top of page

Queerly Musical; why the gays love musical theatre

By Mo Hofstede

After my very theory-heavy article last quad I wanted to write something a bit more casual and fun this time around. I must confess, I am what they call, a theatre gay. I mean, what’s gayer than musical theatre, it was inevitable that I’d write about it eventually. I must preface this by stating that this article will only cover queer works within the Anglo-American Musical theatre scape. Though it pains me, I won’t be talking about other theatre traditions or even straight plays from the western canon like Angels in America or The Boys in the Band because I simply don’t have the word count.

When you hear the word Musical theatre, chances are you think, ‘that sounds kinda gay’, and to be honest you wouldn’t be wrong. I mean, what’s more gay than campy mellodramatic performances, where people wear fabulous clothes, dance across the stage and burst into song every other minute? But beyond the initial queerness of performance why is there such a strong link between musical theatre and queerness in our cultural zeitgeist and where does it come from?

Let's start in the Elisabethean era. You might remember learning that in Shakespeare’s time, men played all the roles including the women's parts. While this might seem to be a bit fruity there’s actually a much better explanation for the connections between the gays and broadway. Here’s a really quick history lesson. When western theatre traditions first appeared, unlike today's understanding of theatre as high-brow, expensive art for the elite and wealthy, it was seen as cheap, and sometimes vulgar entertainment for the masses. Theatre workers were low class and would often be grouped with other ‘undesirable’ communities like sex workers, the disabled and of course queer people. This meant that theatre communities were isolated from polite society and tended to be more accepting of queer people. This, predictably, led to the communities to overlap with many queer people working in theatre troupes.

The involvement of queer people has left its rainbow-coloured mark on the medium. The American Musical in its modern iteration finds its roots in burlesque and cabaret traditions, known for their flamboyance, extravagance and camp. There is a certain performativity to queerness which is reflected in these theatre traditions. We gays have a pension for the dramatic. (Of course, this is not true for all queer-identifying people but as stereotypes go it’s not completely unfounded.) The inherent camp of musical theatre means that often even without realising it they included queer coded characters which appealed to a queer audience. You might have heard how Disney and especially their villains are popular with queer audiences. I could talk at length about the queerness in Disney media but, a very long story short, it’s all to do with queer coding (or the use of subtextual cues to code a character as queer). Unsurprisingly the Disney renaissance films and the work of Howard Ashman was built upon the foundation of musical theatre conventions. Funnily enough, many of these Disney films have since been adapted into musical performances on Broadway. Strangely many of these adaptations as well as the ‘live-action remakes’ have lost many of the queer elements present in the original films.

Having established that there was and remains a large intersection of queer people in theatre, it's not hard to see that this would draw a larger queer audience. Leading to more accurate representation within the medium. Some also suggest that the existence of many wealth queer patrons of broadway ment that shows would want to pander more to that audience. Representation in musical theatre has evolved from queer coding, to tongue and cheek references, to meta jokes, to overt positive representation. While there are many shades of representation and the quality of each show and it’s representational value can be argued, musicals are undeniably one of the queerest mediums. Especially when considering the mainstream nature of modern broadway musicals.

The sheer ubiquity of queer euphemisms and joke in musicals as well as events like Broadway Bares and MisCast. The theatre gay tromp is even referenced in many meta commentaries on the genre such as “everyone’s a little bit gay” and Neil Patrick Harriss’ performance at the 65th annual Tony awards “It’s not just for gays anymore”. It has gotten to the point where queerness is almost to be expected. A fact often commented on within the texts themselves through meta references. (As an aside for musicals theatre lovers who enjoy satirical deconstructions of the medium I can’t recommend Schmigadoon enough). A contemporary musical like Dear Evan Hansen has an entire song called “Sincerity Me” which amounts to a no homo joke. A cult classic like Heathers has an entire song about two secretly gay dads. And queer theatre fandom has almost willed into existence the bisexual status of a character in the show Be More Chill. This type of tong and cheek, meta reference to queerness while fun, can be shallow and problematic. Sometimes coming accross like commodification or queer baiting. Using queerness for humor without actually centering queer stories. Luckily there’s a myriad (nice) of great queer musicals out there.

here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of my recommendations:

First up is the Rocky Horror Show, a tribute to 1930s science fiction and B horror movies. It follow a newly engaged couple who after seeking refuge from a storm find themselves in the home of a mad transvestite scientist, Dr Frank-N-Furter, when queer shananigens ensues. While not without its flaws, it’s a fun campy musical with some great show tunes. Rocky Horror and especially its film adaptation the Rocky Horror Picture Show have become cult classics.

