Music: Broadway and Musical Theater

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The American musical has long been a utopic place to explore new themes and ideas while simultaneously championing community. Within what is typically a two and one-half hour time period, characters fall in love, undergo stress and hardship, find ways to negotiate their identities and desires within society, experience loss, and ultimately celebrate life despite its complex, ephemeral, and occasionally tragic nature. Audiences are sent forth from musical theater performances with what is known as an eleven o'clock lift—a final number designed to stick in one's head, usually encompassing the major ideals of the show and occasionally even suggesting a way to make life a little better. Musical theater, historically, has been an arena of LGBT hope, whether for generations of homosexuals forced to remain closeted, those oppressed by McCarthyism and political profiling, or any who have lived and died under the specter of AIDS.

Form and Structure

Musical theater, traditionally a larger-than-life performance form that finds its characters responding to life's problems (no matter how insignificant) through song and dance, is distinctly and perhaps irrevocably marked by its irregular and comprehensive structure. Often, a show's music belies its origins in folk music and operetta, but the show may also feature variations on pop and rock. Musical theater's choreography often draws from a wide range of movement vocabularies, ultimately featuring an amalgam of ballet, tap, modern, and jazz dance. Depending on the director and the performers in any given role, a musical's acting style shifts rapidly between gritty realism and the broadest of melodrama, sometimes within the span of a single song. When these elements are assem-bled into a musical, even if perfectly integrated, the sum total of the performance event will almost always seem odd and contrived next to any other play or film, and certainly the musical's distant cousin, real life.

Owing to its idealistic themes, its counternormative form and structure, and the large numbers of gay and bisexual creators and performers that make up its family tree, it perhaps is not surprising that conventional culture has reduced this art form to a simple formula: musical theater equals gay. Theater historians and theorists— homosexual and heterosexual—continue to explore the history of this stereotype, but despite serious research done on behalf of the musical, popular culture continues to reify the idea that knowledge of musicals is an indicator of a person's sexuality. Just as there is no singular type of musical theater (endless structural variations exist— the rock musical, the book musical, the dance-based musical, the sung-through musical), there is clearly no sense in affixing a gay label to all musical theater. A careful look, though, at some of the musical's gay and bisexual creators, the success of musicals with LGBT characters and plots, and the openness and potential that musical theater affords to anyone wishing to read it queerly speaks volumes as to why musical theater is a haven for LGBT practitioners and audiences.

The Musical's Creators

Musical theater has been primarily composed, written, directed, and choreographed by white men. Although women have been finding more of a place in musical theater since the late twentieth century, the musical has for decades been a boy's club that allowed performance rights, but not necessarily membership, to women. Male composer-lyricist teams like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb, and even Lloyd-Weber and Rice have dominated the industry for decades, and although none of these partnerships have ever been proven to be sexual, the homosociality of the musical's creative teams cannot be denied.

The American musical grew up in New York City, fostered by a host of men wrestling publicly and privately with their sexual identities. As the gay mecca in the early part of the twentieth century, New York City afforded a place to work and play for all sorts of people looking for different lifestyles. At a crossroads of the arts, musical theater offered a safe venue for many to labor where the closets were slightly more ajar. Theater practitioners, knowing that many of their colleagues were gay, were able to be as out or as unobservable as they wanted to be (or at least more so than in most other professions), snapping up the spotlight and amassing celebrity or quietly blending into the chorus. Ornate sets, opulent costumes, and row after row of beautiful men and women singing and dancing offered spectators and practitioners a chance to participate in fabulous displays of color and life, the spectacle for which musical theater has come to be known. A subculture emerged around witnessing these performances among gay men, whose visibility in Manhattan and whose sexual and social identities were being solidified during the same era as the musical.

Charting the sexualities of the creators of musicals has been a major preoccupation of scholars, but this information is only useful when it transcends mere gossip and is used to ascertain how a composer, lyricist, author, director, or choreographer's sexuality affected their work. For instance, composer-lyricist Cole Porter's Anything Goes (Broadway, 1934) and Kiss Me Kate (Broadway, 1948) both contain numerous witty (and often naughty) references to the pleasures of gay sexuality, carefully coded so as not to offend the general public. Porter's own relative comfort with his sexuality and his large social circle of gay and lesbian friends find a happy home within his musicals. Lyricist Lorenz Hart, however, a longtime collaborator with composer Richard Rodgers, found his own homosexuality distasteful and debilitating. His own self-loathing and loneliness informed the songs of Babes in Arms (Broadway, 1937) and Pal Joey (Broadway, 1940), where characters struggle with the impossibility of love and the inevitable heartbreak that it causes. Similar analyses can be done with other musicals, such as West Side Story (Broadway, 1957), that lack any overtly homosexual characters or story lines but have been partially or wholly conceived by gay men. West Side Story's major collaborators, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, were all gay, which sheds light on why Tony and Maria's hetero-sexual

ballad, "Somewhere," is often read as expressing a longing to find a paradise where lovers of all orientations can find peace and happiness.

