Musical Theatre is widely regarded as an art form with particular appeal to the gay community. How and why are so many LGBTQ+ people — particularly gay men — drawn to musical theatre as creators and fans? We turned to author and theatre historian Patrick Pacheco for an exploration of the connection between gay people and musicals.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
THE EARLY YEARS: Reading Ourselves Into the Stories
Let’s start with early musical theatre. In the beginnings of American musical theatre, gay people were not represented directly onstage. Sure, Cole Porter would sneak in some innuendo, but there weren’t actually any gay characters in those shows, were there?
No, but there were always actors like Edward Everett Horton and Drew Demarest, who played what were termed as “pansies…” people who were “light in their loafers” … gay audiences could relate to them.
But you have to go back even further to Mae West and the twenties: Mae West was a gay icon, no question about it. She was a sexual outlaw. I think gay men identified with people that were sexual outlaws, because they were outside the norm. That started in the 20’s and exists to this day: the idea of the gay icon as a sexual outlaw.
And, just as a little historical fillip, Mae West based her character on Julian Eltinge, who was a female impersonator. Early on, these were two role models. Then, of course, the Hays Code came up [in 1930] and all these early gay references were staunched fairly brutally – there was a conservative backlash.
But there was always that strain, those veiled references, in Cole Porter’s double entendres in Anything Goes and, later, in Kiss Me, Kate… songs like “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” or “Let’s Do It,” or “Anything Goes.” It continued, that double entendre. And those pansy characters would come up throughout Broadway, up to and including 1968 when the closet door just busted open with The Boys in the Band .
Anything Goes really falls into what you’re talking about: sexual outlaws. The whole show is built on everyone’s breaking the rules. And Kiss Me, Kate certainly flirts with some naughtiness. But it does present a straight relationship…
With men in tights.
Right – Ha!
Men in very tight tights.
We love men in tights!
But there were these parallel tracks, that continue probably to this day: on one hand, the revulsion of sexuality and the repression of it. But at the same time, [gay sensibility] was elevated and held up as to what culture was. It’s a very bifurcated vision, America’s perception of homosexuality, gay men, and the LGBTQ+ tribe.
And the early “pansy” was reviled by activists at certain points, because it was [like] blackface. It was “Stepin Fetchit” stereotype. Later, it came to be embraced by people like Harvey Fierstein, who’s no pansy when it comes to gay rights… who said, “I’m a pansy. I like pansies.”
I admire these people. They were out there and brave on some level, too. You’ve got to give them their props in many regards.
In 1939, the musical film The Wizard of Oz premiered. What is it about The Wizard of Oz that held such appeal for gay audiences?
I think you could identify with any of the characters, particularly Dorothy. And the idea of escape: I think when you’re an outsider, when you’re not understood by your own family, much less society at large, you want to escape into fantasy. That is your safe place. That’s your safe zone.
When something like The Wizard of Oz comes along…. you don’t have to worry about any kind of romantic attachments or anything like that… You find a community and you want to go live there.
Then you get a song like “Over the Rainbow”… When you’re gay, or lesbian, or LGBTQ+ in any way, feeling like an outsider, and somebody is singing about “somewhere over the rainbow,” where you can be safe, physically and emotionally… what does that mean to you? You’re getting beat up. You’re getting raided. If you’re in a gay bar that’s off the beaten track and you’re dancing with a man or two women are dancing together, you’re dancing to “Anything Goes” … you’re feeling like you’re in a place that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” talks about.
What was it about Judy Garland that gay audiences were so drawn to? Was it her resiliency?
There’s a dual thing. Yes, resiliency, but also extreme vulnerability. I think that gay men and women wanted to be protective of her.
There is this lineage of the Garland myth: she has a (reportedly) gay father, marries a gay man in Vincente Minnelli, has a daughter who then marries a gay man in Peter Allen. There is this strong connection, I mean, to the point where your most intimate relationships and romantic relationships are tied up with women and gay men.
And there’s the torch song, which was always related to gay men. The torch song is all about unrequited love. Garland always sings about the “The Man That Got Away.”
We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which took place just after Judy Garland had died.
On the day she was buried.
Right, wow. That was significant. What was the connection between Judy’s death and the Stonewall Uprising?
I can only imagine that Judy Garland’s death in London is announced and all these gay men go trooping down to the village to drown their tears, to drown their sorrow in beer. I can only imagine that her songs are playing on the jukebox and they just want a private moment with their grief and their camaraderie and their community. It is then broken up by “the pigs” who come in and they are pissed.
This stereotype of the pansy, of the hairdresser, of the effeminate, gay, cross-dressing transvestite, suddenly becomes this militant, rock throwing, we’re-f*cking-sick-and-tired-and-we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore.
