tri-city circuit of summer stock theatres in Columbus, Dayton, and Warren, Ohio, with several branches in Michigan that would shift depending on the season. Kenley's signature was the stunt casting from his network of Players. Kenley's old network from his Shubert days eventually matured into some of the most famous stars of the era. He dreamt up fantastical ways to showcase his famous friends, building shows around whoever was available, including several production adjustments of questionable legality; script adjustments and song interpolations were common, often without permission from copyright holders. He famously ended a 1975 production of She Loves Me with the song “What I Did For Love” from the then-brand-new Broadway hit A Chorus Line; Michael Bennett sent a telegram in lieu of a cease and desist.

To call Kenley’s casting choices unorthodox would be an understatement. While some were natural (Jayne Mansfield performed in Kenley's Bus Stop shortly after the film release with Marilyn Monroe), many were an unusual marriage of performer and part. Nowhere else in the world could you see Billy Crystal as the Emcee in Cabaret, Ginger Rogers as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, and a visibly pregnant Barbara Eden as Maria in The Sound of Music. Even Joe Namath, former New York Jets quarterback, got in on the action for a production of Picnic. On the Kenley Circuit, everyone had a place, and no one was limited by how they were initially perceived or by what society expected of them. 

"It's hard to describe him," admits Calhoun. "To this day, I've never met anyone that had the energy that he had. He was almost elf like, he was of another world. He had this very thin, pale complexion like Anita Morris, where you saw the blue veins, and then this shocking red hair that he combed back. And his vests were always puckered. He had this twinkle in his eye 24/7. And next to Dom DeLuise, he was the funniest person that I have ever met."

When Calhoun read Kenley's unpublished autobiography, he made a solemn vow to support Kenley's efforts to go public with his life story. After settling on a documentary as a method, Calhoun put himself through film school, dedicating years of his life to prepare for what was to be the project of both of their lifetimes. He even got an Oscar-nominated director on board (whose name Calhoun declined to mention). But then, due to circumstances outside of their control, the documentary was called off the day before it was supposed to begin shooting.

"I was distraught," recalls Calhoun. "It was a big deal to me that Mr. Kenley had asked this of me, and I was so excited to keep my promise."

Jeff Calhoun

Faithful to his vow, Calhoun held fast as the steward of Kenley's life as the years continued on, protecting Kenley's original autobiography and what little materials had been prepared for the documentary. As Calhoun held on, Kenley's cultural impact skyrocketed behind the scenes. While star casting has been a common practice since the dawn of Broadway, Kenley’s particular brand of bringing film stars to live performance caught on like wildfire. As production costs ballooned, and general public interest in the theatre waned, many producers took a page from Kenley on how to bring new blood to the theatre using screen celebrities. 

When Kenley passed away in 2009 at the age of 103, Calhoun renewed his commitment to shining a spotlight on the under-recognized icon, eventually finding his way to the musical as a medium. 

"The fact that he trusted me with both sides of the coin, the faith he had in me...What I admire most about Mr. Kenley, is not only how he was responsible for launching a whole generation of theatre performers and theatre goers, but how he handled the cards he was dealt." Calhoun pauses, his voice taking on the tone of reverent wonderment. "He was never a victim...I never felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. I just think it is astonishing, to be be born in 1907, to be born intersex to parents who never discussed it with him, and to figure it out on his own. To triumph, and to be such an indomitable spirit."

While Kenley left his performance career behind early on, he never lost the diva touch. Talking to Calhoun, it's clear that Kenley continues to vividly live on in his mind, 15 years after the icon passed away. "He just never turned it off. There was always a quip that either embarrassed you or put you on the spot. When you called him, he never said hello and started a chronological conversation. You'd call and he'd pick up and go, 'You know, I told you not to call me here darling.'"

When it came to his performers, Kenley's delicate leadership often insulated them from the pressures of the outside world, allowing them to live a fuller existence backstage. His shows became a haven for young queer performers. "In Columbus, I stayed in a hotel on the corner of Gay Street and High Street, and they had a postcard that said that. I sent my parents that postcard, telling them how it was going," recalls Calhoun, "And they wrote back and said, 'We don't like either choice. But if we have a choice, we hope you're on High Street.' Oh, and it really broke my heart. But Mr. Kenley never stopped smiling at me." 

Ever-supportive, Kenley eventually connected Calhoun with Tommy Tune, his "artistic soulmate," and continued to support the pairs' work until his death. "He was one of a kind, or rather, two of a kind."

Cast of A Complicated Woman Samuel Avery Giardina

Now, 28 years after Calhoun first made his promise to Kenley, it is coming to fruition. A Complicated Woman stars genderqueer artist Nora Brigid Monahan as John/Jean, L Morgan Lee as Jean's confidant Nina Mae, and Danny Rutigliano as John's confidant Lee Shubert. The show marries a Golden Age aesthetic and a gender-diverse cast to finally shine a spotlight on the intersex icon who shepherded generations across the threshold. While the Goodspeed production is publicly developmental, Calhoun has no intention of sizing down the scale of his promise. He is determined to see this project through to an even bigger stage.

"There's a reprise at the end of the show that has the lyrics, 'New York will know your name,'" Calhoun shares. "I said to Jonathan that it needs to say, 'The world will know your name.' Because, listen, I'm not doing this to have a one-off Goodspeed developmental production. I've done a lot of shows, but this is very personal. And this is just the beginning. I've been here since the inception, and I intend to see it through."

Note: As this piece is primarily focused on John Kenley's professional life, Playbill and director Jeff Calhoun used the name and male gender pronouns that Kenley used throughout his public-facing professional career.

Photos: Goodspeed Musicals' A Complicated Woman

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