Let Pride Be Your Guide: LGBTQ Musical Theatre
LGBTQI+ representation in media and entertainment has long been an issue within theatrical circles, with the stories of people who identify as anything other than straight and cisgendered largely ignored in the storytelling of both plays and musical theatre. There are, however, exceptions to the rule, and it seems that in most cases when a show portrays characters on the spectrum of gender and sexual identity, they become groundbreaking and are respected by a wide queer-identifying audience.
So many aspects of musical theatre were built and are maintained by gay people, and it makes sense that our art form would be the most succinct in exploring issues that influence LGBTQ+ lives. Below is a short list of musicals you can explore for rainbow themes and characters that were also instrumental in influencing social change for a particular generation or group of people.
1. RENT (Jonathan Larson)
Who doesn’t love RENT? The show broke a million storytelling and representational barriers, featuring a bisexual woman (Maureen), a lesbian (Joanne), and Collins and Angel, two gay men in a relationship, the latter of which predominantly wears drag throughout the show. Rather than relegating these LGBTQI+ characters and relationships to a secondary plot throughout the show, or reducing them to offer only comic relief, each person is treated with dignity and allowed full development of character and time in the spotlight. The show, set in New York in the late ’80s, also portrays characters who live with HIV/AIDS, a disease that has had a massive and devastating effect on the gay population around the world.
As RENT was one of the first rock musicals to reach critical acclaim, the inclusion of so many queer characters is particularly of note. It amazes me that the progressiveness of the art form and the representation of characters managed to break at exactly the right time – musical theatre would be very different today if RENT had not smashed through the Disneyfied ceiling of 1990s theatre and pioneered a new movement, where characters of multiple sexualities were not only accepted but also applauded. As Wilson Jermaine Heredia said in his Tony acceptance speech, “Here’s to awareness and action against all the ills that are represented in this play, that can be alleviated through unity, and here’s to a new era in theatre.”
2. Bare: A Pop Opera (Jon Hartmere, Jr., Damon Intrabartolo)
Set in a Catholic boarding school, Bare: A Pop Opera (and its subsequent versions) feature Peter and Jason, two boys who have fallen in love and struggle with the pressures of coming out to their friends and family. Already fighting to survive the stresses heaped on them by parental expectations, study, and everything else inherent in the life of a teenager, Peter and Jason have to decide if disclosing their love and sexuality will lead to an open life or if it will only cause them more pain.
I have always seen Bare as an indictment of people who put their religious beliefs in front of human compassion, as shown by the tragic consequences revealed towards the end of the show. Young LGBTQ+ people are consistently thrown under the bus by a society that would rather they hide than live a fulfilled life, and although it is one of the lesser-known works on this list, Bare deserves to be recognised for the way it portrays issues for gay teenage characters and teenage audience.
Check out this video of vintage Matt Doyle and James Snyder recording the title song from the show, with added character analysis (contains spoilers).
3. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott)
Another show to represent the drag side of the gay population, but this time set in the outback of Australia. The plot of Priscilla features two drag queens and a transgender woman travelling across the Australian desert to present their lip-synched drag performance to an audience in Alice Springs, and it takes on the dangerous prejudice against queer people built into the identities of many Australians. The source material (a film named The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is a massive cultural touchstone in Australia, made at just the right time to influence change. One of the most important issues discussed during Priscilla is that of non-traditional families – one of the men who frequently dresses in drag is a father, and towards the end of the story he comes out to his young son.
Priscilla is known the world over as a film that challenged the notion of what it meant to be a man. It rode the wave of social change fought for by Australian drag queens in the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and the popularity of the musical is a testament to the universal nature of the piece. You can find out more about the amazing people that inspired and worked on the Priscilla film by watching a documentary recently aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Between a Frock and a Hard Place.
4. Kinky Boots (Cyndi Lauper, Harvey Fierstein)
Based on the film of the same name, Kinky Boots is about a drag queen who helps a struggling shoemaking factory thrive again by suggesting a new shoe design and clientele. With names like Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein attached to the project, fans knew that the source material was in fantastic hands and themes of gender and sexuality would be handled properly by the writers, and the show has gone on to inspire thousands of people since first opening. Kinky Boots is another show that challenges the conventions of masculinity through the eyes of a very feminine drag persona, and it promotes the message of allowing pride of self to be an important part of anyone’s life, no matter what challenges you face.
While Kinky Boots features a strong LGBTQ+ presence, the strength of the show lies in the fact that all of its characters have something about them that is not particularly mainstream. Watching all of these diverse people work together to achieve a common goal is gorgeous, and watching them discover the natural positivity within diversity makes the show an absolute standout.
5. If/Then (Tom Kitt, Brian Yorkey)
Although the leading characters in If/Then are straight, most of the featured characters who carry the sub-plots in the show would score higher on the Kinsey Scale. One thing I particularly liked about sexuality within If/Then was that Elizabeth’s split storyline allows Lucas, her best friend, the true opportunity to depict bisexuality in the show. In one storyline Lucas wants nothing more than to be Elizabeth’s romantic partner, and in another, he is in a long-term relationship with a man. Often in media, bisexuality of a character is stated, but not thoroughly explored (normally a character will be paired off early and a relationship will slip into a will they/wont they pattern, which leads to a stable gendered relationship). While If/Then has its minor flaws, the level of lesbian, gay and bisexual representation within the musical is something to truly take pride in.
6. Fun Home (Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori)
Fun Home is breaking barriers everywhere, and this was clear through the performance presented at this year’s Tony Awards. To have a young girl sing a song about discovering who she is and who she wants to be, to sing about identifying with a butch lesbian woman on an event as highly televised as the Tony Awards, makes me feel like anything could be achievable in the future.
Based on the life of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her graphic novel of the same name, Fun Home has been widely applauded this Broadway season for the visibility it is bringing to gay characters and the issues they face throughout their lives. The show explores Alison’s youth, the gradual realisation that she is gay and her coming out experience, and through the character of her father, Bruce, shows the tragic consequences waiting for a person who is unable to live the way they were born to be. Fun Home is about connection and the lack of it, and Broadway is all the better for housing its entity.
There are many more examples of shows featuring gender- and sexuality-diverse themes and characters within the musical theatre medium (eg. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, La Cage Aux Follies), and there will always be more added. Lets celebrate our differences, and remember that, in the words of Kinky Boots, we must “let pride be our guide.”