Now that we’re approaching Pride Week, let’s listen to the musical theater songs that will keep it gay.
Including, of course, “Keep It Gay” from THE PRODUCERS, where we meet flamboyant Roger De Bris and Carmen Ghia. That was in 2001, by which point full out-of-the-closet gays were routinely seen on the Broadway stage. But in the first half of the twentieth century and a decade beyond, characters in the De Bris-Ghia mold were seen while their sexuality was never explicitly mentioned.
In 1941, the closest thing to a relationship that Russell Paxton had in LADY IN THE DARK was with “Tschaikowsky” and a few dozen other Russian composers. Pemberton Maxwell in the 1950 musical CALL ME MADAM was derisively called “Fancy Pants” and “one of the boys” — code in those days for homosexual – by adversary Mrs. Sally Adams. But we never met their boyfriends.
By the end of the decade, THE NERVOUS SET showed us a woman who had a crush on a man only to find that he wasn’t interested. That led to her singing “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” Again, code: they were gays whom, she observed, were “sitting in the bars” while “trying to forget that they’re growing old” as they sought “a certain smile, someone they can hold for just a little while.”
As a song, it’s quite good, thanks to expert work from lyricist Fran Landesman and composer Tommy Wolf. It even became a cabaret standard in the sixties and was recorded by dozens of singers. But few who love musical theater are sorry that it’s become a period piece.
Ten years later, The Stonewall Riots occurred during the last week of June; less than a year later, Lee Roy Reams (whom you may better know from his stint as Billy Lawlor in 42ND STREET) was phenomenal in APPLAUSE, playing Margo Channing’s right-hand man as a human being first and a gay man second.
Did Reams get a Tony or even a nomination for his achievement? No, but look who won as Best Featured Actor in a Musical that season: Rene Auberjonois from COCO, in which he played a stereotypical gay who made Billy De Wolfe seem like Billy Dee Williams.
Yes, change occurs very slowly. Even in 1975, A CHORUS LINE’s director-choreographer Michael Bennett, who was predominantly gay, saw to it that Zach, his on-stage counterpart, was written as straight. The show’s only other romantic relationship came from a heterosexual couple: Al and Kristine (who could never really “Sing!”).
And yet, a step forward was taken through Gregory Gardner in his section of “Hello Twelve, Hello, Thirteen, Hello Love.” He recalled that throughout high school he was constantly – and noticeably – sexually aroused. Men in the audience laughed heartily as they identified with his plight. Their laughter always increased when he told of getting the chance to caress a girl – and then it abruptly stopped when Gregory revealed that he lost interest because “it was probably the first time I realized that I was homosexual.”
But the men knew they couldn’t turn against him now. They’d come to genuinely like Gregory, so they couldn’t by all rights stop enjoying him on one, uh, technicality.
Back then, record albums could accommodate about an hour’s worth of material, so although “Hello Twelve, Hello, Thirteen, Hello Love” was recorded in full, it was greatly abridged for the recording. Gregory’s section was excised. Could the reason have also been that producer Goddard Lieberson feared that listeners might not have cared to hear Gregory’s thoughts each time that they played the record?
The compact disc revolution allowed many more minutes of listening, so the first CD release of CHORUS LINE and the 2006 revival cast recording included what Greg had to say. Or was the feeling that by then, listeners would be less inclined to resist an out-and-out gay?
Such a situation was helped by a 1983 smash hit that detailed the lives of fully-out-of-the-closet romantically linked men. What paved the way for the show’s success was LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, the French-Italian movie on which it was based. It’s still the United States’ eleventh-highest-grossing foreign-film.
Movie audiences that may have been uncomfortable with Georges and Albin’s relationship could, while reading subtitles, be lulled into thinking “Oh, those crazy French! Well, it’s not happening here …”
It still wasn’t when the musical debuted, for bookwriter Harvey Fierstein and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman decided to keep the setting in faraway St. Tropez. It was just one of the cautious moves that they and director Arthur Laurents made.
