Introduction Why do gay men like musical theater? I wrote this paper for the Fall 2001 semester of English 636, Literary Criticism, at Queens College (Flushing, NY), of the City University of New York. The class was taught that semester by Dr. Phil Mirabelli. Like the subjects of the paper below, I had a mother with a vast collection of musical theater LPs like Flower Drum Song, Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma, and my favorite, West Side Story. She bought me the soundtrack of The Sound of Music one Christmas. The collection increased as I grew up to include Man of La Mancha, Purlie, The Wiz, and Dreamgirls. In the 1980s I bought Fame, and since then have purchased Mass, two versions of Sweeney Todd, and most recently The Producers. Currently I'm starting to collect tape or CD versions of the old LPs, such as Fiddler on the Roof. One of my current concerns, besides the preservation and furthering of musical theater (particularly as a librettist,lyricist, and performer), is battling what I think are toxic attitudes toward gender roles. We swing between the extremes of constricting, rigid definitions of "male" and "female", and the denying of any differences between the two. Please feel free to quote my words in your own paper, giving me proper MLA-style credit, of course (or whatever style you need to use). If you plagiarize me, may God have mercy on your soul. Now let me stop introducing, and let the paper speak for itself. Any questions or comments, please e-mail me: email@example.com
“Without Jews, fags, and gypsies, there is no theater.”
—Mel Brooks, To Be or Not To Be (1983 film remake)
“The difference between a fag and a queer: a fag was a guy who
wouldn’t go downtown with you beating up queers. Probably that
Irish street macho of the era.”
—George Carlin, “White Harlem” Occupation: Foole (1973 LP)
Musical theatre queens (noun, plural): gay men enlightened enough to
realize that stage and screen musicals are the be all and end all,
the ultimate cultural flowering of the human race.
—John B. Kenrick, Our Love is Here to Stay: Gays and Musicals
Why do gay men love musical theater? Why does love of
musical theater seem to indicate that a man wants to go to bed
with another man? In the satiric film In & Out (1997), high school
English teacher Howard Brackett’s love for Barbra Streisand, and
one scene’s background noise of Ethel Merman belting out the score of Gypsy,
are clues that Howard is, unknown to himself, gay. “Does
anyone here know how many times I had to watch Funny Lady?” his
fiancée, ultimately rejected, laments. In & Out’s screenwriter Paul
Rudnick also wrote the gay nonmusical play Jeffrey (1994), in which
Father Dan declares, “The only times I really feel the presence
of God are when I’m having sex, and during a great Broadway musical!”
In his essay Our Love is Here to Stay: Gays and Musicals (1996, 1998)
(www.musicals101.com), John B. Kenrick writes, “In Paul Rudnick's
Jeffrey, the lecherous Father Dan uses musicals as a metaphor for
living joyfully in the face of evil.”
“Broadway Queens”, or gay men who worship musicals, cull their choice
idols from the “Golden Age” of musicals, the post-World War II era of
Gypsy, Mame, West Side Story, and other story-driven shows. Their
favorite “Broadway divas” who starred in them include Ethel Merman,
Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury, and Julie Andrews.
(Judy Garland, the ultimate diva, is more Hollywood than Broadway.)
Although musical-theater-as-“homo”-indicator is an assumed
stereotype, very few have sought to discover why this connection exists.
We could all too easily stray into a deep psychological
discussion, something that this writer has neither the
credentials nor the inclination to do. To my knowledge,
no one has published a scientific analysis of the gay musical
buff's mind (and I pity the yutz who tries it).
I’m no psychologist either, but after reading theories of gender
and queer studies, feminism, psychology, and the Apollonian-Dionysian
dynamic, I offer this idea: the love of many gay men toward musical
theater is connected to the expression of the woman inside the man.
Generally, 20th-century American masculine culture has taught
the “real man” to kill the woman inside him. He is to love guns
instead of dolls, trucks instead of flowers, and punching instead of
hugging. However, the gay man—the “stereotypical” gay man who loves
Broadway musicals—is too much in love with the woman inside him; he
would rather indulge her, even be her. Musical theater allows him
to celebrate her, express her, and identify with her.
