Into the spotlight

A brief history of gay theatre

By Jacqui Theobald

Three years ago this column looked at a 500-year history of gay plays both subtle and bold, going back to the 19th century. It included Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 “Edward II” and its “homosexual implications,” and “A Florida Enchantment”—the first time two women kissed on a Broadway stage in 1896. Ice water was served at intermission in case audience members were feeling faint.

More recently, LGBT issues are mainstream news, and while plays on the topic may cause some individual concern for various reasons, they are no longer hush-hush.

Among those previously noted “The Boys in the Band,” “Torch Song Trilogy,” “The Nance,” “The Normal Heart,” “Rent.” Always necessary to acknowledge again is the heavyweight, “Angels in America.” Many are periodically seen in revival, revered as well they should. On the shoulders of these works and their playwrights stand the more recent efforts.

Right now in New York a play about Oscar Wilde, by David Hare, looks at the brilliant playwright’s life, including before and after his famous trial for homosexuality, chronicled in “Gross Indecency.” Hare’s play, “The Judas Kiss” supposes Wilde has survived his imprisonment and hard labor and imagines he reunites with his self-serving young lover, Bosie. Actor Rupert Everett, openly gay, feels a deep empathy for Wilde. The actor says, “He was crucified by society, and then through that crucifixion, became immortal.” The creator of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” remains renowned for his skill, but his life ended tragically, too young at 46. Everett called it a riches-to-rags story.

Not all LGBT plays have such emotional drama, but nearly always there is an underlying depth, an element of melancholy or self-examination.

Also opening in New York in mid-May are two seemingly lighter pieces, described in The New Yorker. In the first, “A Better Place,” Evan Bergman directs Wendy Beckett’s comedy presented by the Directors Company about a gay New York couple obsessed with their neighbor’s real estate.

“Sperm Hood,” by Mike Albo (“The Junket”) recounts his experience trying to make a baby with a lesbian couple, it’s his new one-man show, directed by David Schweizer.

Kevin Moore, artistic producing director of the professional Human Race Theatre Company reminded me of several big Broadway hits of the past few years with different aspects of the LGBT themes.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Musical opened Off-Broadway in 1998 and ran for two years, winning numerous awards. In 2014 it hit Broadway for the first time, running for about a year and a half, winning a Tony as Best Revival of a Musical. During that interval it had various productions all over the world and garnered more prizes.

The story moves from East Germany to Junction City, Kansas to New York, definitely transgender as Hedwig becomes a drag queen. The music helps clarify the twists. It was advertised as a “raucous, raunchy, edgy and wildly funny rock musical.” Neil Patrick Harris starred in the 2014 revival.

Making sexy, adequately supported shoes for drag queens is the focus of Kinky Boots that takes place in an old failing conventional shoe factory. The longtime workers are angry about the changes. It was written by Harvey Fierstein, with music by Cyndi Lauper, her first effort at composing for Broadway. It opened over three years ago and continues now in mid-2016, having won many awards.

Not everything has been high energy, extreme production values. Both musicals and straight plays have touched hearts and taken realistic looks at many sides of LGBT lives.

Fun Home, a musical that opened a year ago at Circle in the Square is based on the memoir of graphic artist Alison Bechdel. It’s gotten rave reviews for the sensitivity with which it examines the life and family of this woman, with three different actors depicting her as a child, as a college student at Oberlin as she discovers her sexual preference, and then as a 40-something asking, “Who are these people who made me?” It’s from a 2005 film.

Among the non-musicals, “Mothers and Sons” is a sensitive examination of a mother’s coming to grips with the reality of having a gay son, losing him to AIDS and traveling to visit the son’s former partner many years later. She finds him in a new and stable relationship, with an adopted child. The terrific Tyne Daly starred in the Terrence McNally play in 2013. It was a beautiful, sensitive theatre piece this writer was privileged to see.

Opening about a year ago in New York was yet another musical was called It Shoulda Been You. The plot centered on a wedding and the expected characters and conflicts. Perhaps unexpected is the eventual revelation; the bride and the maid of honor are a couple as are the groom and the best man. Trust fund issues cause the deception. It got mixed reviews.

The Color Purple and The Full Monty have significant LGBT issues, but aren’t the main focus.

Moore muses, “Gay characters in shows are more accepted now, and are much more usual, as are LGBT themes. We first think of the quality of a show. As far as considering a play for our season, I look for a good story, not a particular ethnicity or theme.”

In only three years many attitudes as well as laws, including same-sex marriage, have changed.

Life is often influenced by art.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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