“I Am What I Am”: Musicals for Pride Month
With June being Gay Pride month and the month drawing to a close, I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate here at Mark Robinson Writes than to take a look at some of the musicals that that have told the story of those who have been marginalized by society simply for who and how they identify and love. Progress has been made over the years, though we have certainly slipped back in the last few years, our voice is strong and proud. This list certainly isn’t all-inclusive, but it is one I think captures the best of what musical theatre has done to tell the story of the LGBTQ community.
William Finn created a world full of wacky neurotics in his two one-act musicals March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. In fact, these musicals were the continuing story of Marvin from his musical In Trousers. Eventually, March of theFalsettos and Falsettoland were combined to be acts one and two of a full-length musical. Marvin is married to a woman, has a child, has a male lover, and is good friends with the two lesbians from next door. Falsettosis the journey of Marvin and how he overcomes his self-loathing and abusive behaviors, accepting who he is and settling in to become a better partner and father. Among the songs in the score that really speak to this are “What More Can I Say?”, “Unlikely Lovers” and “What Would I Do?”
Our quest to understand our parents is an ongoing maze for most of us. For an LGBTQ child, that journey can be even more complicated as they struggle to come to terms with their own separateness. In Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel Fun Home, she details her experience of being raised by a closeted homosexual father as she learned to accept herself as a lesbian. Jeanine Tesori’s and Lisa Kron’s score is a compelling emotional rollercoaster, the song “Ring of Keys” best exemplifying that epiphany each LGBTQ person has when they realize they aren’t alone in the world.
This 1970 musical, based on the short story The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, as well as the subsequent film adaptation All About Eve, may not be the first musical that comes to mind when you think “gay-themed musical.” The story of theatre star Margo Channing whose career is usurped by backbiting Eve Harrington is set in the world of the Broadway Theatre. In the show, Margo has a gat hairdresser (practically unheard of at the time) named Duane. Avoiding another stuffy opening night party, Margo instead chooses to join Duane in a gay nightclub in Greenwich Village where she is worshipped for the diva she is. Applause broke some barriers in this aspect, acknowledging that (surprise) there are gay people in show business. The Charles Strouse/Lee Adams score is also brimming with energetic, life-affirming songs like “But Alive” and “Welcome to the Theatre” that just speak to the heart of the community of the entertainment industry.
A Man of No Importance
One of the gentlest and most understated of musicals with a gay character at its forefront in A Man of No Importance, the Off-Broadway musical with a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and a book Terrence McNally. Based on the 1994 film of the same name, the story follows a bus conductor named Alfie who lives in Dublin, Ireland and who is a closeted homosexual who dreams of putting on amateur theatre productions of Oscar Wilde plays. A gentle soul, Alfie struggles to accept himself for who he is, especially when his affections for men leads to his being violently assaulted. Still, the story ends on an uplifting note when the cast and crew of his production of Salomewho stand by his side. “Love Who You Love” is the musical’s endearing anthem of following your heart, no matter what the cost.
Bare: A Pop Opera
Damon Intrabartolo and John Hartmere’s Bare: A Pop Opera has been capturing the hearts of musical theatre fans since it first appeared on the scene in 2000. Set at St. Cecilia’s boarding school where two teenagers struggle to reconcile their homosexual relationship with their Catholic upbringing. Though the musical focuses on gay relationships, it speaks to a large contingent of marginalized youth who are ostracized for all different reasons. Bare is predominatly a call to young people to embrace their own, and each other’s, differences.
If any pop composer was going to tell a story that celebrates our uniqueness and that encourages people to be exactly who they are, it was probably going to be Cyndi Lauper. Pair her with book writer Harvey Fierstein, himself known for his less-than-subtle embrace of self-acceptance theatre, and of course a musical like Kinky Bootswas bound to be born. When a young man inherits his father’s failing shoe factory, he turns to a drag queen to create a new line of boots for drag queens. Along the way, the two very different men find out that they have more in common than they could have possibly guessed, as a factory full of blue collar workers must wrestle with their own prejudices and pre-conceived notions. In the end, they all don the drag boots and celebrate diversity with the songs “Raise You Up” and “Just Be.”
Imagine a world, or even better, a high school where the majority of the population was gay and the straight people felt like outcasts? That’s exactly what the musical Zanna, Don’t! does and in the process creates a fantasy world where those of us who felt like the minority suddenly rule the school. Though it is mostly musical comedy fun, by flipping the hetero-norm to a homosexual norm, creator Tim Acito fashions hope that someday it will be quite okay for everyone to be exactly who they are.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
One of the few musicals to feature a transgender character in the lead, Hedwig and the Angry Inchis a rock musical that is a stand for strength and dignity. Hedwig Robinson is an East-German transgender woman whose botched transition surgery left her with an “angry inch.” When she meets the American soldier Luther, they marry and Hedwig moves to the American Midwest where Luther promptly leaves her for a man. Never to be kept down, Hedwig forms a band that she calls “The Angry Inch” and falls in love with a young singer named Tommy Speck, who she rechristens Tommy Gnosis. Unlucky in loves, Hedwig obsesses over Tommy, but the love remains unrequited as she summons that reserve of strength and dignity to move on. Stephen Trask wrote a score around the book and character created by John Cameron Mitchell.
La Cage aux Folles
Arguably the first commercially successful Broadway musical to tackle the story of gay men in a loving, committed relationship, La Cage aux Follesis probably best-known for its gay anthem “I Am What I Am.” Georges runs a St. Tropez drag club where his domestic partner Albin is the star act. When their son Jean-Michel comes home and announces he is engaged to the daughter of a conservative politician. He asks his parents to mask their homosexuality so that her family can meet his family without incident. The touching story of the extent loving parents will go for their child is the heart of La Cage aux Folleswhich has a book by gay playwright Harvey Fierstein and a score by Jerry Herman. Try watching this classic without your heart breaking during “Look Over There” or getting caught up in the quiet simplicity of “Song on the Sand.”
Kiss of the Spider Woman
For me, the most powerful of all gay-themed musicals, is the 1993 Tony winner for Best Musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Based on Manuel Puig’s harrowing story of a gay window dresser named Molina who is incarcerated in a South American prison and finds the courage and dignity to survive his brutal circumstances, the musical features a score by Kander and Ebb and a book by gay playwright Terrence McNally. Housed with a political revolutionary with whom he falls in love, Molina passes the time by imagining himself inside the movie musicals of his favorite film diva Aurora. Filled with powerful musical moments including “Where You Are,” “I’d Do Anything for Him,” “Dear One,” “The Day After That” and the chilling title song, Kiss of the Spider Woman is one of Broadway’s bravest ventures into gay storytelling.