LGBT Pride Month has only just begun and already Playbill covers are awash in the rainbow stripes of liberation. It's fitting that Playbill, the ultimate symbol of Broadway, should be the standard bearer, literally and figuratively, for Equality, as theatre has been ahead of the pack in representing gay lives in culture for decades. Even musical theatre — often considered the bastion of commercial entertainment — has proven to be an ideal space for often groundbreaking expression, ideal given its unparalleled access to wide sectors of the population, which might otherwise not be exposed to similarly edgy content. Basically, there's no better way to a person's heart than through a great song, and for this reason, musical theatre has been a crucial force in social progress for LGBT people.
10. "Take Me Or Leave Me" from Rent
I remember standing outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles at intermission for national tour of Rent in 1997. I overheard a middle-aged woman in a fur coat say, "The music is nice, but I could do without the homosexuality and drugs." In Act Two, when the audience burst into a well-earned ovation for the heartfelt and hilarious performance of the Maureen/Joanne duet, "Take Me or Leave Me," I noticed the lady in mink clapping and smiling joyfully with the rest of us. Did she go home and canvas for gay marriage? Maybe not, but I have no doubt Jonathan Larson's eminently hummable music and witty, but not wordy, lyrics endeared his characters to her heart in a way that opened her mind.
9. "Anything for Him" from Kiss of the Spider Woman
One of the most thrilling sequences in Broadway history came near the end of the second act of Hal Prince's production of the Kander and Ebb and McNally musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. Molina, gay and in love with his straight cellmate Valentin, sang of his dedication to the man. Valentin in turn sang of his ability to manipulate Molina and all the while, the Spider Woman cooed over her metaphorical prey. The tension of the soaring trio climaxed in the dramatic title song, performed solo by the Spider Woman. The reason the poetic rendering worked so powerfully was the beauty of "Anything for Him." Despite the one-sidedness of the love, despite the misery of prison and despite the dire circumstances at hand, Molina's feelings for Valentin were so passionate and pure and so perfectly encapsulated in the melody, the audience had no choice but to go along for the ride.
8. "What About Love" from The Color Purple
The first act of The Color Purple ends on a sad, but nonetheless uplifting note. Poor, downtrodden Celie has finally broken free from so many of the oppressive constraints she's been forced to suffer, and she's finally found someone to love her in Shug. Now Shug is leaving, but as the pair sing this sexy duet, it's hard not to feel elated. More important than Shug's imminent departure is the fact that now Celie knows she can be loved, that she deserves to be loved. This is something many LGBTQ people struggle to discover, and in the deeper sense, it's really something all people have to work toward.
7. "An Invitation to Sleep in My Arms" from A New Brain
One the mostly highly underrated musicals of the last 20 years, William Finn and James Lapine's 1998 A New Brain deserves to occupy more space in the history books. In a way, the show suffered from its privileged position of production by Lincoln Center Theater in their handsome Off-Broadway space, the Mitzi Newhouse. No commercial producer could have afforded to present such an elaborate work in such a small house. Had A New Brain debuted on Broadway, regardless of its fate, the more mainstream exposure and national presence via the Tony Awards would have bought the show thousands more fans. Audiences will get a second chance with the piece later this month when it kicks off City Center Encores' "Off Center" series. I'm particularly excited to see two of my favorite leading men, Jonathan Groff and Aaron Lazar, join the wonderfully warm Ana Gasteyer and Alyse Alan Louis in the moving "An Invitation to Sleep in My Arms." There's a lot going on in this show and in this song (brain tumor, impending surgery, job trouble, writer's block…), Gordon and Roger being gay is really just taken for granted and that is what makes it special. That and Finn's ravishing melody.
6. "Changing My Major" from Fun Home
Pretty much anyone who sees the recent Tony-winning Best Musical, Fun Home, walks out talking about the song "Changing My Major," the hilarious and touching ode to a young woman's first relationship with a woman. The heightened nature of the song expertly captures the near hysteria of such coming-of-age experiences, especially for LGBTQ kids who may not have grown up with an expectation or even awareness of these feelings. In the great tradition of Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim and Fred Ebb, Lisa Kron's lyrics are so conversational and human, they sound like the character talking and the moment is totally truthful.