Gay and Lesbian Characters

Even more interesting than the sexualities of musical theater's creators are the LGBT characters who have appeared within the shows and what their presence in the musical has in common with contemporary perceptions of sexuality in society. Predictably, gay characters are easily visible from the politically liberating 1960s onward, as evidenced by musicals like Hair (Broadway, 1968) and A Chorus Line (Broadway 1975), both about young people sharing their hopes, dreams, and identities with each other. In the various incarnations (Broadway, 1966; film, 1972; Broadway, Roundabout Theatre revival, 1998) of Cabaret—a musical, based on a story by gay novelist Christopher Isherwood—the central male love interest is played as a heterosexual, a bisexual, and a mostly closeted homosexual, respectively. La Cage Aux Folles (1983) is arguably Broadway's first homosexual musical; the play on which it was based was later adapted to become the much more mainstream film The Birdcage (1996). It is a story about two middle-aged lovers, one who owns a drag-queen nightclub and the other who is its star. Within the course of this musical, one of the main characters has to defend his lifestyle and sings "I Am What I Am," a defiant song that has since become a queer anthem. Three one-act musicals by William Finn, In Trousers (Off-Broadway, 1979), The March of the Falsettos (Off-Broadway, 1981), and Falsettoland (Off-Off-Broadway, 1990), are similarly about the collision of family values and sexual identity. The central character in these three musicals learns he is gay, and yet still desires to keep his wife and son and lover together as a happy family.

Falsettoland is especially remarkable as it is one of the earliest mainstream musicals to feature a character with AIDS. It paved the way for Jonathan Larson's Rent (Broadway, 1996), a musical adaptation of Puccini's opera La Bohème (Turin, Italy, 1896) that follows a group of young starving artists in New York City, many of whom are gay or have AIDS. Based on Manuel Puig's novel, John Kander and Fred Ebb's Kiss of the Spider-woman (Broadway, 1993) visits the fantasy world that a gay window dresser inhabits while incarcerated in a South American prison. The syndication of the television sitcom Will and Grace (which first aired in 1998) heralds an era where there is growing mainstream comfort with gay identities (within stereotypical roles, of course), and this phenomenon has translated to the stage, both in new

musicals and in frequent revivals of older shows with gay characters. Although the increased volume of gay characters is a welcome change to musical theater, practitioners, critics, and audiences need to examine how these themes and identities function politically. What ideologies does this increased gay visibility support or seek to change?

An example of this tension between presence and politics is the way that lesbians have been represented in musicals. As of the first years of the twenty-first century, lesbian characters have primarily been relegated to smaller roles such as the next-door neighbors in Falsetto-land or as party goers in The Wild Party musicals (two different shows, Broadway and Off-Broadway, which both opened in 2000). Even the lesbian relationship in Rent seems merely a diversion until the central heterosexual plot is resumed. Often, these women's bodies are objectified or are only present as tokens: a nod to another minority without any real thematic or political substance. Hopefully, this increased onstage representation of lesbians in musical theater starting in the later part of the twentieth century will result in a more significant incorporation of lesbian characters and themes in subsequent decades of musical theater.

Drag and the Musical

In part because of its ties to spectacle, drag has long figured as a prominent part of many musicals, with historical antecedents as far back as American minstrelsy, English pantomime, and even Romantic ballet. Small character parts in musicals like South Pacific (Broadway, 1949) find humor in characters temporarily donning clothes meant for the opposite sex. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (London, 1973; film, 1975) deals with the subject more overtly, featuring a bisexual "sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania" and the pleasures that a young engaged couple finds in his mansion. The year 1975 saw two Broadway musicals that further explore drag performance. In A Chorus Line one of the characters recounts the day his parents discovered him performing in a drag show, and in Chicago one male character convincingly masquerades as a female socialite until his performance is unmasked (a subplot that was cut from the 2002 film). Since the 1970s, many more musicals have featured men in drag as highly sympathetic characters. In La Cage aux Folles the put-upon drag queen Albin tries desperately to keep his family together, and in Rent some of the most moving love songs and dialogue are given to Angel, the streetwise drag queen dying of AIDS. Two movie musicals with cross-dressing as their central plot device were subsequently adapted as stage shows; the 1959 film Some Like it Hot was reincarnated as the Broadway stage musical Sugar in 1972, and the 1982 film Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews was revived as a play on Broadway in 1995. Musical theater clearly has a longstanding relationship with drag; in recent musicals on stage and screen, it has become an acceptable place to examine not just the performance of gender but also the performance of sexuality.

