The wholesome, unlikely folktale of a small town in Oregon and America’s first transgender mayor.
Andrew Russell was biking on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2009, listening to the podcast Radiolab when he heard something that nearly stopped him in his tracks. Through his earbuds came the story of Stu Rasmussen, America’s first openly transgender mayor, and the controversy that inspired his small, conservative Oregon town to come together in a remarkable display of public support. Russell was moved.
At the time, he was juggling two jobs: one as assistant to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, the other evaluating potential scripts for a heavyweight Broadway musical producer. He knew when a story had stage legs, and as a gay man from small-town Indiana, the story of Silverton spoke to him personally.
At that point Russell was six months away from relocating to Seattle to serve as associate director at the Intiman Theatre. It was all too perfect: Russell wanted to create a piece of theatre about Rasmussen, and his new job would put him a four-hour drive from the man himself. In late 2009, knowing nothing more than this was a beautiful story that needed to be told, Russell hit I-5 to meet with Mayor Rasmussen. They talked over milk and cookies. Then Rasmussen gave Russell the green light to tell his life story.
Months passed and Russell was going full speed ahead with the project. Things fell apart in 2011 when the Intiman shuttered due to financial troubles. Russell, determined to keep the Tony-winning regional theatre afloat, made a proposal to the Board of Directors to reinvent Intiman as a summer festival, with himself as artistic director.
It worked. For a year, the Stu project took a backseat while Russell wrangled the ensemble-based festival into being, but after the festival’s successful launch last summer he began looking forward to 2013. He wanted the second festival to be bigger, better and more innovative than the first.
Finally, the time has come for Russell’s new musical about American’s first transgender mayor. This summer, Stu for Silverton will make its debut on the festival’s stage.
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Stu Rasmussen likes to say that Silverton is “40 miles and 40 years from Portland.” A former timber town, Silverton has a population of less than 10,000 and takes about 10 minutes to navigate. The downtown is quaintly speckled with shops full of vintage wares and tchotchkes. Parking meters cost 25 cents an hour. Strangers smile and ask how your day is going.
Seated at Silverton’s Stone Creek Café on Main Street on a flawless, sunny day in April, the 64-year-old Rasmussen radiates pride in his hometown. “Silverton is the character,” he says. “I’m just along for the ride.” Coming from a man wearing sky-high red pumps to match his short, red skirt and black shirt—heavy on the cleavage—that’s saying something.
The story of Silverton has long been a story worth telling, Rasmussen says, his low, flat voice contrasting his bright red fingernails. But, he points out, it didn’t really turn into a story until the Westboro Baptist Church showed up. The extremist, hatemongering congregation arrived in 2008, hurling fire and brimstone.
But that’s the climax of Rasmussen’s tale. The beginning is much less dramatic.
Rasmussen grew up here a brainy technophile, always learning and tinkering. He brought cable TV to town, co-owns the local movie house, the Palace Theatre, and has held public office many times, beginning in 1984. He’s served on the City Council and the library board, and was elected Mayor first in 1988 and again in 1990.
He also harbored a private inclination toward cross-dressing. It began in 1975 when he saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring Tim Curry in a full corset and heels. The movie musical launched Rasmussen’s transformation into the man he is today.
First were his fingernails, which he started manicuring 20 years ago. At first, no polish. Then “masculine” colors like blue and, later, acrylic tips. Sometimes, Rasmussen dressed up in women’s clothing to promote whatever film was playing at the Palace Theatre—Star Wars or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He started wearing a padded bra under his plaid shirts until he worked up the nerve to get breast implants in early 2000.
The changes to Rasmussen’s appearance happened incrementally, giving Silvertonians plenty of time to adjust and adapt and Rasmussen opportunity to gauge their reactions. When he wore false breasts to his job as a software designer, how would his co-workers respond? These were things Rasmussen needed to know as he slowly and deliberately reinvented himself as a transgender man.
Not everyone in Silverton was on board with the new Stu. Business at the Palace Theatre took a hit; on occasion, local kids yelled slurs. Rasmussen’s partner of nearly 40 years, Victoria Sage, told Radiolab producers that she heard plenty of whispering along the way, but as a lifelong resident of the town and longtime public servant, Rasmussen was impossible to dismiss. When he was reelected Mayor in 2008—then 60 years old and living as an openly transgender person—the story exploded beyond the Silverton town limits.
The media flurry was intense. Rasmussen was suddenly everywhere, as news stations flocked from around the country to share this feel-good story of American inclusion. When members of Westboro Baptist caught wind, however, they came from Kansas to let Silverton know what they thought of its Mayor. Brandishing signs that read God Hates You and You’re Going to Hell, Westbroro protestors set up shop on a Silverton street corner.
Silverton answered right back. The town, including the man Rasmussen defeated in the Mayoral election, showed up downtown to march the Westboro protestors away. Legions of people, some dressed in reverse-gendered clothing, held signs like My love is bigger than your hate and We love Stu (and so does God).
“That was such a great experience for the community and I think for the world at large,” Rasmussen says. Four years later, he can’t keep emotion from his voice when recalling the events of that day.