5. "What More Can I Say?" from Falsettos
William Finn is another lyricist who excels at writing lyrics that feel like stuff a person would actually say. For his Tony-winning musical Falsettos, he crafted the loveliest, most lilting, lullaby for Marvin to sing as his lover, Whizzer, sleeps by his side. Even there, Finn wrote things like "If I say I love him, you might think my words come cheap. Let's just say I'm glad he's mine — awake, asleep." Perhaps, at the time the song was written, gay love needed to be expressed as succinctly as possible, as any frills or pretense might have alienated an already tenuous audience. Regardless, the result is a song that rings true to life decades on.
4. "Song on the Sand" from La Cage Aux Folles
A gay love ballad really ahead of its time, "Song on the Sand" from La Cage Aux Folles may have shocked many audience members when it debuted in 1983. Lucky for them — and lucky for us — the score to La Cage Aux Folles was by none other than Jerry Herman. The man behind the words and music to Hello, Dolly! and Mame is essentially incapable of writing a song an audience won't love. Not since Irving Berlin has there been Broadway composer with such direct line to the heart. No matter how conservative someone's views may be, they're putty in Herman's hands by the time the actor playing Georges gets to the chorus, "I heard, ‘La da da da da da da,' as we walked on the sand."
3. "Unlikely Lovers" from Falsettos
Another song from Falsettos that can choke you up, “Unlikely Lovers” is not about AIDS, although in the plot of the show, it takes place in a hospital room around the dying Whizzer’s bed. Still, you shouldn't underestimate the intensity these two couples, Marvin and Whizzer and Charlotte and Cordelia, feel simply about the fact they are lovers. They were raised with the expectation of being heterosexual; their relationships are "unlikely." That this social change is occurring in their lifetimes in tandem with the AIDS epidemic, you can't really separate AIDS from the point of the song. That said, taken out of context, the song is stunning, with unexpected musical leaps and searing harmonies. And really, what lovers aren’t to some extent unlikely?
2. "Ring of Keys" from Fun Home
For many people the highlight of last week’s Tony Awards was Sydney Lucas’ rendition of “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home. The 11-year-old Tony nominee clearly has star quality in spades, a sweet, well-controlled voice and sophisticated acting chops. But the song itself is really a star in on its own. Composer Jeanine Tesori said in her Tony acceptance speech that it's not a love song, but a song of identification. In that respect, I would call it a song about self love, "the greatest love of all." And whatever you call it, the passion in Tesori's tune evokes strong emotions. Hearing it sung on the Tony Awards, alongside the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, “Getting To Know You,” “Shall We Dance” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” I was struck by how comparable Lisa Kron’s lyrics are to Hammerstein’s master works. The simple, human poetry Hammerstein evoked, singing of storms and larks and canary yellow skies, is a clear antecedent to Kron’s conjuring of keys and the like. Both find the power in the everyday. The impact of young Alison’s self-discovery could not have been so palpable any other way.
1. "The Origin of Love" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch
The biggest goose bumps on Broadway can be had at the Belasco Theatre where Darren Criss is currently stopping the show eight times a week with Stephen Trask's flaming anthem, "The Origin of Love" in Trask and John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig And The Angry Inch. Is there anything better than a ballad by a hard rock band? Somehow the roughness of the sound makes the sweet songs so much more tender. Of course, it doesn't hurt that "The Origin of Love" is a summation of the central theme of Hedwig, we are all broken souls searching for our other half. This "ancient truth" is conveyed painfully and unforgettably:
"Last time I saw you
We had just split in two.
You were looking at me.
I was looking at you.
You had a way so familiar,
But I could not recognize,
Cause you had blood on your face;
I had blood in my eyes.
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine."