Performer Migguel Anggelo on Subverting Clichés to Get to The Truth
Author: Jason Schneiderman
January 9, 2020
Migguel Anggelo’s LatinXoxo is a memoir in song, and it debuted in November to a sold out crowd at Joe’s Pub, a longstanding center of New York’s cabaret scene. LatinXoxo was heart-wrenchingly personal and clarified the power of queer performance as a vehicle for protest, a celebration of desire, and an affirmation of humanity.
Migguel Anggelo is cabaret royalty. Born on a farm in Venezuela, he refused machismo by studying ballet, and ended up on the Latin American touring company of Pinocchio. After moving to Germany and barely making ends meet, he was again discovered, this time as a countertenor at the Conservatory of Music in Cologne. From there he was cast in the Latin American touring company of Fame, but left after four years for Miami with almost nothing to his name.
From there, he met his partner David Stark and began working on the interdisciplinary performance work that he brings to the stages of New York. Anggelo’s story is less about a metoric rise from rags to riches and more about how precarious immigrant lives are in the twenty first century. After success in dance and musical theater, Anggelo settled on a more intimate and personal style of performance that stays true to his story while challenging the stereotypes that threaten to define him from the outside. As a cabaret performer, Anggelo is free to be completely himself, in all his idiosyncrasies.
Over the course of LatinXoxo Migguel Anggelo transforms from the Virgin Mary to a matador, as pieces of his costume are repurposed or simply disappear. As the transformation plays out, Anggelo delivers his monologue between songs as both a girl and a boy. The address is unclear at first, but comes into focus as his deeply missed father. The songs are carefully curated, imbuing both contemporary pop and the classic American songbook with Latin flair, while also reminding the audience that US culture has always been of a piece with Latin culture. “Besame Mucho” opened the set, and my favorite medley of the evening was an inspired mash up of “Oye Como Va” with “Fever,” though performing “Bad Romance” as a bolero made the show worth the price of admission. The show closed with a heartbreaking rendition of the song he and his father sang when he drove the cows to pasture in the pre-dawn hours of his Venezuelan boyhood.
The show explores Anggelo’s relationship to his father, giving equal weight to the loving protector and the cruel patriarch. Tender, tactile memories of him carrying little Anggelo off to bed are juxtaposed with his viciously misogynistic and homophobic utterances, like “I’d rather have a prostitute daughter than a faggot son.” Anggelo gives voice to the way that young gay boys often idealize their fathers as both a powerful role model and a perfect lover. With each act of affection, his father offers peace and acceptance; with each act of rejection, the abasement shatters his identity and his desire. The show climaxes with Anggelo witnessing his father’s death in a freak accident. Because Anggelo was only thirteen when his father died, the wounds seem unhealable, which creates the urgency to find peace in the absence of this looming figure who can neither be embraced nor appeased. The calibration of this father-shaped void ultimately brings us back to Anggelo. The remembered father must become a mirror—not in a narcisstic way—but in a way that honors his father’s lost life as Anggelo’s wound to heal.
Anggelo’s voice is rich and smooth. The intimacy between the musicians and Anggelo rose to a level that I had never seen. From a joke about sniffing Anggelo’s armpit to the loving embraces of the musicians at the end of the show, the intimacy of the band and singer seemed another proof of the way that love can be an engine for art.
LatinXoxo finds humor in the absurdity of gay life. During an extended piece about discovering Grindr (pronounced “green-der”), Anggelo riffs on how abundance can be oppressive. While sweaty and shirtless in just matador pants and heels, he exclaims “Liberation is a workout! Liberation makes me thirsty on multiple levels.” The red skirt of his Virgin Mary costume becomes the red cape of his matador outfit, and while it was quite moving to watch him remove the makeup and headdress and fake eyelashes as he moved toward male attire, there was a resistance to any suggestion that femininity is additive, and can be removed to find a man. The machismo of the matador was every bit as costumed and performed as the shy virgin’s coquetry.
Rage is back in vogue among the queer set, and Anggelo is a performer for our times. When he channeled the rage of homophobia—both in acting out the voices who had attacked him and in venting his own fury—Anggelo truly came alive. In ending the show with a comment about love being stronger than borders and cages and walls, it occurred to me that Anggelo might just be the sledgehammer we need.