What’s this “woman inside the man” nonsense?
All babies are conceived female; boy babies go through a hormonal
change that makes them male. Years ago in a PBS documentary, a
microscopic camera traveled up the path of a penis, and revealed on
the penis’ wall the tiny imprint of female organs—ovaries, fallopian
tubes, and uterus—probably the fossilized remains of the man’s
embryonic female beginnings. “All souls are female in relation to
God,” Peter Scazzero, senior pastor of New Life Fellowship in
Elmhurst, NY, preached in recent years, basing his idea upon the
biblical principle of the church as the “Bride of Christ”. Scazzero
admitted that most men would have a hard time imagining themselves as
a bride. Many Christians believe that the female Wisdom character in
Proverbs is the preincarnate Jesus. Even the Christ has his “inner woman”.
David Richter writes in The Critical Tradition’s chapter on gender
studies and queer theory, “Indeed, we tend to think that every man,
however masculine, has his feminine side (and vice versa), and that
being too ‘manly’ to stay in touch with one’s inner woman is a
defect rather than a virtue” (1436). Perhaps among “enlightened”
intellectuals this is true, but many people today still draw a thick
pink/blue line between what is female and what is male. Richter
comments about Helene Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa”:
Cixous…sets up a series of binary oppositions (active/passive,
sun/moon, culture/nature, day/night, father/mother,logos/pathos).
Each pair can be analyzed as a hierarchy in which the former term
represents the positive and masculine and the latter the negative
and feminine principle. Nor can the terms live in harmony: Cixous
suggests that, in each case, the masculine term is forced to “kill”
the feminine one (1434).
Tough times for tender men
Michael Kimmel, in his book Manhood in America (1996), states that
post-Industrial Revolution men, dwarfed by machines and perplexed by
women entering the workforce, needed something other than the job to
define their manhood, and turned to personality traits as the new
gauge. In the 1930’s the “M-F” scale and test measured gendered
behaviors in children. “For those who failed, their gender-
inappropriate personality could be seen as a kind of ‘early warning
system’ for future homosexuality” (207). A boy was suspect if he
knew what frying was, a girl if she knew who led the “Rough Riders”.
Masculine responses received a plus sign, feminine a minus sign—-a
blatant sign of how society saw feminine traits (208)!
Men who fit comedian George Carlin’s definition of a “fag”—a boy
unwilling to beat up queers—were persecuted by macho men and rejected
by women, and found community with “unmanly” gays. As the gender
straightjacket tightened, more “unmacho” men slipped through the
cracks. I suspect that society’s shrinking definition of manhood
produced the very thing the straight world feared: a growing gay
community. Richter even suggests that straight men, to define
themselves by opposition, need gays; “Heterosexuals define themselves
by oppressing those who transgress, whose signifiers don’t line up”
Kenrick writes, “In the 1930’s, there was no such thing as ‘coming
out.’ Public revelation of one’s homosexuality mean professional and
social extinction. …In the conformity-conscious 1950’s, anti-gay
witch hunts were common in government and industry. The FBI
considered homosexuality to be as dangerous as communism, despite the
fact that the FBI was headed by two homos—J. Edgar Hoover and his
lover, Clyde Tolson.” Kenrick considers Senator Joseph McCarthy,
rumored as gay, and his assistant Roy Cohn, “one of the most vicious
closet queers in American history,” as “two closet cases who
shattered innocent lives.”
To the sensitive, artistic young boy of the 1940s, 50s, or
60s who heard the “call” of musical theater, the feminine side,
though he didn’t understand it yet as a feminine side, was not
something to kill but to cherish and develop. So he spent his
boyhood playing his LPs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman,
Styne, Gershwin, Porter, Comden and Green, Bernstein, or
Sondheim. “Since musicalmania can start so early, it may be that,
like homosexuality, it is not something we choose; rather, it is
something we sooner or later realize we have within us,” Kenrick writes.
In Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical (1998), D. A.
