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Musical Theater  
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The beauty of Mame is that the show is at once about assertive women and about gay male fantasies of being rich, living in New York, and dressing in ways that are strong declarations of personality.

Another gay subtext to Mame is the relationship between Mame and her orphaned nephew Patrick. The story can be taken as is or "straight," but Mame also plays into the recurrent gay scenario of having an older, wiser man initiate a younger one into the ways of a sophisticated, urban life. The genius of Mame as popular entertainment is that the show works so well as a straight and a gay musical without giving offense to either group.

Homoerotic Elements in More Complex Musicals

Similarly, more complex musicals than Mame also have elements: for example, the beefcake in "There is Nothing Like a Dame" (irony piling upon irony) from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific (1949) and the ambiguity in the name and character of Reno Sweeney in Porter's Anything Goes (1934), to say nothing of the gay double entendres that a knowing audience would discern in Porter's lyrics.

Homosexual Identification with Women Musical Comedy Stars

More complex is the identification with and worship of women musical comedy stars. Such Broadway stars as Helen Morgan, who sang the torch song "Bill" in the original Show Boat, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, Julie Andrews, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, and Patti Lupone have been the object of intense gay male interest.

Although these women also have large heterosexual followings, their cult status in the gay male community has extended to their being impersonated by drag queens. Accounting for that cult following is difficult, but it seems to be made up of equal parts of admiration for talent and admiration for the ways these women remake themselves as musical comedy stars, defying conventional notions about what constitutes power and beauty. Because they frequently present themselves as larger than--or at least different from--everyday life, they inspire admiration from others outside the norm.


An important element of gay male interest in the Broadway musical and its heroines is camp. Everything from the dream ballets of early musicals to the outsized performances and self-presentations of such stars as Carol Channing are fodder for camp followers.

If we accept Christopher Isherwood's definition of high camp as a mockery or satire of something we take very seriously, then the gay male cultic response, one that celebrates the Broadway musical and its divas even as it also makes fun of them, is surely a version of camp.

This camp informs such diverse, even inbred, works as revues sending up the musical as a genre, television parodies of musicals (especially "The Carol Burnett Show"), and the off-Broadway show Forbidden Broadway with its ever-changing mockeries of Broadway shows and its stars, especially women.

Even though some musicals, such as, for example, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel (1945) and The King and I (1951) and Lerner and Lowe's Brigadoon (1947) and My Fair Lady (1956), are straighter than others, like Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), Herman's Mame (1965), Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields's Sweet Charity (1966), and John Kander and Fred Ebb's Cabaret (1966), in theme or presentation, homosexual code is often discernible in most of them.

The "Coming Out" of the Broadway Musical: La Cage aux Folles

But although some off-Broadway musicals had dealt with gay themes, the Broadway musical did not "come out" until Herman's La Cage aux Folles (1983), based on the popular French film of the same name. Although much was made of the fact that the two male leads never kissed, the work was nonetheless a measure of how acceptable open homosexuality had become by the early 1980s.

The show followed typical Broadway musicals in that its libretto was based on another source; it had two pairs of romantic leads (the gay owners of a nightclub, one of whom was a drag queen, and two juvenile lovers, one of whom was the son of the "straighter" club owner); and it featured an obstacle to romantic love, which was overcome in the course of the play.

La Cage aux Folles also featured other staples of Broadway musicals: lavish sets and costumes, as well as show-stopping dance numbers and touching ballads by a Broadway favorite, gay composer and lyricist Jerry Herman. The musical followed the tradition of the "straight" musical by being conservative, respectful of traditional family values, and blatantly commercial.

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