Gay Representation: Rising on TV, Not Musical Theater?

You can usually spot them a mile off, good for only quick quips and a "sashay away."

John McCrea in "Everybody's Talking About Jamie." Photo: Johan Persson.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) recently released its annual diversity report, “Where We Are on TV,” which concluded that the TV industry had the highest percentage of characters identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer since tracking started 22 years ago. There is still a great way to go in terms of fair representation, but the report suggests that TV is moving in the right direction.

If there were any form in which LGBTQI+ characters were expected to be well represented, it would be in musical theatre. Long stereotyped as a passion and pastime of gay men, it is rare, however, that we find musicals reflecting aspects of gay life. What troubles me more than the stories modern musicals choose to tell is how frequently attempts to address this issue are offered through tokenism — and how frequently this is ignored by audiences and critics alike. True, the whole canon of “classical” musical theatre is largely devoid of gay characters and narratives, mostly due to the eras in which they were written; rights issues and estates often tie up musicals within strict frameworks, leaving attempts to reframe them as non-starters. But even when attempts to redress issues are permitted, they can threaten to create more problems than they solve. Next season, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will present a same-sex reworking of Oklahoma! OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch has stated that he hopes his re-imagining — which will retain the 1906 setting of the show — will celebrate “the original pioneering spirit of this musical.”

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it’s thus within modern musicals — those written within the past 10 years, say, no matter in which period they take place — where gay characters can be found. But the trouble is you can usually spot the token gay character a mile off. Reduced to a supporting role and often aligned with such stereotypical gay professions as dress designers, makeup artists, personal assistants and cabin crew, contemporary writers use gay characters for quick quips and a “sashay away” for light comic relief. Worse, audiences lap it up, which only perpetuates the problem.

In writing musicals that might be suitable for the West End or Broadway, creators are bound by the commercial demands of a score, story and subject matter that can play across the widest field possible. Of course there are exceptions to the rule: some of the bravest shows of recent times have broken boundaries and stuck to their guns, however “niche” producers believe them to be. I’m talking about shows that aim to appeal to the widest catchment — to middle England, to casual audiences, to tourists. These musicals have an incredibly important place in the theatrical ecosystem and are often fantastic crowd-pleasers that not only keep many people employed but introduce many others to the genre. These mainstream hits have a social responsibility, and part of that social responsibility isn’t to reduce LGBTQI+ characters to superficial throwaways.

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Here in the UK during the past few years, I can recall countless examples of new West End musicals injecting gay-character tropes into otherwise damp books, from the lamentable Viva Forever (using the songs of the Spice Girls) to the more ambitious Top Hat (using the songs of Irving Berlin), from The Bodyguard (based on the 1992 film) to I Can’t Sing (satirizing Simon Cowell and The X Factor). Gay characters fall all over themselves to chew the scenery even as they are woefully underwritten and used only briefly for comedy, never to be seen again. Now running at Shakespeare’s Globe is Romantics Anonymous, in which humour is mined by a male character appearing in a wig and a dress for no other reason than for audiences to laugh at him, and those audiences do not disappoint. The strange affinity among British audiences for laughing at men in dresses dates back to music hall and pantomime, and that deserves its own examination. Still, I am disappointed, whenever I see a musical in which artists I respect use this device for a quick injection of humour and nothing more.

For a number of years there has been a name for all of this: gay minstrelsy. It has been used to criticise the representation of gay men on TV, from Sean Hayes’ Jack on Will and Grace to Eric Stonestreet’s Cam on Modern Family. In some cases, straight men “gay up” to perpetuate common stereotypes about male sexuality, all at the expense of comedy. The difference in these examples as put forward by Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Fergusson, an out gay actor (Stonestreet is straight) is that these characters, however stereotypical they may seem, are nevertheless well-rounded, developed and arguably well-written. What do we say, then, of a cameo character who appears in a musical for less than 30 seconds, who is reduced to a stereotype, and who often isn’t even given the dignity of a name? When a gay man is presented as nothing more than a vehicle for their sexuality, this should be universally problematic for us all.

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In theatrical terms, let’s remember, this is nothing new. A “nance” was a gay stock character that frequented burlesque and vaudeville; they were described as “men who sang and acted in an effete manner, spoke with a lisp, and pranced about stage with a swish.” They were parodies of themselves, and they thrived onstage. Their existence, however, is not now socially unacceptable in the way that, for example, blackface is. The “nance” still exists, right in our contemporary musical theater, hidden and disguised in larger packages as if to shield the embarrassment that it refuses to disappear into history.

That the “nance” is still being exploited in the musical theatre should be met with more resistance in both construction and performance. Watching an amateur production of a modern musical recently, I was surprised by the direction some actors took with their characters to “out camp” each other, to gain the biggest laugh. Whether their role was a waiter, shop assistant or some other minor cameo, word had clearly spread that audiences found the “nance” funny, leading to a furious competition over who could take it to its most extreme form. Among my friends, both straight and gay, the reception feels mixed. Some find it deeply offensive. Others find it rooted in the British tradition of pantomime and excusable under that wider banner.

Who’s to blame? If audiences continue to laugh, guffaw and cheer, then actors will continue to reduce themselves to stereotypes to feel the warmth and comfort of their embrace. Rarely, however, do audiences laugh with their portrayal of the “sassy gay shop assistant” so much as laugh at it, and this needs to stop. I don’t understand why musical theatre writers refuse to present more LGBTQI+ stories, or why they think it’s acceptable to use them in supporting roles for quick and easy humour. It ultimately damages our community. It marginalises us to the most basic traits possible.

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On the small screen, Andrew Haigh’s Looking, Mark Ravenhill’s Vicious and Russell T. Davis’ Banana, Cucumber and Tofu have all depicted diverse portrayals of gay men and all have been subject to intense discussion within the community as to how successfully representative they have been, but never does this level of discussion occur in musical theatre. Why? Our critics also need to do a better job at pointing this out. They should be comfortable telling writers and directors that tokenism is not to be tolerated. They should use their voices to help evolve the form.

As a man whose gay life has somewhat been defined by musical theatre, I don’t for one moment want to suggest that every new musical must include a representation of the gay experience. But modern musicals such as Fun Home, Kinky Boots, The View Upstairs and the recently opened Everybody’s Talking About Jamie prove, however, that there is a place for developed gay narratives in commercial theatre — and these should be celebrated. I’m equally happy watching a musical story about a heterosexual couple of whatever type; what I don’t need is a token gay character milked for laughs. I feel we’re at a stage where we no longer have to accept this in film or TV, and I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t accept it in straight plays. But somehow in musical theatre — the form that for many reasons feel the safest for us– this goes on unquestioned and unchallenged. It must stop.