Our Time: Inside Lempicka’s Devoted, Mostly Queer Fanbase | Playbill

Special Features Our Time: Inside Lempicka’s Devoted, Mostly Queer Fanbase

The musical may have had a short run on Broadway. But its devout “Lempeople” will make sure the show lives on.

Amber Iman and cast of Lempicka Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

On the morning of Tony Award nominations, April 30, a group of devoted theatre fans gathered outside the Longacre Theatre, the home of the new Broadway musical Lempicka. Many of these self-named Lempeople gathered around a laptop—cheering, crying, and hugging each other as the show’s leads, Eden Espinosa and Amber Iman, were both nominated.

Two days later, on May 2, the fans learned the show would be closing on May 19. But even though Matt Gould and Carson Kreitzer's Lempicka was short-lived, only running for two months total, interviews with its devoted fanbase show the birth of a new cult musical classic.

The Lempeople are the devoted, primarily LGBTQIA+-identifying, mostly young fans of Lempicka. They found solace in the show, in what it represented as the rare Broadway musical to feature a queer female love story at its center. To coin the name of the most well-known song in Lempicka, “woman is” at the center of this musical’s story, right along with queer love.

These fans rushed Lempicka on a near daily basis—sometimes even catching both performances on a two-show day. Lauren Cagnetta, a performer and Broadway Dance Center teacher, saw the show 33 times over its run. They even have a Lempicka tattoo.

“I do feel a bit manic about the show,” Cagnetta said as they waited in line to rush the show’s final preview performance on April 13. “When I wake up, I have about seven people, I would say, who I text about Lempicka.”

Bree Walton, a social worker living in Brooklyn who was first in the rush line that day, piped in, saying he agrees—the show is on his mind “24/7.” By April 13, Walton had seen the show 13 times (he'd see it 20 more times by the time Lempicka ended its run).

“I’ll be asleep, and the songs are still playing in my head,” said Walton. “I wake up, and I'm like, ‘Hey, today's the day. We’re going back.’”

Lempicka followed the story of real-life Jewish and Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka (played by Eden Espinosa) during her time living in Paris between World War I and World War II. She finds a muse and lover in a sex worker named Rafaela (Amber Iman), even though Tamara is married to a man. The show saw Tamara exploring "what a woman could be" through art, told with minimalist sets and contemporary-style music.

Amber Iman and Eden Espinosa in Lempicka Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

For $35, those in the rush line could purchase front-row seats to Lempicka. The Lempeople took advantage of this: One fan, Sabrina Luk, saw the show 39 times. In doing so, they could see the small changes from one performance to the next.

“[During] one of the shows this week, Beth [Leavel], says a line that she's dying. She's getting her portrait done, and the line is, like, she has two months [to live]. But she slipped up and said two weeks,” Walton said. At the stage door, Walton asked Leavel about that slip-up: “I was like, ‘Is it you got two weeks or two months?’ She was like, ‘Shit! Did I say two weeks?’”

For many fans, Lempicka was the rare opportunity to see themselves reflected on stage. Chris Riley came out as lesbian almost three decades ago. She saw Lempicka more than 30 times, saying that she kept returning to the Longacre “to be able to see myself and my community on the stage, and in a way that doesn't make fun of us, that doesn't try to force us to be tragic.”

The Lempeople often had fun with the cast. There is a moment in the show where Natalie Joy Johnson (who played lesbian bar owner Suzy Solidor) asked someone in the front row for a dollar. Cagnetta came to performances with jokes or drawings on dollar bills, ready and easy to access.

Lempicka co-book writer and composer Matt Gould even brought the Lempeople up in his pre-opening-night speech to the cast. “Every night, those kids come up in the front row,” Gould told the cast. “Let’s do it for the kids. Do it for you at 15. Let’s do it for the little queer people who are little queer us’s.”

Despite its passionate Lempeople, Lempicka closed only a month after opening, a result of two factors: financial performance and critical reception. 