Miller describes the “occult ritual” of the pre-Broadway Queen adolescent:
Life down a hole: The archaeology of the post-war gay male subject
regularly turns up a cache of original cast albums. These were used,
scholars now believe, in a puberty rite that, thought it was
conducted by singing individuals in secrecy and shame, was
nonetheless so widely diffused as to remain, for several generations,
as practically normative for gay men, as it was almost unknown among
straight ones. The boys destined, as it was said, to be musical,
would descend into the basement of their parents’ home…and there they
would sing and dance to recorded Broadway music (in one variant,
merely mime singing and dancing) under the magical belief that,
having lent the score the depth of their own abjection, they might
then borrow all its fantastic hope that their solitary condition
would end in glory and triumph. In contradistinction to other
puberty rites, including their own, the only body fluids to pour
forth in this one—but they did so copiously, orgiastically—were tears
(11, italics and bold his).
So begins his journey to “camp”, to “diva worship”, to
“fabulousness”—-to the Broadway musical. And, frequently, to homosexuality.
John M. Clum in Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay
Culture (1999) speaks of “diva worship”:
“As the drag queen sees becoming the diva as an escape from an
oppressive life into magic, the diva musical is about a woman’s
escape from the humdrum. …[T]he diva fights for liberation from
stasis in a grim, everyday world. To closeted gay men, the diva
heroine was a figure of identification.
Where does one find magic if one is different and must try to hide
one’s difference? The ideal is escape from the provincial, where one
is hated, and fabulousness, an antidote to grayness and the strong
sense of entrapment. In the process the diva gains glamour and
Tommy Femia, a gay nightclub singer and Judy Garland
impersonator in New York City, said in an interview, “I would love
someone to have the balls... no other way to put it ... to cast me as
Judy in a musical. Judy as Mama Rose [of Gypsy] or Mame, which was
written with Judy in mind. I'm hoping that some day some one will get
permission from Jerry Herman to let me play Mame as Judy.”
(Talkin’ Broadway, www.talkinbroadway.com)
Gypsy and Mame seem to be the top two choices that gay aficionados
love to “queer”—that is, to find a gay message in a “nongay” work.
These two musicals, plus a scene from the 2001 hit The Producers,
will illustrate some key points concerning “the woman inside the man”:
gender identity and personal development; emotional expression; and
response to restrictive social roles.
Personal and Gender Identity: Gypsy-—“I’m a pretty girl, Momma!”
“Rose’s first song in Gypsy is the archetypical battle cry of the
diva: ‘Some people can get a thrill/Knitting sweaters and sitting
still/That’s okay for some people who don’t know they’re alive’” (Clum 168).
Gypsy (1959) is the Broadway Queen’s most “queerable” musical: a
crossgendered child who grows into a diva. “It’s not surprising
that lines from Gypsy, particularly Rose’s entrance line, ‘Sing out,
Louise,’ became part of camp vocabulary” (170).
Gypsy begins with a children’s show audition, pitting a girl
bedecked in dozens of balloons against a boy fumbling with his
clarinet (or accordion)—the breast versus the penis, if you will
(Miller 69-71). Throughout his chapter “On Broadway”, Miller asserts
that while in real life men control and star, on stage men control
from the background while women are the Stars. Sleazy emcee Uncle
Jocko whispers to his assistant, “Chip off her sister’s block, and
you ought to see them balloons!” In this same contest: perky Baby
June, and older sister Louise in a Dutch boy outfit, because mother
Rose needs a boy to back up June’s star act. “Boy Louise” shares
a “queerable” trait with the felt inside of the growing Broadway
Queen: “he is not a boy” (73). When Louise as a teen fills in the
suddenly vacated star spot at a Wichita burlesque theater, Gypsy Rose
Lee is born. When Louise sees herself in the mirror in a dress for
the first time—a luxurious evening gown, at that—she whispers,
alone, “Momma…I’m pretty…I’m a pretty girl, Momma.” She “regains the
paradise lost to Boy Louise” (88).
