As an ally, I find it challenging to share my thoughts on LGBTQ representation in theater. In many ways, the theater, and especially musicals, have been a refuge for members of that community as it is full of like-minded and open-minded individuals who have studied and strived mightily to understand the human condition. In doing so, many in the theater develop a heightened sense of empathy and understanding. After all, the quickest way to understand someone else is to walk a mile in their shoes. From the Greeks up to our contemporaries, the theater has always been a welcoming community.
However, no matter how open and accepting a community might be, LGBTQ representation on-stage has only recently become more prevalent and accepted. Early in the last century, a great play called God of Vengeance, by Sholem Asch, was censored due to a romantic relationship between two women. The incidents surrounding the history of this play is presented in the amazing playby Paula Vogel, available on BroadwayHD.
Due to public prejudices and ignorance, not to mention obscenity laws, most LGBTQ topics and characters were presented obliquely with much of the content presented in coded or understated ways. One classic example is the character Tom from Tennessee Williams’ play Glass Menagerie. In the play, the character repeatedly references going to the movies and taking long walks. Given the similarities between Tom and Tennessee Williams, who identified as gay, it’s safe to assume there’s some level of verisimilitude between the character and the man.
In musical theater, there was even more subtext and less overtly stated up until the late 70’s/early 80’s. Most queer characters were present in subplots for comedic relief, whether 2007 and the 2011 productions are available on BroadwayHD), these characters presented alternative sexualities. It wasn’t until William Finn’s work on the Marvin Trilogy, later called that openly gay characters were presented in what became a mainstream musical within a decade of its premiere. Seeing these characters live “normal” life was revelatory in its mundanity. Yes! They put on their trousers one leg at a time too!from Oklahoma or Bobby from Company (both the
The AIDS epidemic certainly crystalized a force in theater to be more truthful and open in its representation of LGBTQ characters. The initial vanguards for this work were The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer andby Tony Kushner. Both of these plays humanized and elevated the AIDS crisis, opening the eyes, minds, and hearts of the mainstream audiences. By bringing these stories into the forefront, they paved the way to make LGBTQ stories more commonplace. From La Cage Aux Folles to Kinky Boots, we see a tremendous amount of representation in both plays and musicals.
Without a doubt there is still tremendous amounts of work to be done to continue the trends of improved representation in theater, but the work is trending in the right direction. What’s remarkable to me is that there ever was a time when we did not have these voices in our theatrical discussions. The idea that censors or audiences would be so scandalized by a kiss, an embrace, or honest dialogue about romantic relationships would almost be comical if it had not done so much damage to so many artists across the years. Now, BroadwayHD is proud to bring Bright Colors, Bold Patterns to our viewers as part of Outfest (July 18, then available to BroadwayHD subscribers July 19). With this great solo work, we are proud to support the raising of previously unheard voices, stories, and perspectives in the theater.