“Do you have a minute to talk about Lempicka?“: Lempicka star Eden Espinosa and the show’s fans show off some custom merch Courtesy of Lauren Cagnetta

Gould spoke on this in his curtain speech, following the closing-night show May 19. “I just want to remind us that there is more to the world than just fucking making money and being fucking famous,” Gould said. “We have to make work that lets people see themselves. We have to make work that lets us see ourselves.”

Lempicka was not able to sell enough tickets to cover its expenses (the show earned an average of $382,212 a week, making it one of the lowest-grossing shows on Broadway). Because it was an entirely original musical that was not based on an existing, well-known property (without a mainstream celebrity in its cast), Lempicka had a more challenging time finding a large audience—especially without unanimous rave reviews to bolster it.

Selena Audrey, a regular theatre-goer and Lempicka fan who saw the show twice, said that “people were just not committed to understanding it...It's kind of ironic because Tamara’s life was kind of similar, in a way. She came on and no one understood her, and then suddenly, years later, everybody's like, ‘Oh my god, she's amazing.’”

In a follow up interview after the show's closing, Cagnetta agreed, calling the seeming dismissal of Lempicka “the greatest tragedy.”

The Lempeople were the exception. They were at the rush line bright and early every show day. The mixed critical response did not matter to them. Cassie Horn had been following the show since its tryouts in La Jolla, California. When she heard Lempicka was closing, she flew to New York from Chicago to finally see it.

“It was honestly just like nothing I've ever seen on a Broadway stage before. The way it celebrated female queer love was something that was so beautiful,” said Horn, adding how there were “tears streaming down my face for over half the show.”

Unfortunately for Lempicka, the Lempeople were sometimes the only ones in the rush line to buy tickets. For one preview, Walton remembered, “It was me and, like, three other people. We each bought a matinee and an evening ticket.”

Closing night, however, saw a massive shift. Riley was in the rush line around 7:15 p.m. the night before closing.

She wasn’t alone. The Lempeople literally camped outside the Longacre “so that we could experience it together,” said Riley. As a longtime activist, she was familiar with camping out, though in a different context. “I have put my body in a variety of different places in terms of protest. And it was nice to, like, be sitting in front of a theatre and sleeping in front of a theatre and not have it be a protest.” Instead, it was a celebration.

For Cagnetta, who also slept in front of the Longacre, the wait was worth it. They called the closing-night performance “great, amazing, perfect, beautiful.” (Riley said there were at least five standing ovations throughout the show.)

“I've never experienced anything like it in my entire life,” Cagnetta said. “And I don't know if I will for as long as I live.”

Lempicka fans camp out in front of the Longacre Theatre Courtesy of Lauren Cagnetta

Though it didn’t manage to find a wider audience to fill a 1,077-seat Broadway house every night, Lempicka was life-changing for those who loved it. A couple got engaged on the stage of the Longacre. After reading a quote from Espinosa about the show, Cagnetta was inspired to officially make the switch to they/them pronouns.

Because of its passionate fanbase, it’s likely Lempicka will go down in the theatre history books among other cult classics with short lifespans—next to the likes of [title of show], Carrie, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. And perhaps one day, it will achieve what Merrily We Roll Along did—a short Broadway run followed by revisions and then, decades later, a hit revival.

“From the joy of opening, to the elation of the Tony noms, to the shock of closing notice, to feeling like we only had two weeks to fit everything in, to the devastation of closing—it all happened so fast,” Cagnetta said. “There's a whiplash effect, and I don't think anyone—cast, crew, fans included—have truly processed what happened yet.” 

But one thing is clear, Lempicka will live on: through its cast album (releasing May 29) and through its fanbase. Horn believes that the Lempeople are here to stay: “We've all made this community and I don't think that's gonna go away.”

Photos: Eden Espinosa, Amber Iman, More in Lempicka On Broadway

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