My Favorite Musicals with LGBTQ Characters and Themes
In honor of this year’s exciting Tony Awards and Pride Month, I bring you this post that kind of turned into mini-essays. But I’m not apologizing.
I’ve always loved musicals, but over the past year (thanks in part to some new friends and discovering Hamilton and Rent) I’ve gotten very much into more recent and modern musicals, most of which I haven’t been able to see. And as a result of this and some discussions in my classes this past semester, I’ve also learned a lot about the intersection of musical theater and the gay community. Yes, it’s a bit of stereotype, but there’s actually a reason for that. (This and this video do a better job of explaining than I ever could. I recommend.)
If, like me, you discovered with the Hamilton phenomenon that it’s possible to follow along to a musical–especially with sung-through ones–with a little aid from Wikipedia, then have I some recommendations for you! Note: these are all musicals I’ve listened to in their entirety (and several times more).
In order of production date:
Hello, this is my current obsession. Specifically, the 2016 Broadway Revival recording. I’d been aware of the revival, but this wonderful trailer (warning: some spoilers as to the plot of Act 2?) for the upcoming fall broadcast on PBS because this was professionally filmed!! (I cannot wait to see this…the choreography and set design with them moving the blocks around looks so fun and you can’t get that from the soundtrack.)
Falsettos has a bit of complicated history…originally on Broadway in 1992, the show is actually a compilation (and edited to flow as a result) of the one-act musicals March of the Falsettos (originally off-Broadway 1981) and Falsettoland (1990). And both of THOSE musicals continued the story that began with In Trousers (1979). All three follow Marvin, a gay man and his complicated family and their relationships…as you can tell by the flow-chart poster above. Basically, at the start of Falsettos (or March of the Falsettos), which takes place in 1979, Marvin has divorced his wife Trina to be with his lover Whizzer, but wants “a tight-knit family” with the three of them and he and Trina’s 10-year-old son Jason living together. Naturally, there are problems, and Marvin’s wacky psychiatrist Mendel and Trina end up in a relationship, too. Then Act 2 (or Falsettoland) takes place two years later and centers around Jason’s bar mitzvah, the looming shadow of the AIDS crisis, and adds some new characters in the form of the lesbians from next door.
Falsettos is almost entirely sung-through, so I encourage you to listen to it. There’s a reason this (well, the original) won the Tony for Best Book–there are so many interesting themes running throughout, which become especially evident with everything set to music, and the characters are so complex and three-dimentional. Act 1 especially investigates masculinity and the gender roles of the time and–I’m willing to bet–the traditional family, and particularly a Jewish one. (I’m no expert on this, but Judiaism is a them throughout as all of the characters are Jewish and it plays a large role, from Jason’s bar mitzvah plot to the opening number “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” Yes.) “Falsettos,” after all, refers to a nontraditional, not-manly male voice range. Marvin and Trina have pretty ingrained gender roles–Marvin, navigating his new relationships, expects Whizzer to occupy traditionally feminine roles, while Trina tries to fill those roles but finds them unfulfilling if the relationship is not loving. Whizzer might have a lot of stereotypical gay man attributes–a love for style, promiscuity–but he wins at chess and racketball, and he loves baseball while Marvin hates it. Meanwhile, Jason struggles to see how his father fits into manhood and is anxious about what he’ll grow up to be like. Those fears are displayed in the show’s only real non-realistic moment, “March of the Falsettos,” a bizzare dream-like sequence where Marvin, Whizzer, and Mendel sing a falsetto blending with Jason’s pre-pubescent voice all about how masculinity and homosexuality are not necessarily opposite: “Who is man enough to march to march of the falsettos?” The first act concludes with “Father to Son,” in which Jason essentially comes out to his gay dad as straight and Marvin gives some lovely advice about embracing oneself. It’s a beautiful song that works both ways as the two accept each other.
And that’s just the first act. I haven’t thought about the second act as a whole too much, because it’s a little less upbeat (aka less fun to listen to), and I’m prepared to really take it all in during the PBS broadcast. God, I really hope they win Best Revival.
And here’s the show that’s more or less responsible for this whole list, as I mentioned in the intro. Rent‘s been influential to me in various ways, including how I think about singing, performing, and telling stories on stage. (And , if possible sometime, I just really want to play Mark.) Rent is an updated version of Puccini’s La Bohème. The characters’ names and professions are updated and Americanized, and a traditional opera became a rock opera, Paris’s Latin Quarter became New York City’s East Village, and tuberculosis became AIDS. Naturally, it deals heavily with gay history and culture of a particular place, in the East Village near the end of the AIDS crisis. There’s the HIV+ couple of Collins (gay, black) and Angel (Latinx usually, gender identity hotly debated and kind of before modern terms but basically she’s a drag queen that switches between pronouns), and Maureen (clearly interpreted her as bi in the film, less blatant in the stage show, some stereotypes but her dramatics are also evident elsewhere in her career) who left Mark for Joanne (lesbian, butch, black).
