"We Are What We Are": Nine Need-to-Know LGBT Characters from Broadway

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21 Jun 2014

As part of Playbill.com's 30 Days of Pride, Ben Rimalower offers a collection of nine LGBT characters from Broadway.

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I think we take LGBT theatre for granted. Over the last few decades, a handful of LGBT plays have been so influential on both the theatre and our culture at large, and a certain segment of the gay population (upper middle class gay white men) have become so visible in mainstream media that for some of us, it can sometimes feel like the revolution is over — it was televised, the ratings were okay and now it's time to go home. Some people may even feel tired of seeing LGBT stories on stage; "been there, done that."

Compiling this list of great LGBT character in Broadway plays and musicals has reminded me of the activist spirit that made all these personalities part of such great — and important — theatre. In a world still teeming with so much persecution and inequality, these characters can only be inspiring. In fact, we desperately need to see more characters like these and from far more diverse populations. Playwrights, bring it on!

Click though to read my selections for the Top Nine LGBT Characters from Broadway Shows.

Michael Rupert
Photo by Carol Rosegg

9. Marvin – Falsettos
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn and James Lapine

Falsettos, with its highly original style of musical storytelling, conversational and idiosyncratic (and at times, lyrical and deeply moving), groundbreakingly offered a frank and realistic portrayal of AIDS and modern gay life. In Act One, an immature and narcissistic Marvin comes out of the closet to begin a relationship with another man. He acts with little regard for his wife and son's feelings, expecting them to immediately acclimate to his new life. He even goes so far as to actually hit his (now ex) wife when she invites him to her second wedding. In Act Two, Marvin's lover becomes an early victim of AIDS in the midst of preparations for Marvin's son's Bar Mitzvah. In dealing with the turmoil, Marvin grows up and learns to love and be loved. We understand Marvin's struggle, the grandiosity and the self-loathing — he was born before gay liberation, and he had no list of LGBT characters to light the way. Sometimes the most powerful activism is within oneself.

Wilson Jermaine Heredia

8. Angel – Rent by Jonathan Larson

Rent is another Broadway show about AIDS — and Angel, the sweet transvestite who, after dying of it, becomes a sort of guiding spirit for the loved ones he leaves behind. It seems strange, today, referring to Angel with male pronouns, but that was how it was done in Rent. Is this is a testimony to how far we've evolved or how ensnared we've gotten in labels? Perhaps both. Angel was effective as a symbol for the audience as well as the other characters, because Angel emantated only love and positivity. Where Roger and Mimi couldn't get it together to just love each other and Mark couldn't love himself, Angel was who [she] was and loved Tom without complication from the moment they met. This is why Angel was the heart of Rent. [She] served as the embodiment of the message "measure your life in love." Angel had nothing but love for everyone — except that Akita.

Douglas Hodge
Photo by Joan Marcus

7. Albin – La Cage aux Folles
Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Harvey Fierstein

La Cage aux Folles is another story of love conquering all. For many there was tremendous activism even in the chaste love song between the middle-aged gay couple early in the first act. More unbridled pride came out when Albin, as Zaza, ripped off his wig to sing the climactic, "I Am What I Am," a lasting anthem for LGBT rights if there ever was one. Perhaps, though, the real activism of La Cage was more implicit: the way that the integrity of a gay family held together in the end despite being pulled at many different seams.

Brent Carver as Molina, with Anthony Crivello
Photo by Martha Swope

6. Molina – Kiss of the Spider Woman
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Terrence McNally

The blazing theatricality that makes Kiss of the Spider Woman a fabulous musical is all about fantasy, escape. Of course, the harsh reality faced by Molina and Valentin locked in that cell is that there is no escape. Molina may not think of himself as being brave, he may see himself as a sissy — Valentin certainly does — but the audience comes to see Molina as a tremendous hero. Even in the beginning, he dares to be himself. The fact that he has no other choice only makes the stakes that much higher. He dares to care for another person in a dark and lonely place, and he dares to love a man who is not only straight, but hates him. And in the end, he gives it all for that man and dies free.

A scene from Torch Song Trilogy

5. Arnold – Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein

Smash hit Torch Song Trilogy's watershed 1,222 performance-run on Broadway was especially significant because its lead character Arnold, was effeminate, to be sure, "gay acting," if you will — but he was not the butt of a joke or a victim suffering from circumstance. Life was tough at times for Arnold, but he knew who he was and what he wanted, which was basically love — from another man, from his mother, as a performer from his audiences and as a person from the people in his world. It's heartening to watch Arnold get all the love he deserves, ultimately just by being himself.

Nathan Lane in Love! Valour! Compassion!

4. Buzz – Love! Valour Compassion! by Terrence McNally

Surely there was a cliché of the obsessed musical theatre show queen before Terrence McNally's 1995 hit, Love! Valour Compassion!, but I can't imagine it ever had the panache and brio of Buzz, particularly as played on Broadway in a dazzling turn by Nathan Lane. More than just a string of hilarious one-liners, Buzz was a man who was lonely and who didn't fit with the rest of the gym-toned gays heading for the beach. Musical theatre was his escape and his vice and his totem, and he carried it with pride. This conviction in who he was enabled him to find a kindred spirit and fall in love — and we were all rooting for him.

Stephen Spinella
Photo by Stephen Spinella

3. Prior Walter – Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Angels in America is so successfully so many things that it's easy to file it away as a politics play or an AIDS play or an 80s play or whatever, and forget many of its enduring strengths. One of those strengths of Angels in America is the way it serves as a coming-of-age, or coming-into-his-own, story for its central hero, Prior Walter. Prior starts out as something of any everyman, an unambitious, even superficial person. When he is hit with the double whammy of AIDS and abandonment by his boyfriend, we go along with him on a hallucinogenic, transformative journey from being a victim to rising like a phoenix, the sage in the robe at the end of the show, a wise man who has learned and lived to tell.

Joe Mantello
Photo by Joan Marcus

 2. Ned – The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer

In The Normal Heart's depiction of actual events, Ned, an obvious stand-in for Larry Kramer himself, is a live wire, exasperating and infuriating in his relentless drive toward progress in the early fight against AIDS. The 2011 Broadway production and recent movie adaptation have revealed a more likable Ned in the hindsight of 20 years passing. Knowing how many of his tactics worked makes the means easier to justify — at least in the context of Kramer's version of the story. So if this skewed tale romanticizes AIDS activism, then good, perhaps we younger generations need that to be inspired out of complacency and into action.

Neil Patrick Harris
Photo by Joan Marcus

1. Hedwig – Hedwig And The Angry Inch
Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask
Book by John Cameron Mitchell

Finally on Broadway, the best new musical of the last 20 years is reaching larger and wider audiences than ever before. It may seem odd that this show is so universal. After all, Hedwig's story is extremely unique and specific — an East German ex-pat post-botched-operative transgender glam rock/cabaret singer on a shoddy tour in the shadow of her ex-boyfriend's major mainstream success with her material. Hedwig is characterized as unflaggingly herself and tells her tale with unflinching authenticity, though exquisite, thrilling music, and we are drawn in — no matter who we are. Hedwig is mutilated, and she is beautiful. That's the kind of activist hero we need nowadays.

(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. Read more about the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)