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Musical Theater and Film  
 
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Many within and without gay culture have observed a strong identification on the part of gay men with musical theater. A number of gay writers have seen the musical as a crucial element in their consciousness of their homosexuality.

Alexander, Larry Kramer's alter ego in his play The Destiny of Me (1992), sings "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair" from South Pacific (1949) as a way of drowning out the attacks of his violent, father.

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critics Wayne Koestenbaum (The Queen's Throat) and D.A. Miller (Place for Us) write of their youthful love of the musical and its relationship to their sense of difference.

At the same time, television situation comedies have used love of musicals or knowledge of show tunes as a definitive sign of homosexuality. Even Kevin Kline's small town hero in the film In and Out (1997) listened to the cast album of Gypsy (1959) and worshipped Barbra Streisand.

In reality, such identification is stronger for men who grew up in an age in which musical theater was a more central part of American popular culture than it is now, a time when gay men necessarily had to find ways to sublimate their desires and identity. The flamboyant excess of musical theater, including opera and ballet, offered such outlets.

There are a number of ways to look at the relationship of the musical to gay culture, particularly gay male culture. One can consider the contribution of out or closeted gay composers and lyricists to the musical. One can also focus on the importance of musicals and, particularly the centrality of the women who were its divas, to that group of gay men known as show queens.

One can also look at post-Stonewall presentations of openly gay characters and shows written by gay writers primarily for gay audiences.

Composers and Lyricists

It is now common knowledge that some of the most important creators of the American and British musical have been gay men. One has to look only, for instance, at the men who brought Kiss Me, Kate to the stage in 1948, at the beginning of the Cold War when treatment of homosexuals was particularly Draconian.

The hit musical was produced by a gay man; written by Cole Porter, a gay man who was married but who rather openly and, for the time, incautiously, conducted his affairs with men; directed by John C. Wilson, who had been, in the 1930s, Noël Coward's lover; and featured among its stars bisexual Harold Lang, who had affairs with Leonard Bernstein and Gore Vidal, among others.

Of course, none of this was common knowledge at a time when homosexuality dared not speak its name (though people in the theater knew), but it does suggest the ways in which gay men were invested in and responsible for musical theater.

Of course, not everyone involved in musical theater is or was gay, but there were and are a significant number of major gay artists involved in musical theater from composers (Porter, Bernstein, Sondheim, Coward, Elton John), to lyricists (Hart, Porter, Sondheim), to librettists (James Kirkwood, Terrence McNally, among others), to directors and choreographers (Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune, John Dexter, among others), to scene and costume designers, and, of course, performers.

While now the homosexuality of artists involved in musical theater is celebrated in the gay press, during the heyday of musical theater (1920-1960), artists had to be circumspect.

Nonetheless, Cole Porter wrote a number of lyrics that contain homosexual innuendo. Lorenz Hart, half (with composer Richard Rodgers) of one of the most successful songwriting teams of the 1920s and 1930s, penned a number of serious lyrics that can easily be read autobiographically as cries from the heart of an anguished, self-hating homosexual.

Noël Coward and Ivor Novello, the two most successful British musical composers and stars of the period between the world wars (Coward wrote musicals into the 1960s), were both gay men.

In our time, Stephen Sondheim, although never dealing openly with the subject of homosexuality and never offering a gay character (though it is very difficult not to read Robert, the central character in Company [1970], as gay), is something of a gay icon.

Revivals of Sondheim's classic musicals, particularly Follies (1971), a hymn to diva worship, and the grand diva classic Gypsy (for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics), are quasi-religious events for show queens.

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