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Musical Theater  
 
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There has always been homosexual involvement in American musical theatre and a homosexual sensibility even in straight musicals, and recently the Broadway musical has welcomed openly homosexual themes and situations.

As William Goldman notes in his book on Broadway, The Season, the Broadway musical would not exist without homosexual involvement. Goldman speculates that homosexuals like other marginalized groups tend to congregate in areas where they feel safest, and theater has long been a homosexual stronghold.

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Although Goldman's study of one Broadway season is more than twenty-five years old, his chapter on "Homosexuals" remains one of the best discussions of gay men and the commercial theater. Still, it does not explain completely the attachment many gay men have to the musical theater or the fact that in the popular imagination a passion for showtunes is practically a marker for homosexuality.

The musical theater is, of course, by no means exclusively homosexual in its creators, performers, or audiences. Many of the best and most famous composing teams--Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, George and Ira Gershwin, for example--were apparently quite straight, though other accomplished Broadway composers, notably Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerry Herman, were and are at least predominantly homosexual.

The number of other homosexual men and women involved in the creation and performance of Broadway musicals is difficult to estimate, but surely it is very high. So great is homosexual participation in musical theater, for example, that Martin Gottfried in his biography of choreographer and director Bob Fosse speculates on several occasions how (and if) Fosse's heterosexuality made his choreography and direction different from the work of his peers.

Homosexual choreographers, designers, writers, actors, dancers, singers, costumers, and so on, have contributed enormously to the creation and sustenance of the Broadway musical.

But that does not necessarily explain why so many gay men enjoy the musical theater, collect recordings of the shows, savor Broadway lore, and follow the careers of particular musical theater stars. Surely these gay fans are aligned spiritually with their more frequently noted brothers, the "opera queens."

Lesbians have also been involved in the musical theater, but there has not developed among lesbians the same cultic response to Broadway musicals as there has among gay men.

How Musical Theater Has Served Gay Men

Musical theater during its peak in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century served gay men in several ways. Perhaps most important, it provided a safe place for gay men and straights to meet on a culturally neutral, although closeted, playing field.

The musical theater made male participation in song and dance--activities identified with highbrow effeminacy in many parts of American society--acceptable in a popular entertainment form that reinforced the validity of heterosexual romance. Thus, gay (as well as straight) men could engage in culturally suspect behavior and win approval for doing so.

Unlike opera, the Broadway musical made it a point to attract large audiences, becoming even more accessible to small-town gays and straights alike through national touring companies, amateur productions, cast albums, and movie adaptations.

Broadway shows and their associated lore and products also provided a connection with New York, a mecca for many gays trapped in repressive places leading what they felt were boring lives. No doubt many straight fans felt the same, but gay men learned quickly of the high gay involvement on Broadway in important creative and performing roles, a fact that made musicals additionally appealing to gay men.

Furthermore, artistic gay men could engage in "show" or "performance"--public display of their interests--in what was at once a particularly American and gay context. Opera and ballet, until very recently, were tainted with a strongly European and classist aura, but the Broadway book musical from its earliest days--as in the Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat (1927)--was centered in American history and culture, presenting the country's energy and myths of exploration, settlement, success, and happiness.

In participating in the musical's mythic display, gay men participated, at least vicariously, in a culture and history that otherwise tended to be silent about their own lives.

Musicals with a Homosexual Sensibility: The Example of Mame

Although most Broadway musicals feature homosexual involvement in their creation and performance, some shows more than others may be said to have a "homosexual sensibility." For instance, Herman's Mame (1966) may be said to be a "gay" musical with its fanciful period costumes, elaborate wigs, and bitchy dialogue (which found its way into at least one song, "Bosom Buddies"), and friendship between two women, Mame and Vera. Mame and Vera are less the drag queens they are sometimes accused of being than women who speak their minds.

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