It is the drag queen that gay militants in their mustachioed leather are putting down that are the flying wedge of the gay liberation movement. That is what’s so ironic. All the way down the line. It’s the “girls” that are saying, “We’re not taking it anymore.”
THE DIVAS: Strong and Vulnerable Women in the Golden Age
Judy was a vulnerable gay icon. But other icons were exactly the opposite: Ethel Merman was a powerhouse — a Mack truck of a person. What was the appeal there?
It probably goes to Anything Goes, in which she created the starring role. You’ve got parallel tracks: there are the very vulnerable women that are so appealing, and there are the balls-out Mae West, Bette Midler, Ethel Merman types who just steamroll over men. I think on some level, they are a surrogate fantasy. Because if you’re growing up and you’re watching a romantic movie, you have the hots for Cary Grant, not Rosalind Russell… you’re trying to figure that out in some way. Consequently, if you’re identifying with women who dominate men, they are sort of your surrogate.
And they’re all created by gay men: Jule Styne, no— but Stephen Sondheim, yes; Jerome Robbins, yes; Arthur Laurents, yes. These are all created by gay men for women who have as their closest companions gay men. And so many of these women married gay men…
Knowing that they were gay? Or were they just drawn to the attention from gay men?
I think for the divas, they adored the worship because it was unqualified. It wasn’t just because you were on top that [gay fans] adored you. They adored you when you were on the bottom. It was unqualified, it was unconditional, and it was safe. It was a mutual pact: they made us feel safe, and we made them feel safe. No matter what was going to happen in their careers, they always knew they had a gay following.
I remember in the 80’s on Saturday Night Live there was a joke: “This week, Liza Minnelli underwent hip surgery, marking the first time in 10 years where the words ‘Liza Minnelli’ and ‘hip’ were uttered in the same sentence.”
Oh… cruel. There’s an innate cruelty, an innate sadism, in the theatre. So you’re always looking for safe places – and the gay community provides that.
Even Liza Minnelli, in the hideous times, knew that when she walked into a room, she still was royalty. It didn’t matter whether she was box office or not – to a certain coterie of gay men, she was always on.
Then we have Jerry Herman: another gay man writing surrogate female characters who express the gay experience. Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, Mame Dennis in Mame, and even the Countess Aurelia in Dear World.
Yes. Again, the outlaw: the person that is outside of society. Anything having to do with people that are outside of society gives you permission to live in the most glamorous, fascinating and appealing way. It’s very appealing… expressing [gay audiences’] deepest fantasies. If you’re a gay man, you’re putting up there the ideal woman that you would most want to – in another life – be.
Jerry Herman brought a great mix of humanity to these strong, take-charge women, who were so fabulous…
And adoptees of us. Again, you’re feeding into a central fantasy of gay men. Who would you most want to be adopted by? Angela Lansbury, right here. Oh please, be my mom!
Yeah, just be my mom! That pre-figured gay adoption, where Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy would ultimately adopt his own Patrick.
PUSHING BOUNDARIES: Greater Representation in Musicals
Absolutely. We have Cabaret coming in 1966. Pre-Stonewall, pre- Boys in the Band. Again, created by gay men. Joe Masteroff, God bless him, was a very close friend of mine. Joe was amazing… a lovely, lovely person to be close to.
Joe told me, interestingly enough, that when they were trying out, the closer the show came to New York, the gayer Cliff became. The more the show was revived, the gayer Cliff became in the revival. Even in the film… and how totally appropriate that Liza Minnelli of all people should be Sally Bowles! Of all people.
Bringing it back to those divas!
It’s a beautiful line that Joe wrote, you know: “There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany. It was the end of the world…and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep”.
What about Applause, the musical adaptation of the gay camp classic All About Eve? There’s a huge scene in which the leading lady, Margo Channing, goes to a gay bar.
It was so revolutionary to be the center of attention or to live out the fantasy of Margo Channing coming into a gay bar. And it seemed so natural. It opened on Broadway in 1970, so just a year after Stonewall. In two or three years we go from Boys in the Band to a show like Applause, where gay people are celebrated in their own community.
And the big difference, I think, between Boys and the Band and Applause is that Applause was on Broadway. (Boys in the Band, remember, never made it to Broadway until fifty years later. Gay themes in theatre were always relegated to way off-Broadway.) So it was revolutionary when Margo Channing steps into a gay bar, on Broadway. And it was the fulfillment of a fantasy: “What would you do if Judy Garland walked into a gay bar?”
And just a few years later, in A Chorus Line, the dramatic arc peaks with a monologue from Paul, a gay dancer.
Yes. A Chorus Line… people forget just how revolutionary it was to have the biggest success on Broadway feature, as you said, the gay character as the emotional epicenter of the show.
OUT THERE: Openly Gay Protagonists
With La Cage Aux Folles gay characters took center stage.
Yes, and you had a moment like “Song on the Sand.” That was the first time Jerry Herman stepped forward [as a gay man], and it was very brave.
