From Falsettos to Fun Home: Lesbian Characters Move from Sidelines to Center Stage

Playbill Pride   From Falsettos to Fun Home: Lesbian Characters Move from Sidelines to Center Stage
 
We reflect on some of the iconic lesbian characters from Broadway musicals.
Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris  in <i>Fun Home</i>
Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris in Fun Home Joan Marcus

"Look, look, look, look, it's a lesbian from next door!" The Broadway musical was forever changed when Charlotte in Falsettos entered the scene in 1992 ("followed by her lover who's a lesbian from next door, too"). Act Two of Falsettos had premiered two years earlier Off-Broadway as the single act Falsettoland, but "alternative lifestyles" (as they were still very much known) were less shocking downtown. Of course, William Finn's purposefully proclamatory lyrics poke fun at any even mild unease the audience may feel in the presence of a lesbian.

Heather MacRae, Carolee Carmello, Jonathan Kaplan and Michael Rupert in <i>Falsettos</i>
Heather MacRae, Carolee Carmello, Jonathan Kaplan and Michael Rupert in Falsettos Photo by Carol Rosegg

Still, it's telling that Finn felt a need to acknowledge this sentiment at all, particularly an hour into a show already focused mostly on gay male characters. Even in a gay show, a gay women was a novelty. This is an even more extreme example of the marginalization of women than is generally found in heterosexual society. In gay male culture, a community itself very marginalized and initially finding form in bars and clubs, discos and bathhouses — places of a sexual inclination and for men only — women have been essentially non-existent. This is portrayed in a painfully beautiful way in the Tony-winning Fun Home, where Alison Bechdel's closeted gay father tries to make her conform to society's idea of how a girl is supposed to dress. Why can't he see her for who she is? The audience sees it. We come to know that acknowledging her would mean accepting himself, which he cannot do. Fun Home's existence and triumph is a tribute to the progress that can be made as women in theatre take power and prominence, particularly gay women.


10. Lorraine in Nick & Nora (1991)

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I'm including Lorraine from Nick & Nora on this list as a sad statement about how few examples of lesbian characters exist in musical theatre. Although played hilariously by Faith Prince in the short-lived musical, Lorraine is an old-fashioned idea of a gay woman, one who just can't get a good man. To make matters worse, in Nick & Nora, Lorraine's death is played out over and over again as the mystery of her murder is solved. At least she has a lot of scenes!

9. Gym Teacher and Prison Matron in Hairspray (2002)

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In Hairspray, the combination "track" of small roles originated by Jackie Hoffman includes two lesbian characters. While the clichéd ideas of a gym teacher and prison matron are stereotypes of what gay women were traditionally thought to be, the tone of the show is so consistent that the audience feels at ease laughing, comfortable that, along with the authors, actors and producers, they are open-minded, modern (and unprejudiced) people. Particularly as played originally by comedic wunderkind Hoffman (very popular with lesbian audiences for her role in "Kissing Jessica Stein"), the characters have an almost iconic quality, like a totem of the limited representations of themselves gay children grew up seeing on stage and screen.

8. Enid in Legally Blonde (2007)

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An example of lesbian stereotypes being transcended in Broadway musicals, Enid Hoopes, Elle's law school classmate in Legally Blonde, is more than just her sexual orientation. Her solo within "Harvard Variations" plays not as a joke about her left-leaning politics, but as an example of what women — who aren't Elle Woods — are doing in law school. Natalie Joy Johnson made Enid cool and someone the audience hopes Elle will become friends with.

7. Madelaine and Sally in The Wild Party (2000)

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Michael John LaChiusa broke ground in The Wild Party by not only depicting a female same-sex couple, but by characterizing their relationship sexually, as a unit within the general debauchery of the show. There is much theatricality and steamy sensuality in the relationship between a stripper and a morphine addict, but the fact of their sexual orientation is taken for granted without fanfare.

6. Raffaela in Grand Hotel (1989)

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In Grand Hotel, Raffaela is confidante, secretary and dresser to the prima ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya. The audience learns, however, that Raffaela is also deeply in love with Grushinskaya, by way of the songs "22 Years/Villa on a Hill" and "How Can I Tell Her?" It's a hopeless love as the diva is heterosexual, but Raffaela pines away as many have done, gay or straight, for an unavailable lover.

5. Matron Morton in Chicago (1975)

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Nowhere in the musical Chicago is Matron “Mama” Morton referred to explicitly as homosexual, although fans have long inferred she swings that way. The score also suggests such a proclivity in “When You’re Good to Mama” where she sings of a “tit-for-tat” relationship with the (all female inmates), “when you’re stroking Mama, Mama’s stroking you.” Lawyer Billy Flynn even calls her “butch.” If the case needed strengthening, the role was created by the great Mary McCarty, who also originated Stella in Follies and who was widely known to be the proud longtime partner of film star Margaret Lindsay.

4. Charlotte and Cordelia in Falsettos (1992)

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The aforementioned Charlotte (and her partner, Cordelia) may be secondary characters in Falsettos, but they are a crucial presence in the show's tight seven-member ensemble. In fact, in the second act, when they appear, the addition makes the difference between the central family of the story straggling at the fringes of society and being part of a community, one of the important themes of show. To that end, Charlotte and Cordelia are the characters who sing perhaps the most significant number in the show, "Something Bad Is Happening," William Finn's haunting harbinger to the as-of-yet unnamed epidemic killing the gay men of the early 1980s era. In 1996, when I directed Falsettos for UC Berkeley's BareStage, my little brother, then nine years old, sitting on my lap, whispered during the song, "Is it about AIDS?"

3. Celie and Shug in The Color Purple (2005)

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Photo by Paul Kolnik

Another milestone was reached by The Color Purple, the only Broadway musical at the time to depict a same-sex relationship between two women of color. Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning 1985 film toned down the romance between Celie and Shug in Alice Walker's classic novel, but Broadway got a musical every bit as open about the relationship. If the pair split up when Shug finds a new man, that's just a portrayal of two characters in a place and time, but show's emotional rendering of their time together is still extremely impactful.

2. Maureen and Joanne in Rent (1996)

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A Broadway musical lesbian couple with a happier ending can be found in Rent, where the actions begins with Maureen having already left Mark for a relationship with Joanne. Even prior to this or Falsettos, Broadway musicals had seen romance between women before, as in the case of Rose and Giulietta in Aspects of Love, but that was a fleeting moment between two otherwise straight-identified characters. Maureen and Joanne are out, loud and proud.

1. Alison in Fun Home (2015)

Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs
Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs Photo by Joan Marcus

By far, the most groundbreaking lesbian character in a Broadway musical is Alison in Fun Home. The show splits the role in three, allowing the audience to meet Bechdel as a child, as a post-adolescent and as an adult. The constant presence of the adult Alison (particularly in Sam Gold's exquisite Tony-winning staging in the round) focuses the entire show through the lens of grown-up Alison's perspective, offering insight into her personal development, overcoming the struggles of her family and coming out of the closet, as her father never could.

(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money, running in repertory through June 21 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)

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