Contrast this with Herbie, June’s manager and Rose’s boyfriend,
undeniably straight, who out of love places himself under Rose’s
domineering thumb. “He stands, stoop-shouldered, as the figure of a
masculinity disgraced by its subordination to an always more imposing
femininity” (78). Herbie finally leaves Rose with parting words of
a “real man” murdering his inner woman: “I’m going to be a man if it kills me.”
“What is gay about Gypsy? …[T]here was a time when gay men proudly,
if secretly, played to their stereotypes, the time of the diva
musicals. There was a lot a gay young man, used to reading his
fantasies through women characters, could read into Gypsy. …Gypsy is
about a monster mother who turns her withdrawn, ugly duckling child
into a diva of the debased, sexually transgressive world of
burlesque, but a diva nonetheless. Some of us can see ourselves in
the transformation of shy Louise, forced to dress as a boy, into
sultry star Gypsy Rose Lee. …Gypsy becomes a parable for all the gay
men with powerful mothers. Part of our fabulousness may come from
the sacred monsters who reared us and from whom our Herbie fathers
could not protect us, but if we’re lucky…we, like Gypsy, discover
that we’re not ugly ducklings, neither male nor female, but powerful
and sexy. …We could enjoy Rose and identify with Louise” (169-70).
Clum points out that the thrice-divorced Rose herself is using
show business as “an escape from dreary routine and domestic entrapment” (169).
Along with the family dynamics and gender-bending of “Boy Louise”,
Gypsy, a backstage musical, is “a dark love song to the musical
theater, nostalgia tinged with irony” (168). Similarly, Mel Brooks’
The Producers (2001), another backstage story and throwback to
the “Golden Age” musical, has nostalgia tinged with satire.
Emotional Expression: The Producers-—Leo blooms!
Now Leo Bloom in The Producers (2001) isn’t gay, but women in his
mind—along with a drag queen in his mind—help express his deep
desires. He hears the “call” of musical theater, which helps him to
break out of his Apollonian workaday world into a Dionysian dream.
The number “I Wanna Be a Producer” starts with a line of seated
male accountants in a drab gray office, singing, “Unhappy, unhappy,
so unhappy, very very very very very very very unhappy!” Like
Gypsy’s Herbie, they are stoop-shouldered masculinity, oppressed by
the job. Leo (played by Matthew Broderick) solos, expressing his
wish to be a Broadway producer, not so much for the artistry but for
power, sex, and prestige: “I wanna be a producer/Lunch at Sardi’s
every day.” Suddenly the tall office file cabinets open up,
releasing a line of six leggy chorus girls in golden outfits—plus a
seventh “girl”, a man dressed as a chorine. Rejected by Leo—“Not
you!”— this hapless gender-bender becomes the prop “mistress” to the
chorus, handing them champagne and glasses as Leo’s joyous fantasy
builds. Back in the “unhappy” office, the now-inspired Leo tells his
boss Mr. Marks, “I quit!” Shucking off safety and respectability and
flying on excitement, Leo dances off with his female fantasy figures
on his way to becoming a theatrical producer.
The Broadway musical gives Leo a vehicle to discover that “there’s
more to me than there is to me!” Once the real self is found, once
the path is chosen, the next step is facing down the growling lions
in the road trying to roar you back into silence.
Social roles: Mame—“Open a new window!”
“Live, live, live!” “Open a New Window!” “Life’s a banquet, and
most poor sons-of-bitches [or suckers, or bastards] are starving to
death!” In Mame (1966), the title character’s credos are battle
cries against the stifling “respectable” life. She even enters the
show blowing a bugle. Mame Dennis’ mission: to expose her recently
orphaned, preteen nephew Patrick to the radical, fun-loving life, to
prevent him from becoming another stuffy, bigoted “Babbitt”. Mame’s
circle of friends includes theater people, Eastern spiritual leaders,
an avant-garde teacher, and runners of speakeasies.
Similar to Herbie’s “I’ll be a man if it kills me!” is the cry of
Dwight Babcock (whom Mame “accidentally” calls “Babbitt”), the banker
who is Patrick’s trustee. Fighting Mame’s iconoclastic influence,
Babcock shouts: “I’m going to turn this kid into a decent, God-
fearing Christian if I have to break every bone in his body."