Rent premiered on Broadway in 1996, the year after AIDS’ highest death toll and the first year the death toll went down due to breakthroughs in medicine. It’s also against the gentrification of the East Village (though it focuses more specifically on tent city problem) which has very much happened anyway. It quickly became a period piece–not conceived that way like Falsettos (or, rather, the second act was in 1990), as there are As such, I think there’s been some debate out there as if it’s still relevant, especially the (exaggerated, I would say, as is the whole thing is quite theatrical) attitudes toward the economy and gentrification. And while I can’t cover everything here, I found the title song “Rent” very relevant in 2016 and 2017, because it’s so much more about the landlord/rent/lifestyle problems that form a skeleton of a plot, pushing the characters together before more important problems occur and Benny (the landlord) clearly isn’t the villain. What “Rent” (the song) is really about are the burdens and hurdles from a society that doesn’t seem to care (“strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray”), stifling voices and artistic creativity. The opening line of “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day?” is basically a summary of the United States since 2016, regardless of your political viewpoint. There’s a persistent call for change and looking forward–“zoom in as they burn the past to the ground and feel the heat of the future burn” and “how do you leave the past behind when it keeps finding ways to get to your heart?” speak to the overarching theme of “forget regret, or life is yours to miss” (more about that later). But there’s this frustration that leads to the angry rather than inspirational idealism of the rock score (which when it kicks in live, sounds very much like you’re at a rock concert), because the “winds of change keep ripping away.” Rent wasn’t Jonathan Larson’s chosen title–he wasn’t happy until he learned that it could also mean torn apart, which is also relevant–but it fits metaphorically to the debt owed to a society that isn’t even helping you, and that in turn speaks to some queer and otherwise marginalized experiences. It’s the frustration that birthed the ACT UP movement during the AIDS crisis and the reason capitalism and commercialism doesn’t always support artists. It’s no coincidence that metaphorical rent shows up again, as Angel and Collins refer to “renting” love because they know they both are going to die, and “I don’t own emotion, I rent” from “What You Own” (one of the greatest duets ever) because Mark and Roger struggle with creativity and being themselves. At the very least, Rent captures a particular group of people at a particular time and reflects that demographically and emotionally through music.
“La Vie Bohème” (including its concluding “B” part) is, for me, the key to understanding what Rent says about gay culture, sexuality, artists, recreational drug usage, and AIDS (and the intersections thereof). It’s essentially a celebration of the culture, filled with risqué dance moves and wonderful rhymes like “to sodomy / it’s between God and me” and “to leather, to dildos, to curry vindaloo / to huevos rancheros and Maya Angelou.” There’s even a shout out to ACT UP. It’s engineered in every way to make homophobes uncomfortable. And the “B” part has some of the most telling lines–the reclamation of “to faggots, lezzies, dykes, crossdressers too” (which was performed at the Tonys in ’96!!) and “living with living with living with not dying from disease.” If Rent is a work within the postmodern school of thought, and I very much argue it is (enough fourth-wall breaking, meta aspects, and pastiche to go around), then the master narrative it is undoing is that of the AIDS crisis and those living with HIV, which was rather discriminatory and otherwise pitied. Rent repeatedly refuses to define the disease in terms of death, instead framing it in terms of continuing to live (“Another Day” is a great example of this). It refuses pity and regret (“forget regret, or life is yours to miss”), instead celebrating sexuality and enjoying love and each day, which is sure to piss off the people who think you deserve to die. And while heroin is clearly an addictive substance that’s painful to quit (the drug dealer is a real villain; he’s so creepy), nothing about Mimi (including her erotic dancer job) is stigmatized–it’s only Roger who blames himself for his past. There’s a reason the show ends on the wonderful chorus of the “no day but today” refrain (underrated line: “give in to love / or live in fear”), mixed with “I die without you” from “Without You”–death is going to happen and it’s painful when your friends go, yes, but living proudly is fulfilling and the ultimate defiance.