Audiences were first introduced to The Cagelles, a dozen drag queens – nay, TEN drag queens. Much advance publicity established that the twelve included two female ringers. So audience members who came armed with this information could have fun seeing if they could tell which performers on the line were genuine women. That could divert their attention from any unnerving unpleasant feelings they might have otherwise had.
Herman too eased audiences into the situation during much of Act One. Notice that the first whiff of any type of romance is a straight one: Jean-Michel, Georges’s grown son and Albin’s stepson, tells his dad about his love for his fiancée in “With Anne on My Arm.”
This song helped to defang the simplistic notion that so many homophobic straights have had (or, alas, still have): if you give a child to gay parents, the kid will turn out gay. (Hmmm, do straight couples always wind up with straight children …?)
“With Anne on My Arm” is one of Herman’s trademark hummable tunes – and that helped what happened a scant few minutes later. Albin’s realizing that “our baby” has grown makes him muse about how much time has passed. So Georges tries to cheer him in song – which is, wisely, a reprise slightly retitled “With You on My Arm.” To give theatergoers a shortened version of the nice song that they’d just heard eased them into the situation. Familiarity breeds acceptance; giving them a new song might have been a little too much.
What’s more, two men linking arms is less threatening to straight audiences than many other actions they could have taken. Just because these guys were living in France didn’t mean that an audience had to see them French kiss.
Herman knew however that he’d eventually need to have Georges and Albin express their deep feelings. It came as they recalled “their” song to which they fell in love. And which couple, be it gay or straight, doesn’t have such a song?
This too was tricky territory. Broadway musicals sport ballads that stress physical attraction: “Your lips, your eyes, your cheeks, your hair are in a class beyond compare” – that kind of thing. Herman knew that having Georges and Albin list each other’s physical attributes would alienate some. Hence, in “Song of the Sand” he used “La da da da da da da” in place of specifically lush romantic lyrics.
(It also made his task as a lyricist that much easier.)
Such pussyfooting could only go on for so long. LA CAGE’s big conflict comes when Jean-Michel doesn’t want Albin to attend the all-important first meeting with his conservative future in-laws. So when Albin is told that he’ll have to vacate the premises, Herman had him roar out an unapologetic “I Am What I Am.” As the curtain came down, he left the stage and stormed up the theater’s house-left aisle.
Audiences now had an entire intermission to ruminate on what they had just seen. They could leave, and undoubtedly some did. But obviously many more felt bad for Albin and stayed. LA CAGE became the fourteenth-longest running book musical in Broadway history and “I Am What I Am” became a veritable anthem in gay bars across the land.
And then the deluge: Alan Cumming as The Emcee in the 1998 revival of CABARET was far more sexual than Joel Grey had been in 1966. Angel and Tom (RENT), Gordon and Roger (A NEW BRAIN), Rod and Nicky (AVENUE Q), Lucas and David (IF/THEN), Pamela and Mopsa (HEAD OVER HEELS), Barry, Emma and Alyssa (THE PROM), Madeline True (THE WILD PARTY with her show-stopping “An Old-Fashioned Love Story”) and dozens of others made themselves heard.
Frank N. Furter in THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW didn’t feel compelled to make a single choice; he spent quality time with both Brad and Janet. And who knows about Lola in KINKY BOOTS? Harvey Fierstein says that the drag queen he wrote is straight while Billy Porter, who won a Tony for playing the role, says “Lola is not straight. She just isn’t.”
As for the best musical theater song you can play during Pride Week, it’s “A Patriotic Finale” from WHEN PIGS FLY. Lyricist Mark Waldrop (with composer Dick Gallagher) created a ditty so witty that revealing even one of its lyrics would spoil the surprise. Give a listen and you might well agree that it surpasses “I Am What I Am” as The Gay National Anthem.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.