Next on the list is La cage aux folles, which was originally a French play which has been adapted into a film and of course a Musical. It follows a gay couple who run the titular drag club in a French resort town. When they meet the highly conservative parents of their son's fiancée it results in a lot of comedy and drama. The shows one act finally ‘I am what I am’ is an immediate queer anthem.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock musical. Following the titular character Hedwig, a genderqueer East German singer of a rock n roll band, and their struggle finding themself. Hedwig is another cult classic and has a film adaptation which was released in 2001. While some of the casting of Hedwig has been criticised its remains an important milestone in queer musical theatre history.

If you’re looking for a more campy comedy, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert might be right up your alley. Based on a Movie of the same name, this Australian jukebox musical tells the story of 2 drag queens and a Trans woman who travel across Australia to perform in a drag show in a desert town. It’s full of comedy and heartfelt moments.

Kinky Boots is also a musical adaptation of a movie with the same name. It tells the story of an unlikely partnership between a struggling small town English shoe factory and a group of drag queens who together set out to make a line of kinky boots for drag queen and save the factory.

More Recently the coming of age musical Everybody’s talking about Jamie the the true life story of 16 year old British highschool student Jamie Campbell. It's inspired by the 2011 British tv doc Jamie drag queen at 16. There is a film version released in 2021 that I can highly recommend.

One of the older queer musicals is Falsettos, combining March of the Falsettos (1981) and falsettoland (1990), telling the story of a dysfunctional family: the gay father and his lover, his ex wife, his son and the lesbian neighbours. The show tackles themes of Jewish identity, gender roles, and gay life in the late 1970s and early 1980s as well as the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Hello Again, based on the 1897 play la Ronde, explores the nature of love. It details a daisy chain of sexual encounters and love affairs among ten characters in ten scenes accross time. There is a film version, which leans into the queer nature of the concept. It’s a

Another classic is Kiss of the Spider Woman adapted from Manuel Puig's novel El Beso de la Mujer Araña. It tells the story of a conversation between two prisoners in an Argentinian prison as they get closer to each other. As their dreams are visited by the titular spider woman.

A very well known musical, Jonathan Larson's Rent was a game changer to many. As one of the first musicals to cover issues of gentrification, depict queer relationships and the aids crisis. There is a film version with most of the original cast. Heavily inspired by the 1896 opera La Bohème, rent follows a group of friends living in New York’s East Village. While Rent has been criticised for centering straight white men in a queer story and for its poor representation of bisexuality and addiction, it was critically acclaimed upon release and has been influential for increasing queer representation on broadway. The recent Netflix movie Tick Tick Boom starring Andrew Garfield is an autobiographical musical about Jonathan Larson's Life is a definite must see regardless of whether or not you like musicals or not.

The Boy from Oz based on the life of the queer singer songwriter Peter Allen. It’s a jukebox musical with its first performance in 1998. It was famously revived in 2003 with Hugh Jackman in the leading role. There is a 1995 documentary of the same name.

One of the most camp shows I’ve come across is Zanna don’t. Set in a world where a majority is queer and being straight is the minority. It follows a group of students who put on a play to protest heterophobia. It's magical, fabulous and fun. Offering a surprisingly insightful social commentary.

This is a personal favourite: Bare, a Pop Opera. Its a queer take on the classic Romeo and Juliet story and follows a class of highschoolers at a catholic boarding school. Its a darker coming of age story, covering some potentially triggering topics such as, teen pregnancy, drug use, suicide, misogyny, body image and self harm. It was later reworked and revived as Bare the Musical but I’m still partial to the original pop opera version which I think is the objectively better version.

another great queer musical is Fun Home adapted from the gaphic memoir of the same name. This musical explores the life of Allison Bechdel and her complicated relationship with her father. The story is told through non linear vignettes and throughout the musical Bechter explores her own sexuality and discovers more about her gay fathers mysterious life.

The Prom is a much more upbeat mainstream musical in comparison. It follow a group of ex broadway stars as they try to help Emma, a lesbian girl in Indiana, fight to be allowed to take her girlfriend to the senior prom in order to get back in the publics good graces. In 2020 it was adapted into a movie starring Meryl Streep, Ariana Debose, James Corden, Andrew Runnels just to name a few.

Last but not least, The View Upstairs. This musical is a fictional interpretation of the very real life 1973 attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar. It resulted in 32 death making it the deadliest attack on a gay club until 2016. This one act musical pays tribute to many of the patrons of the UpStairs Lounge. It’s a moving piece about real queer people.

That brings us to the end of this very general intro to queer musical theatre but, hopefully you found something of interest, whether you’re already a musical aficionado or someone who’s never watched a musical. Maybe a new musical to listen to, a new understanding of a piece you already knew or even just a slightly bigger appreciation for musicals in general. Of course there are many more queer musicals out there which I’ve sadly not been able to include. I highly encourage you to look up some of the musicals on this list or look for other queer musicals. While watching the live performance on Broadway or the West-End is amazing, it’s not very accessible. Luckily, there are many ways to experience a musical. You could listen to the album, watch a film adaptation, find a pro-shot or even (dare I say it) a bootleg.

48 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All