There’s a lot of different versions of Rent floating around, which can make getting into it potentially intimidating, and I’ve been fortunate to see all of the main ones. My recommend ranking would be: 1. The current 20th anniversary tour/a live unabridged production if possible, because it’s such an interactive experience that doesn’t quite come across anywhere else, 2. The original Broadway cast album, because I adore the cast (ft. young Idina Menzel) and it’s mostly sung-through so you’ll get it all (if you like only listening to musicals), 3. The final Broadway performance DVD (and on Youtube, frankly), because you can see the Bohemian-style industrial staging, naturalistic choreography, and it also has a great cast (Renée Elise Goldsberry!), 4. The movie with the deleted scenes of “Halloween” and the second part of “Goodbye Love” (on YouTube) inserted as they are on the soundtrack, 5. The theatrical movie, which isn’t bad and has the main beats and benefits from film techniques like montage at points (especially “Without Love”), but it does lose the metatheater aspects and those cut songs are really important in my opinion. (Additionally, I’m very skeptical of how it’s going to translate to the “live TV musical spectacular!” format next year on FOX, and the high school production is heavily censored that it misses the point and usually doesn’t adhere to the racial casting.) That said, I did originally get into it, as many do, with the original movie release. So…
I debated whether I should include this because the gay subplot is fairly minor, but since it is overall about the failure of sex education, I think there’s some overlap into larger issues that do affect the community. (Also, it’s good.) You may be familiar with Spring Awakening from last year’s Tony Awards, which featured the Deaf West’s revival in an amazing performance incorporating sign language. And that was a perfect language to incorporate, because Spring Awakening is all about the problems of a lack of communication and education about sex between kids and adults. The original Broadway musical, meanwhile, featured handheld mics for effect and a young Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff.
Spring Awakening is an adaptation of a play of the same name (well, in German) by Frank Wedekind from 1890. Both the play and the musical are somewhere between a cautionary tale and a giant ad for better sex education, covering puberty, desire (hetero- and homosexual), rape [this depends a bit on the production from what I understand though], suicide, incestuous abuse, abortion, masturbation, pregnancy, and I’m not even sure this is a comprehensive list. Like Rent, it’s also primarily a rock musical, which highlights that frustration toward society I talked about above. The gay parts are, from what I can tell, really just a small solo in “The Bitch of Living” and the reprise of “The World of Your Body.” But it’s placed in this larger context of kids having feelings they don’t know what to do with because it’s all taboo. It’s all about sexual oppression. And all that doubles with gay kids.
Let’s be honest, this is probably the least well-known, least-acclaimed, and certainly hardest to get into on this list. If/Then takes place in two different timelines as Idina Menzel’s character Elizabeth (who comes to be called Liz in one timeline and Beth in the other) moves back to New York after a divorce and decides to hang out with either her new friend and neighbor, Kate (LaChanze), or her old friend from college, Lucas (Anthony Rapp). Some songs are split between timelines, often interrupted by dialogue not on the soundtrack and the Wikipedia page doesn’t summarize it literally. (Fortunately, the libretto was put online by MTI to commemorate it being licensed and then…continues to stay there so here’s the link.) And yes, all of the songs are essentially about the same thing–making choices. But it’s catchy, okay? Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, and LaChanze in particular are amazing singers.
Kate is a lesbian in a relationship with Anne (Jenn Colella) who she marries in both realities while being funny and trying to get Elizabeth to find someone, too. But let’s be honest, the main reason why I love this is because of Lucas. Not only am I biased because it’s Anthony Rapp, who through Mark in Rent was responsible for revising some ideas I had about singing and who is going to be in the new Star Trek as the first gay character, but this is a bisexual character! Liz says near the beginning that he’s dated boy boys and girls (including her), and he continues to do that well after college. In one reality, he pines over Beth (the amazing “You Don’t Need to Love Me”), while in the other reality he dates a guy and the two eventually marry and adopt kids (“Best Worst Mistake”). He and Liz reconcile in “Some Other Me,” a beautiful song about what they might be up to in other realities, which reaches a height with Lucas’s line “I found myself a woman, or a man, and haaaad a sonnn!” And that’s just it. That’s what being bi is like. You don’t know who you’ll settle down with. And now I’ve got that feeling set to music.
What I Haven’t Listened to Yet
- La Cage Aux Folles
- The Color Purple: I just finished the book to this and I have just recently listened to just about all of it, but I didn’t follow along with a summary yet and I’m a little confused about how the timeline works in comparison to the book. Also, I had such a great experience with the novel that I’m not ready quite yet to see another interpretation.
- Fun Home: Yes, yes, I know. I read the graphic novel for the first time this year, and I loved it; Bechdel’s thought processes read a lot like mine, especially with how she was always connecting things in her life to literature. But I’m just not ready to exchange that very literary experience by listening to the musical I guess, so I haven’t… (though I have heard a couple of songs)
- A Chorus Line
- Cabaret: A tour of this is going to be visiting my college this spring, and I’m definitely going to see it!
- Kinky Boots: This is also going to be at my college in the fall so I think I’m going to see it then.
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch: I’ve heard a couple of songs from this (“Origin of Love” is fantastic), but I haven’t listened to it all yet.
Do you guys have any recommendations?