“Song on the Sand” is this tender love song between two men. It was a huge turning point: there had been all of these gay men writing musical theatre, and suddenly one wrote a song that wasn’t between a man and a woman, or a Mame song, or whatever. It was a love song between two men.
Jerry Herman had never addressed or publicly talked about being gay… but in 1980, it was impossible not to – AIDS just pushed everybody out of the closet. It was life and death, and it was ridiculous to have these conversations with your parents about “When are you going to get married?” when your friends were dying.
So we were under the gun when La Cage aux Folles came out. And it was a reaffirmation that “The Best of Times” really was here, you know? It was a very moving time, a really touching time, to sit there and listen to this, knowing what was going to wipe out the company at La Cage aux Folles. And what had wiped out, and was going to wipe out, the creators of Chorus Line: Nick Dante, Jimmy Kirkwood, Ed Kleban, and of course, Michael Bennett, all died. And so many others.
MODERN VOICES: Complex LGBTQ+ Relationships
William Finn wrote In Trousers and March of the Falsettos about a man growing up gay, marrying a woman, and leaving his wife for another man. In a later interview, he said he hadn’t known what the third act would be. Well, life wrote it for him: AIDS redefined the gay experience. And so, 10 years later, he revisited those characters, and forced them to grow up.
And because there had been so many high-end years of gay representation, William Finn had permission to show gay men not necessarily in a good light, in romantic light. That was important. They’re not idealized.
No, they’re not. But they’re smart and caustic and flawed and hilarious.
Fun Home is a more recent musical that addresses – finally! – a lesbian character. And in a much more sophisticated way.
I think it’s a miracle. It’s one of the best stories in the last ten years of Broadway. The fact that it went all the way. That it was developed unapologetically. That it was about lesbians… the sisterhood has gotten the really short stick!
Here was this very complicated show about a bad man, in many ways… somebody that you could never hold up as an avatar of virtue. It was really complicated, and it made us feel about him, about her, about me. And when she sang, “I’m changing my major to Joan,” I mean, my heart melted. It was so right and so familiar. And so universal.
That show draws the contrast so beautifully between the joy of a life lived in the open and the tragedy of a closeted one.
Yes. And the mother’s song, “Days and Days.” We are so sympathetic to those left behind, that she is a victim of homophobia, because her husband made bad choices by marrying her. And so we empathize with her, same as Stephanie J. Block [as Trina, the wife of a gay man in Falsettos]. They’ve got our sympathies because we get that they are victims. It’s collateral damage, you know? And we feel so bad for these women, as we did with the divas who married gay men.
So you look at this art, at these musicals, and it’s really interesting to see what the recent ones are addressing: Falsettos addressing the decay of family, the disruption of this family, because of societal pressure to this man to get married and what have you. Fun Home is dealing with a similar situation but in a different way, and balancing that with the hope of a new generation.
And we can always find the fabulousness, which I think we need, the tribe needs. We can always find the it in revivals. Cabaret, as is gritty as it is, it still has this fabulousness of balls-out choreography and fabulousness in the role of Sally Bowles, who is really timeless. The idea of the prairie oysters and the green nail polish… it’s never going to go out of date.
Cabaret will always be this timeless title, because it is as contemporary now as it was when Christopher Isherwood first wrote those stories. It’s a remarkable, resilient show.
So what was it that drew you, personally, to musical theatre? Was there a particular show or experience that really stands out?
I came from an extremely conservative family, and I came out of a Catholic seminary as well. And it was musical theatre that was a savior. Musical theatre was always the safe haven, as it is for a lot of gay men, because of that safety, that fabulousness.
And for me, the excitement, the thrill, it came with Applause. Applause at the LA Music Center, on tour. It was Lauren Bacall, and Ron Field directing… Ron Field, who had choreographed Cabaret.
And you’ve loved musical theatre ever since?
It’s the only thing that could replace the hole that the preacher had left in me. Because it became a spiritual experience… a religious one, I guess, in terms of its original meaning: “Religion” stems from the Latin religio, and the Latin meaning of religio is “to bind together.”
So musical theatre binds us together in a religious experience, quite literally. It’s miraculous. It’s a miracle.
Patrick Pacheco is a veteran journalist, commentator, and bestselling author of The American Theatre Wing, An Oral History, who writes frequently about LGBTQ+ issues. His new show, THEATER: All the Moving Parts (taped at Chez Josephine Restaurant in New York City’s famed Theater District), features in-depth interviews with artists, including directors, choreographers, writers, designers, and composers.
Header Image: 2008 Broadway Production of Gypsy (Joan Marcus), 1939 Film Version of The Wizard of Oz (© & TM Turner Entertainment Co. (s19)), 2015 Broadway Production of Fun Home (Joan Marcus)