One example of a show that explores transgender issues is Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Off-Broadway, 1998), a musical about an East German transsexual rocker whose botched sex change operation and immigration to the United States leads to loneliness and confusion. In 2001 its cult popularity led to a film, perhaps an indicator of how musical theater is becoming increasingly willing and able to examine explicitly the construction of gender and sexuality and to help create a forum for more mainstream discussions of such issues.

Queering the Musical

Prior to the 1960s, few overtly nonstraight characters appeared onstage, and certainly very few pieces of theater deviated from the heteronormative standards of the day. Bearing this in mind, it seems almost incongruous that many older musicals that reinforce cultural stereotypes or keep gay and lesbian characters and issues out of the spotlight are now or have always been enjoyed (even worshipped) by homosexual communities. As these audiences have done for years, scholars and critics are finding the musical a complex and useful site to examine an array of queer themes and identities—even when not originally intended by a show's creators.

Celebrity culture does much to explain the ties between the musical and its gay or lesbian fans. Stars of the musical theater often establish a following because of the performance conventions of the musical; songs of hope and support are sung directly to audience members, by some performers as often as eight times a week. These performers, mostly female, become well loved (and sometimes deified) by audiences. They are subsequently cast in similar role after role, usually as someone queer audiences can relate to or would like to be, such as a romantic lead character or as someone who continually perseveres despite life's obstacles. Their love ballads and showstopping numbers, such as "I'm Still Here" from Follies (Broadway, 1971) and "Over the Rainbow" from the film The Wizard of Oz (1939), even though sung by heterosexual characters, have frequently been adopted by the queer community because they speak to queer history, aesthetic, and sentiment. Divas of the stage and screen are celebrated further in piano bars, karaoke nights, and revues, where the musical's songs are performed as are the stage personas and vocal styles of its major celebrities, such as Judy Garland, Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli, Ethel Merman, Barbra Streisand, and Betty Buckley.

Another strategy for queering the musical is to consider its marginalized parties. Whom does the greater community of heterosexuals exclude, oppress, or ignore? Gays and lesbians can identify with the characters who do not find happiness in the same things or share the same values that the greater society does. Characters that are villainized, made to seem excessively feminine or masculine, or who are not allowed a fair chance in life can be read as queer characters—those who regardless of their actual sexualities are different enough from the general public that they seem to have traits or experiences in common with gays and lesbians in the audience. For instance, the hyper-masculine character, Jud Fry, in Oklahoma (Broadway, 1943) and the delicate Harry Beaton in Brigadoon (Broadway, 1947) both fail as romantic suitors and are punished for their counternormative approaches to masculinity and heterosexuality. The structure of the musical itself can push some characters to the margins; characters are similarly queerable who are not allowed to sing or dance with the rest of the chorus, who are not allotted much dialogue or stage time, or who are either killed off (like Jud Fry and Harry Beaton) or left out of the musical's traditional happy ending (where the stage is often packed with happy heterosexual couples). Those characters marked as different because of religion, ethnicity, or race (such as the Polynesian character, Bloody Mary, in South Pacific or the Puerto Rican, Chino, in West Side Story) may also be attractive or sympathetic to gay and lesbian audiences because of the characters' inability or refusal to fit in.

In theatrical circles, the shorthand for dramatic literature is straight theater. It is not surprising, therefore, that musical theater has maintained a queer identity. LGBT characters, plots, and themes are undoubtedly growing more socially acceptable and sought after. Theater practitioners are becoming more able to openly assert their sexualities and apply them to their craft. As long as these trends continue, the American musical will remain a popular, meaningful, and unquestionably queer form of theater.


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Marra, Kim, and Robert A. Schanke, eds. Staging Desire: Queer Readings of American Theater History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Mast, Gerald. Can't Help Singin': The American Musical on Stage and Screen. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1987.

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Most, Andrea. "'You've Got to Be Carefully Taught': The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific." Theatre Journal 52 (2000): 307–337.

Román, David. Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Sandoval-Sanchez, Alberto. José, Can You See?: Latinos on and off Broadway. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

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Zachary A. Dorsey

see alsoactors and actresses; bernstein, leonard; choruses and bands; hart, lorenz; icons; porter, cole; sondheim, stephen; theater and performance; waters, ethel.

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Music: Broadway and Musical Theater

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