“Here’s a community that told Westboro to go to hell. But we showed them Silverton hospitality while they were here and waved goodbye when they left.”
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When Russell was first ruminating on how to tell Rasmussen’s story on stage, he envisioned it as a play. But a drama seemed too heavy, too serious. He wanted it to sing.
“It’s Rocky Horror meets Our Town,” Russell says more than once. Music, he was sure, would keep the show from getting bogged down into a ponderous, message-laden biopic. Getting the tone right was crucial.
Russell went searching for collaborators to tell this story with him, hoping to find people who were at similar points of transformation and growth in their careers. His agent sent him songs by New York singer-songwriter Breedlove (aka Craig Jessup) and a play by Peter Duchan. He was immediately sold on both. Duchan had just the right literary voice for the project, and Breedlove’s music fit the Our Town/Rocky Horror vibe perfectly. “There’s something about it that’s sincere, glam rock, but also completely traditional Americana rock pop,” Russell says.
Both Duchan and Breedlove were equally taken with Rasmussen.
“When I met him, I fell in love with him,” Breedlove says. “I wanted to help other people meet the person I had fallen in love with, and paint a picture of him that would make my 80-something-year-old grandmothers, who are both Baptist ministers’ widows, come to this show and leave thinking that he’s the greatest person in the world.”
The score is a combination of traditional musical theatre and folk music, shot through with the aural opulence of ’60s and ’70s musicals that infuses Breedlove’s solo work.
“I like the juxtaposition that exists in Stu’s life of kind of being a flashy hot broad in a small town,” Breedlove says.
In devising a script that would let the story speak for itself, the Stu creative team went through three different iterations of the show, each wildly different in its storytelling. One was a traditional, chronological biopic that left viewers of an early reading asking, “Where’s the town?” Another used a complicated framing device, wherein Rasmussen told his own story to an audience at the Palace Theatre. Their third and current version is much simpler, a classic “Once upon a time” musical that spans 30 years with clarity and ease.
“We kept trying to impose a theatricality onto it,” Duchan says. “It took us a little while to figure out that the theatricality is the story and the characters.”
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In an Intiman rehearsal studio this March, the three creators of Stu for Silverton—which was Rasmussen’s campaign slogan—heard their show for the first time. At the very top of the show, a friendly narrator delivers a history lesson on Silverton, accompanied by music that could score an episode of Leave It to Beaver. Friendly Silvertonians smile at one another and sing about the wonder of the changing seasons. It’s so wholesome you can almost smell the apple pie.
It’s no accident that you meet Silverton well before you meet Stu. He’s the central figure of this unlikely folktale, but to focus on him exclusively would miss the bigger story.
“It would be sad if people took away, ‘How brave that that man did this.’” Russell says. “No, it’s, How brave that a city created an environment where this could happen.”
That’s how Rasmussen wanted it. When he handed off his life story to this team of theatre makers, his one request was that Silverton be treated fairly. Which only stands to reason; as Mayor, part of his job is being the “PR guy for Silverton.”
Still, Rasmussen’s interest in the show is personal as well as professional. “I look back on my life and what I went through to get to where I am,” he says. “It’s great if we can make it easier for somebody who’s in a similar situation—and it might not be a gender issue, it might be sexual orientation, or anything—to be able to say, ‘Well, it’s been done before,’ and move forward.”
Rasmussen’s willingness to have his story adapted for the stage is one of the reasons this project has gone forward with such grace, and why the three young men telling the story of Stu Rasmussen are as inspired by him as they expect audiences will be.
“It takes the complicated trans issue and says, ‘Fuck it, if they’re your neighbor, you’ll love them whoever they are,’” Russell says. Rasmussen is so unconcerned with PC sticking points like the “right” pronoun that there’s a song in the show with the lyric, He can call me she, and she can call me he.
All this plays out on a simple set filled with Silvertonia—picnic benches and plush red theatre seats; a gilded age Palace marquee and faded murals from the town’s timber days. An onstage band rocks Breedlove’s score stage right, as veteran Seattle actor Mark Anders brings Stu center stage.
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Title billing goes to Rasmussen’s personal reinvention, but it’s just one of many playing out in Stu for Silverton. Today, the town is transitioning from dying lumber outpost to bed-and-breakfast community. Breedlove is making a long-awaited leap from solo artist to theatre composer. Russell is establishing himself as an artistic director with vision and purpose.
Intiman is the theatre that first produced Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Kentucky Cycle, and Tony-winning musical Light in the Piazza and the first regional production of Angels in America. Russell kept that adventurous spirit alive in 2012 with Dan Savage’s drag musical, Miracle!, and it may be why he never once worried about how the Stu project would be received.
“It only seems appropriate that a story about the Pacific Northwest is made in the Pacific Northwest,” he says. And it has to be told at Intiman, like Rasmussen’s election had to happen in Silverton. Both are bellwethers of change.
Stu for Silverton runs as part of the Intiman Theatre Festival June 21–Sept. 15.
Illustration by Tiffany Prothero