Yet another testimony to the destructive streak of control-
centered “typical” masculinity, not to mention the calcifying and
brutalizing of what began as a dynamic, radical spiritual movement.
Clum “queers” Mame thus:
In a way, Mame is the gayest of the [songwriter Jerry] Herman shows.
In the gay world of the 1950’s, at least, Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame
always had a gay subtext and a drag potential. Mame was the older
gay man introducing the younger gay man into “the life.” …The world
of Mame is the bohemian world of New York in the twenties and
thirties when a wealthy gay man would likely be a real queen (178).
“Who but queens in the audience,” Clum continues, “could really
appreciate Angela Lansbury [Mame] and baritone Bea Arthur playing
Mame’s sidekick Vera, singing the bitchy ‘Bosom Buddies’ or Bea
Arthur archly singing ‘The Man in the Moon is a Lady,’ both songs
filled with gay argot” (179). Kenrick calls the latter song, with
its over-the-top Ziegfeldish costuming and Mame perched on a shaky
half-moon, “one of the campiest moments in any musical.”
Miller’s “queering” highlights a different gender-bending:
“Whereas Gypsy allotted us a place only in the Star’s necessarily
discarded male past as Boy Louise…Mame, as if mischievously bent on
reversing the notion that every gay man is ‘a woman inside,’ brings
forth a world in which every woman must always seem to be harboring a
gay man, a hidden, but scarcely secret agent who is ready at the drop
of a hairpin to turn her into her own impersonator. …[The book bids
us to] transpose female themes into a gay-male key” (122).
In other words, Mame and Vera, not exactly “total women” revolving
around men, are women as gay men pretending to be women.
The real Patrick Dennis, author of the novel Auntie Mame (1955)
that started all this, is gay, though the Patrick of the stage is
not. “The horror is when Patrick decides to marry into the camp of
the ultimate enemy, suburban straights, whom Mame demolishes in the
greatest scene of the play, film, and musical” (Clum 178). When
Mame’s torch song “If He Walked Into My Life” laments college-age
Patrick’s WASPy betrothal, Clum says the subtext is really that of a
gay “mother” man mourning the surrogate son who turns out straight
and interested in another woman (179).
Mame, partly to shame Patrick out of this marriage, buys the
property next to his fiancée’s parents’ estate as a home for unwed
mothers. (In the nonmusical 1958 film Auntie Mame, it was a home for
orphaned Jewish refugee children.) Patrick ends up marrying an Irish
maid; their son becomes Mame’s new protégé. The woman Mame has
rallied a gaggle of “Others” to assault WASP sensibility.
Dominating “Selves” and theatrical “Others”
“Did you know that the Broadway musical and the
term ‘homosexuality’ were invented almost simultaneously?” Kenrick
asks—that German-Hungarian sexologist Karl Maria Kertbeny coined the
term “homosexuality” in an 1867 pamphlet, published anonymously, and
that The Black Crook, a nearly plotless spectacle of 1866, is
generally considered the first Broadway musical.
Kenrick remarks, “In the world of extremes that was and is the
theater, eccentrics and social outcasts have always had a natural
home.” Many of the “Golden Age” composers, lyricists, librettists,
directors, and choreographers were gay, Jewish, or both. In and
through theater, many “Others” of gender, race, creed, or class can
combine to question the “Self-ishness” of the straight affluent WASP male.
In addition to welcoming so many ethnic and marginalized
contributions, the theater, particularly musical theater, combines
what Nietzsche calls the Apollonian “plastic arts”—visual arts—with
the non-visual Dionysian art of music. Kenrick notes, “The musical
is where all art forms (literature, dance, drama, music, the visual
arts, etc.) come together to form as complete an artistic expression
as Western civilization can lay claim to.” You may say musical
theater is a mixed salad of ethnic, artistic, and personal styles.
