From Love Songs to Hate Songs: LGBT Characters Sing Out Loud on Broadway

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05 Jun 2014

Lee Roy Reams
Lee Roy Reams
Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Playbill is celebrating 30 Days of Pride this month, and my contribution to the fête is a quick look at groundbreaking LGBT characters from some of my favorite musicals.

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Hair definitely offered up some characters whose sexuality was questionable, but one of the first truly "out of the closet" gay characters was in Applause (1970), Charles Strouse and Lee Adams's musical version of "All About Eve." The show concerns Margo Channing who, despite what you may think from listening to the cast recording featuring Lauren Bacall's low notes, is indeed played by a woman. Lee Roy Reams, however, played her assistant Duane. Margo let the audience know early on that Duane was gay in what was a shocking reveal for 1970 — she invites Duane out on the town but he demurs, saying he has a date. She turns around and says, "Bring him along!" That was a big deal back in a time when being gay was considered a psychological disorder. Duane joined Margo and Eve, and thus followed the song "But Alive," the first number in a Broadway show to be set in a gay bar.

The 1970s brought us Paul San Marcos from A Chorus Line. That show was created from a series of sessions choreographer Michael Bennett held with dancers about their experiences trying to make it in show business. One of those dancers, Nicholas Dante, spoke of being a very young drag performer and the horror he felt when, right before he went on tour, his parents showed up at the stage door to see him off. Then he heard his father tell the producer to "take care of my son." He broke down and revealed that it was the first time his father ever called him that. The monologue Paul has in A Chorus Line was transcribed almost verbatim from that session, and wound up winning Sammy Williams a Tony Award.

The 1980s gave us the gay couple Albin (George Hearn) and Georges (Gene Barry) from La Cage aux Folles. This show by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein gave us "Song on the Sand," the first Broadway love song written for two men. It also helped set the stage for gay parenting, which Fierstein touched upon in his 1983 Tony-winning play Torch Song Trilogy. In La Cage Georges and Albin raise a son together named Jean Michel. When Jean Michel is too ashamed of Albin's gayness to introduce him to his fiancé's family, Georges sings "Look Over There," which reminds Jean Michel of the wonderful parenting he received from Albin. And finally La Cage gave us "I Am What I Am," a gay anthem whose disco version was the background music I used in high school for a jazz dance where I sported purple plastic jazz pants, brand-new leg warmers, and white Capezios. I "was what I was," and what that was looked an awful lot like a Solid Gold dancer.



The 1990s saw the rise of hit tuners involving lesbians; most famously Rent, which starred Fredi Walker and Idina Menzel as on-again, off-again couple, Joanne and Maureen. It featured the song "Take Me or Leave Me," the first love/hate duet sung between two women. Rent portrayed more than a few gay, lesbian, and transgender characters — ones that pushed boundaries further than the one-dimensional portrayals we were used to seeing on television and in film at that time. Rent also blew away the notion that playing gay is bad for your career. The show led to Jesse L. Martin (Collins) starring in "Law and Order" and Menzel going on to win a Tony for Wicked. It also, quite frankly, led to actors missing shows because the score was so hard to sing! But that happened to both the gay and straight characters, showing that we're not so different after all.