I really enjoyed Latinxoxo, and I wanted to ask about how you put together the song selections. Do you go in wanting a certain mix of styles, or do you have a sense of what will resonate with which part of the story?
I am so glad you enjoyed the show! The songs are critical. They move the story forward in the same way that songs in traditional musical theater do.
Creating a show is a team sport, and I’d like to take a moment to applaud the wonderful talents who have worked tirelessly with me: J. Julian Christopher wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics with me; Jaime Lozano is my fantastic Musical Director and is also the co-writer of the original music in the show: Srda Vasilijevic directed and developed the piece–together as a team, we examined many of the songs from my youth that my father sang to my mother, especially boleros / love songs. I remember those melodies and lyrics so fondly, and we started with those. Those boleros were the basis of LatinXoxo.
We wrote two original songs: “Fuck You” and The Mirror” that specifically moved the story-line and then we re-imagined an array of pop songs as if they were boleros. The show is very music-heavy, so each song must work hard to tell the tale. In various iterations of the show, there have been other songs that have either been written or utilized that we cut and changed because somehow, they were not pushing the story forward.
Were you nervous about centering the show on your father? I felt like you were so exposed, and that the work was really raw. I especially respected how you touched on so many parts of the relationship.
Yes, I was. My relationship with my father wasn’t good. He died when I was 13 years old, so I really didn’t know him–and he never got a chance to know the real me. So, it was a very difficult process to talk to him in this metaphorical way on stage. But the show is a reckoning in many ways. It’s a way of saying, “Dad, this is who I am. This is the real me.”
I loved the way that you moved from different gender expressions, and how the drag transition was so seamless. But I also feel like your work is about costumes and persona more than “drag” per se. Can you give me a little insight into how you understanding costuming and drag in your work?
It is more about the costumes and the persona and much less about “drag” for me. As an actor or as a performance artist, costumes and props are very powerful. A costume helps me find the voice of the character. In LatinXoxo, the characters are invented personas. It’s me saying to the audience: I’ll take you on a journey, putting myself in the shoes of how I perceived my father thought of me.” Did he think of me as “The Virgin?” As a whore like Bizet’s Carmen? As a macho bullfighter? And through the process of the show, I strip away all of those “Latin Lover” clichés to get to who I truly am. I show that to the audience. I show that to my deceased father who never got to know the real me. Ryan Park is the wonderful designer who realized the costumes for LatinXoxo. He is a true talent.
The dance piece was so short, but gave me such a clear vision of the character (and of your training!). I found myself wanting more dance. Was dance a larger piece of the show in earlier versions?
It’s funny–you are not the only who has said that they want to see me dance more. So, in the future, I will do it!
Dance wasn’t really a larger part of the show in earlier versions, but one thing that is true about my beloved Joe’s Pub, the stage is very small, so there is only so much room! I was a ballet dancer for 13 years, though, and I have always loved to dance. I am actually dreaming of a new show that is based on dance. Let’s see where it goes!
Congratulations on being part of the Joe’s Pub Working Group. Can you talk about what Joe’s Pub means to you, and how being part of the Working Group is shaping your current process? Any hints about what the next show might look like?
Like I always say, Joe’s Pub is like my second home. I often park myself in the second floor lobby lounge to write songs and stories. I call it “my office.”
I feel so safe at the Public Theater because it’s like a nest of love. For me, art is safety, it’s comfort, and Joe’s Pub and The Public Theater believe in artists that don’t quite fit into neat, categorical boxes. I suppose I am one of those artists, and it’s been a real blessing to be part of the family there. As an immigrant, coming to this new country, not speaking perfect English, and not having a built-in support system or community, Joe’s Pub has welcomed me with open arms.
Being part of the Joe’s Pub Working Group has been a beautiful experience. I have met the most extraordinarily talented people, made new friends that I have admired before and now I do even more, and I have been nurtured as an artist and as a professional. I wish I could stay in the group forever.
I’m working on a new album now called English with an Accent, and we will be developing a show to celebrate its launch which will involve a lot of new, wild costumes and creations. I can’t wait to share. And LatinXoxo will be coming back soon. Next stop is at A.R.T. Oberon in Cambridge in April!