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Why so gay?

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In many West End and Broadway musicals you will find the obligatory ‘Gay Character’- this role is normally small, a side kick, a kooky friend and nearly always very effeminate. The role is normally comedy relief, they may get a rousing number which will have the audience in stitches, but why are these characters ‘so’ gay?

For those who don’t know I’m the co owner and in house co writer and director of Vertigo Theatre Productions in Manchester. We open all of our shows at Taurus in the heart of Manchester’s gay village, having gay themed plays or gay characters in our shows is second nature but with our recent play an interesting discussion came up with my co owner and co writer. 

In our new play Something Sinister the two lead roles are gay characters that have all the money in the world and everything they could ever want, they also happen to be sociopaths who murder their best friend for the thrill of the kill. These characters are gay but it’s not played as a gay storyline, they just happen to be gay.

When we started work on this my co writer asked me “do we really want to represent gay people this way?", I remember thinking it was an odd statement but as we spoke more I understood where she was coming from. She went on to say that many straight people who may not spend time around gay people etc. are influenced about what/who gay people are by what they see and read in the media. 

If people watched our show who thought that way would they see the actions, the predatory nature of our two lead characters as being something of a reflection on gay culture? Will it make them uncomfortable? In theatre, especially musical theatre this is not how gay people are represented?

In shows like Legally Blonde, The Wedding Singer, Priscilla, Taboo, and La Cage you would be hard pressed to find a gay character that is represented as masculine. We see tight shirts, vest tops, glitter and feathers and the audience love it.  However what if in musicals we saw a gay character in the lead role as masculine, sexual etc. would that turn some audiences away?

Of course plays seem to be a different thing, gay representation in straight theatre is quite wide and has been for awhile now, from Torch Song Trilogy to Angels in America to the recent Caretakers at the Library and the show we produced in 2008 and 2009 Dog Sees God

I still can’t help thinking  though  that it would be nice to see a play or musical where the gay characters were just gay without the drama or even a gay storyline, where we just know that the character is gay and that’s it, that his/her storyline was not sexuality related just like in real life. Being gay myself my sexuality only represents one side of me, it does not define who I am or my existence so why should it in the world of theatre, TV and Film?

I don’t take any offence to the over the top gay stereotyping in musicals at all, if done well its fun, the song Gay or European in Legally Blonde is a riot even though it goes through every gay stereotype to determine if a character is in fact gay or European (waxed chests, pointy toed shoes, hair styles, clothes etc). It may be in LB we find the answer. For decades now gay characters have been represented as I said earlier as comedy relief, a moment in a show where the audience can understand the joke. Blonde would show us however that having a moment like that is a guaranteed bring down the house moment, many of the critics commented on how funny that song was, and it is.  So why fix what’s not broken?

It would seem that if in commercial musical theatre a gay character is present it needs to be somebody safe, fun, light and none threatening, somebody who audiences would love because they know what to expect. 

A straight friend of mine hated the musical Taboo on Broadway because they thought moments where the Leigh Bowery character was talking about sleeping with all different kinds of men and many other moments in the show could be seen as sexually aggressive where to ‘in your face’, yet he loves Legally Blonde and finds the Gay or European scene hysterical.  So it would seem that as long it’s kept light its fine, but when it shows gay characters in a more aggressive manner it can in fact turn some people away.

It’s a shame but it’s understandable, I don’t think it has anything to do with homophobia at all (this is not that kind of column) but in fact it does have more to do with the safe way that gay people have been represented for so long in musical theatre and what audiences are wanting to see because of that representation.

So what do you guys think huh, are gay people represented correctly in musical theatre? Give me your opinion, examples etc.

Till next time.
- Craig Hepworth

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