As a child he famously won Ed McMahon’s Junior Star Search over the then-unknown Britney Spears. As an adult, Marty Thomas created a name for himself on Broadway in shows like Xanadu, Wicked and The Secret Garden, on Netflix’s Grace & Frankie, and has been a staple of New York City nightlife for well over a decade. His sophomore album Slow Dancing With a Boy, produced by Jamey Ray, explores the music of a young closeted man’s coming of age memories and dares to question the possibility of having lived those memories honestly and openly. Fusing pop and musical theatre, with song choices running the gamut from Vanessa Williams to Les Misérables, Slow Dancing features collaborations with The Voice’s Rachel Potter, Voctave’s Jamey Ray and viral sensation Mykal Kilgore. Whether you want to slow dance with a boy, a girl, or just dance by yourself for a while, this album celebrates love, hope and the healing and redemptive power of music.
Ahead of the album’s release Jamie Valentino spoke exclusively to Marty Thomas for The Queer Review.
Jamie Valentino: It’s been a few years since your prom, and you’ve accomplished so much since then as an LGBTQ artist. Was there a experience that inspired your new album?
Marty Thomas: “Honestly, looking back, I didn’t have a particularly bad experience at school dances. I just didn’t have an organic experience, and the catalyst for this album really opened my eyes to that. I saw a news article about this boy going to prom with another boy. My first thought was that something bad had happened to them. I hoped that they didn’t hurt him too bad. I grew up in the 90s in the Midwest, and if that had happened at my prom, people would’ve been none too kind to them. The article turned out to be just about a boy who decided to go to prom with another boy. His parents took pictures of them. One of them ended up winning prom king!”
Well, that’s a nice turn of events!
“It blew my mind that I had just assumed that something horrible had happened, and it opened my eyes to the fact that I was kind of robbed of that experience. I definitely had some fault in it, in not being bold enough to risk it all and give people a chance. It just didn’t seem like an option at the time. I felt like my only choice was to manipulate and find someone to sell your story, you know, find an unsuspecting girl to go to the prom with you. When I realized that that was my reality, it made me so sad. So many LGBTQ teens just don’t get that privilege, that freedom to feel that pride. This album was kind of a self-therapy session for me, so to speak with songs that took me back to a specific memory of middle school, high school, college, of not feeling good enough, not feeling comfortable enough to be honest, to live my truth. The album was an exercise in taking some dark memories and reclaiming them.“
Putting together the album must’ve been an emotional experience. Was it tough at times, or more freeing?
“I feel like several of the songs hit really close to home. Seventh Grade is a track on the album, it’s a duet I recorded with Mykal Kilgore. I don’t know how old you are, Jamie, but people of a certain age…
I am twenty-five, but try me.
“Yeah, you might be a little young for that song. There was a summer in the 90s where it was just everywhere, every dance, every song that played on the radio. I remember one summer at a music camp, there was a camp dance, and I had a crush on boy from another school there. I just remember looking at him across the dance floor and wishing I had the courage to talk to him, but knowing that if anyone saw me talking to him that it was going to make national news! Everyone was going to be on to me. I remember trying to time it out, waiting for the perfect moment, but then the dance was over, then camp was over. I have such deep regrets from not seizing the opportunity. That songs seems like a trivial school memory, but it hit me really hard, the feelings we suppress. I suddenly remembered all these opportunities I missed by not being bold and vulnerable, how many friendships and relationships that I sacrificed by trying to make other people feel comfortable.“
That is definitely the case for many queer kids, myself included. Do you thinkn you might’ve founded easier to be open about your own sexuality if there had been more out LGBTQ artists when you were younger?
“Yes, completely. We didn’t have any artists to look up to. There was a time in the 90s where people wouldn’t even admit that Boy George or Elton John were gay. Then we began to see things emerge like Queer As Folk on TV.”
I loved that series.
“It’s such a fabulous show, but now you watch it and it’s so dated. But at the time, it was monumental. Every gay person I knew got together with groups of people to support, to watch this thing on TV. Then you started to see Melissa Etheridge coming out, and Ellen Degeneres coming out, then as time went on Adam Albert and Sam Smith. Eventually, it was artists being out from the get-go, not waiting until they’d made it. They are actually being branded as gay artists. Now we have Pose and Billy Porter getting the attention he deserves. Artists get to be who they are, without masquerading any part of themselves. Had we had that, I think I would have had a very different coming-of-age experience.”
Do you think we’ll get to a point where coming out isn’t something that has to happen, something that doesn’t have to be announced or that it won’t be such a commotion?
“I think we’re getting closer and closer to a point where coming out isn’t necessary. My boyfriend Jeffrey is younger than I am, and he didn’t really have a coming out process, which I found fascinating. He’s been around for the making of this album and I think it was insightful for him to hear my experience growing up. He just never had to have that with his parents. He came into his own, it’s just assumed, like a straight kid, and everything is fine. Parents are seeing what coming out and being gay looks like on TV, seeing signs in their own kids, and they can now be more open and honest. They see possibilities and a future. I think my parents, and many others, were just frightened for their kids back then.”
You’ve had a great career so far, including appearing on one of my favourite shows, Grace and Frankie.
Getting to work with those legends was incredible.
You recently had a chance to slow dance with a boy, alongside party guests who got a second chance at prom at the album launch.
“Yes, I had already locked down my prom date with my boyfriend Jeffrey. But we invited everyone to get dolled up to attend the prom that they would have wanted to go to today. And yes some people got a second chance at prom and even to redo those hideous high school prom pictures! I hired a prom photographer and we redid the cheesy prom backdrop of your Pinterest dreams. And I had a DJ on hand to take us into the night for a legit adult prom we all deserve.“
By Jamie Valentino