Feminine joy, masculine healing
I’m neither gay, Jewish, gypsy, nor white nor male, and my mother
had no basement (I grew up in the projects), but I spent much of my
1960s childhood and 1970s adolescence in her living room singing
along to her Broadway LPs, developing my harmonizing talents. I too
was oversensitive, underappreciated, and marginalized. Today I have
written the libretto and one song lyric to a one-act musical produced
by my church and available on CD.
Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa” states that women’s speech and
writing resonates with “song: first music from the first voice of
love”, a voice apparently connected with “mother”. She adds, “[N]o
woman stockpiles as many defenses for countering the drives as does a
man” (Richter, editor, 1458).
In Yoshido Junko’s analysis, printed in Children’s Literature, of
Robert Cormier’s novel The Chocolate War (1974)—-which I’m currently
musicalizing, libretto and lyrics(as my masters thesis)—-she points
to the novel’s criticism of conventional, power-manipulating
“[A] man who adopts such a masculinity consciously or unconsciously
suppresses his emotions and is therefore dehumanized and
disindividualized (112) …[R]econciling with the feminine is essential
for the rebirth of masculinity (107). …If we consider conventional
masculinity to be wounded by its separation from femininity, Jerry’s
communication with the deep feminine side of his nature seems a
significant step in the healing process” (118).
In recent gay-written nonmusical plays, Kenrick says, musical
theater queens are depicted “with love, rather than derision…as
sources of and promoters of joy.” Kenrick, Clum, and Miller all see
love of musical theater, Broadway divas, and drag as a hidden source
of joy. “It could be that show queens are liberating themselves by
consciously asserting a form of flamboyant theatricality instead of
accepting traditional masculine codes of appearance and behavior.
Reintegrating the show queen could be a means of locating the
possibility of joy” (Clum 39).
The show tune could lead one to reject “pathetically self-canceling
signs of worldly success” for “the truly lavish and jubilant
spectacle of Gay Liberation” (Miller 49). Or of any “Other”
Liberation, I might add.
Kenrick writes, “Yes, I am a musical theater queen. It is more
than just a hobby; it is an energizing, enriching, and integral part
of life. A great musical sets my world glowing, putting the rest of
life in a brighter perspective. For me, life without musicals would
be as dull as life without ice cream, sunsets or warm embraces. One
might be technically alive, but what would be the point?”
Conventional masculinity is exactly what the “boy in the basement”
has been fighting off. Conventional WASP-ishness is what Madame Rose
was fleeing, what Leo rejected, what Mame was shielding Patrick
from. I’m not advocating sex acts between men, nor the shucking of
everything masculine by men. However, conventional straight men can
learn a lot from their gay brothers. The feminine side, the dark
side, the emotional side, the Dionysian side, needs to be loved,
cherished, valued, respected, and embraced as essential to humanity.
The “Broadway Queen” has been loving all this for decades.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” L’Arc, 1975.
Tr. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, 1976. Rpt. in
The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd Edition.
Ed. David H. Richter. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998, pp. 1453-66.
Clum, John M. Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Femia, Tommy. Interview with Jonathan Frank.
Talkin’ Broadway: “Cabaret”. 2000.
Kenrick, John B. Our Love Is Here To Stay: Gays and Musicals.
Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: a Cultural History.
New York: The Free Press, 1996.
Miller, D. A. Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Yoshida Junko. “The Quest for Masculinity in The Chocolate War:
Changing Concepts of Masculinity in the 1970s.”
Children’s Literature: Annual of the Modern Language Association,
Division on Children’s Literature and the Children’s Literature Association.
New Haven: 1998.
Laurents, Arthur (libretto), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jule Styne (music). Gypsy: A Musical.
New York: Theater Communications Group, 1959, 1960.
Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee (libretto), Jerry Herman (songs). Mame.
New York: Random House, 1966, 1967.
The Producers. By Mel Brooks (libretto, songs) and
Thomas Meehan (co-librettist). Dir. Susan Stroman. Perf. Matthew Broderick.
St. James Theater, New York, 14 Sept. 2001.
Title page photo: Bea Arthur and the chorus sing Mame’s
“The Man in the Moon is a Lady”—-one of the campiest moments in
any musical-—John Kenrick, Our Love is Here to Stay.