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Musical Theater and Film  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  

For almost a century, particular show tunes have had special meaning for gay men. From Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" (The Wizard of Oz, 1939; Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg) to Doris Day celebrating her "Secret Love " (Calamity Jane, 1953; Sammy Fain), to the unseen singer in West Side Story (1957) reassuring us, in the words of gay men Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, that there's a place for us "Somewhere," to Albin in Jerry Herman's La Cage aux Folles (1983) proudly declaring "I Am What I Am," the Broadway theater and Hollywood musical have provided us with our anthems.

The Broadway Diva

For many gay men, the centerpiece of the musical was the larger than life female star, her persona an exaggeration of the femininity that one associates with drag queens. Although there are a number of fine leading men, some of whom do not put much effort into concealing their gayness, show queens have been far more interested in the divas.

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The Broadway diva defies conventional notions of gender and plays out the parodic, larger-than-life performance of gender that the musical privileges. For this reason, perhaps, gay men have been the core following of a number of leading ladies.

From the devoted following of Judy Garland's stage appearances to the fans of Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli, to the admirers of Elaine Stritch, Barbra Streisand, Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Barbara Cook, and, more recently, Betty Buckley, gay men have made adulation of the leading lady part of the gay theatrical experience.

Now, when fewer musicals are being written for star turns--because of the long runs necessary for musicals to be profitable, musicals are usually written with leading roles that can easily be played by a succession of lesser known performers--many divas have been required to build their careers on concert and cabaret appearances, and many show queens have turned their attention to cabaret.

Particularly in the pre-Stonewall days of the closet, the diva was part of the camp appeal of the musical. Camp allowed gay spectators to find gayness in shows that were ostensibly heterosexual and heterosexist. The artificiality of the musical re-enforced gay men's sense of the artificiality of the gender order that excluded them.

The content was not transgressive, but the form and style were. Excess is at the heart of the traditional musical.

Representations of Gay Characters

Since Stonewall and gay liberation, a large number of gay men are no longer satisfied with queering ostensibly heterosexual musicals, but want to see themselves on stage. Over the past three decades, mainstream Broadway musicals have acknowledged their gay audience, though often by trotting out tired stereotypes.

Lauren Bacall's diva vehicle Applause (1970; book, Betty Comden & Adolph Green; music and lyrics, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams), an adaptation of the camp film classic All About Eve (1950), featured as Margo Channing's sidekick a flamboyant gay hairdresser who early in the show takes her to a gay bar where she is worshipped by show queens, a unique acknowledgment of a large segment of the show's audience.

Since Tommy Tune played a gay choreographer in Seesaw (1973; book, Michael Bennett and Michael Stewart; music, Cy Coleman; lyrics, Dorothy Fields), show business musicals have acknowledged the role of gay men in their creation.

However, Bennett's next musical, A Chorus Line (1975), rather incredibly had only two gay men in the show's group of eager candidates, neither of whom was good enough actually to be cast as a member of the chorus for which the show presented a fictional audition.

Set in a Saint Tropez gay nightclub, La Cage aux Folles (1983; book, Harvey Fierstein; music and lyrics, Jerry Herman) offered a chorus of drag performers and a drag diva and her "husband" of twenty years as the leading characters in a saga of middle-aged gay marriage. Presenting a cartoon version of gay couples acceptable to heterosexuals, the show ran for four years and has since become a staple of amateur theater groups.

One element of the crossover success of La Cage aux Folles is its dependence on traditional stereotypes of drag, effeminacy, and the notion that a gay couple has to parody the gender politics of a heterosexual couple. Nonetheless, the musical had a large gay following, in part because its writers and director were openly gay.

The same kind of stereotyping is apparent in subsequent musicals. For example, Kiss of the Spider Woman (London 1992, New York, 1993; book, Terrence McNally; music and lyrics, John Kander and Fred Ebb) removed the irony and complexity of Manuel Puig's novel to present a nelly mama's boy's love for a macho straight man and his worship of a flamboyant diva, played by musical veteran Chita Rivera.

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