Dignity for the Downtrodden

Dignity for the Downtrodden

With all of the blatant bigotry and just plain foolishness surrounding recent discrimination laws passed in Indiana (and poised to ultimately pass in other states), I wanted today’s article to reflect musicals that really embrace and celebrate the gay community; people finding their dignity through theatre. So, today I toast a glass to all of the great moments of dignity in the musical theatre where being one’s self is just a part of the amazing journey. 

Heather MacRae, Carolee Carmello, Stephen Bogardus, Sivan Cotel, Chip Zien, Barbara Walsh and Michael Rupert in Falsettos


The hardest part for many people about being gay is learning to love one’s self when there is a reality of people out there who keep telling you not to. Marvin has to wait until he well into adulthood, married, with a pubescent son, before he comes to terms with his own homosexuality. His posturing and pretending hurt everyone he comes in contact with, and it isn’t until he moves past being ashamed that he comes to the understanding that loving others in a healthy way is entirely based on how you embrace or reject yourself. 


The overweight Tracey Turnblad never lets her extra pounds deter her achieving her dreams, and in Hairspray, she wants to be a dancer on The Corny Collins Show. Even after she is insulted by one of the show’s producers, she puts on a determined and upbeat demeanor, finally getting what she wants. Her faith in positive change is so infectious and powerful that she manages to lead an entire movement that results in the integration of the show, blacks and whites dancing side by side. And what better anthem is there for inspiring individuality than the bursting-with-heart “You Can’t Stop the Beat”?

The Color Purple

Celie is beaten, raped, verbally abused, treated like a slave in her own home, and stripped of almost every dignity a human can lose. When she finally let’s loose with the Act II showstopper “I’m Here”, our hearts leap as our tears pour for this survivor who finally claims her place among the human race. The Color Purple is a true testament to strength and what we can accomplish if we don’t give up. 

La Cage aux Folles

Inside the flashy and funny drag queen Zsa Zsa beats the heart of the truly wonderful Albin, a gay man who has dedicated his life to his partner and helping to raise their son.  Dignity is important to Albin. It is especially palpable when he steps forward to the audience to sing “I Am What I Am.” It starts out as a quiet confession and then builds into a strong assertion that, what he is should not be hidden, but put out there for all to see. 

Les Miserables

Who is this epic tale does not suffer some sort of indignity? Jean Valjean, serving a ridiculously long jail term for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family? Fantine, who is reduced to prostitution to ensure that her little girl won’t die from supposed illness manufactured as an extortion scheme from the child’s caregivers? Javert, the misunderstood police inspector whose life has been so harsh and cold that he only believes in an Old Testament God: an eye for an eye, void of forgiveness?  Each character does their best to limp along and survive despite insurmountable odds. 

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Inside the walls of a South American prison, a gay window dresser named Molina is locked up on a morals charge (corruption of a male minor). He is the joke of everyone around him, and yet he still manages to show dignity and compassion toward his revolutionary cellmate Valentine (who despises his homosexual roomie) when he is tortured. He uses a world of fantasy and imagination to escape the brutal confines of his world, and employs that power of creativity toward keeping Valentine alive. 

Jeff Hyslop, Chita Rivera and Anthony Crivello in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

The Secret Garden

Little Mary Lennox has lost everything: her home, her parents, and her ayah. She is sent from India to live with her depressed Uncle Archibald in his gloomy manse on the Yorkshire moors. There, the sour child finds that the home is full of secrets: the ghosts of people who have died and some who are still living, carrying enormous burdens of guilt and heartbreak. Taking the bull by the horns, she reanimates a beloved, secret garden through learning about hard work and loving care. In the process, she finds strength to overcome her loneliness, and eventually uses that strength to help her family heal. 

Share with me some others. What musical theatre characters out there do you feel are real portraits of dignity?

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