Stephen Oremus has had quite a career: Winning Tonys for The Book of Mormon and Kinky Boots, conducting the orchestra for Lady Gaga at the Oscars, and working with Rufus Wainwright on a tribute to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. Music’s been an integral part of his life for as long as he can remember — but it all started at a piano in a small suburban home.
Oremus was my guest recently on The Sewers of Paris, a podcast where I talk to gay men about the entertainment that has changed their lives. For him, musicals were among his earliest passions, including the Broadway version of Annie starring a young Sarah Jessica Parker.
Living in the suburbs outside of Manhattan, his parents would occasionally bring the family to see Broadway shows. Oremus was hooked. “All the boys were playing football, and I was sneaking off to sing songs,” he recalls. “I always wanted to make music.”
He was obsessed with strong female characters: Rizzo in Grease and the passionate songs of Xanadu were his favorites. A neighbor friend had a piano at her house, and he would sneak over to play the piano and sing with her. At the time, he was worried about getting caught. He knew that showtunes weren’t exactly a component of the masculinity expected of boys.
Though he dreamed of scoring movies, it took Oremus a while to get his career in motion. After college, he lived with his parents, smoked pot and worked at a video store until a friend offered him a job playing piano at a cabaret in New York. That brought him into a big wide world of musical theater, and also helped him edge his way out of the closet. Surrounded by other queer people, there was no longer the oppressive expectation of heterosexuality.
“In the theater, you’re gay until proven straight,” he says.
In New York, Oremus was finally able to dream big, and to work on projects that actually celebrated queer stories. He auditioned to be musical supervisor for the touring company of Rent, and then helped develop Avenue Q. The queerest moment of his career, though, was when he worked with Rufus Wainwright to re-create Judy Garland’s famous concert at Carnegie Hall. “It makes every gay bone in my body vibrate,” he says. “It’s the gayest thing I’ve done in front of thousands of people.”
But it’s far from the only gay thing he’s accomplished. Oremus also worked with Idina Menzel on the song “Let it Go,” an anthem for young queer people from the movie Frozen. “I taught it to Idina at my piano,” he says, all the while thinking, “Oh, this is going to be good.”
It’s a perfect parallel to the young kid who snuck across yards so he could sing with a friend while the other boys played sports. These days, of course, with a husband and family and amazing musical career, the sneaking is over.
Thanks to the welcome embrace of the theater, Stephen Oremus was finally able to take his fears about being gay and, as the song says, let it go.