The Problematic History of Lesbians in Musical Theater


Like The Color Purple, Rent features a prominent — but not central — lesbian relationship between Maureen (Idina Menzel) and Joanne (Fredi Walker). When the show opens, performance artist Maureen has recently dumped her boyfriend to be with Joanne. Maureen and Joanne's relationship is fraught with jealousy and dysfunction, and Joanne spends most of the show worried that the fickle Maureen will leave her.

The couple finally reaches understanding in the song "Take Me or Leave Me," perhaps the first musicalization of dyke drama. The song begins with Maureen's exasperated exclamation to Joanne, "There will always be women in rubber flirting with me!"

No way, can I be what I'm not.
But hey, don't you want your girl hot?
Oh, don't fight, don't lose your head,
'Cause every night, who's in your bed?

The lesbian relationship is not one of the most loving or romantic in the show. But it is completely normalized and accepted.

While The Color Purple and Rent are more progressive in their depiction of lesbians than the average Hollywood film or network television show, they don't balance out three other recent and popular Broadway musicals that delight in rehashing the oldest and most persistent lesbian stereotypes.

Most recently, the musical adaptation of Legally Blonde (Broadway: 2007) transforms the film's strong, intelligent and political lesbian law student Enid (Natalie Joy Johnson on Broadway) into a walking, talking, singing lesbian stereotype. In contrast to the beautiful (and straight) heroine, Elle, Enid is overweight and has no fashion sense, sporting Converse sneakers with a frumpy pantsuit.

New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley described her as "routinely the object of the show's most unsavory jokes." In a musical in which fashion and appearance reflect a character's inner worth, this depiction is flat-out offensive.

The musical Hairspray (Broadway: 2002, West End: 2007), despite its drag queen mother and queer sensibility, also reduces lesbians to comedy gags. Two bit characters, the lecherous lesbian gym teacher (of course) and the lecherous lesbian prison guard (both played by Jackie Hoffman), provide comic relief at lesbians' expense.

With only one scene each and lines such as "All right girls, who wants to take a shower? Extra credit!" the two characters are undeveloped and totally disconnected from the story lines in the musical. They simply exist to be laughed at.

Some critics argue that campy musicals like Hairspray deserve leeway for their comedic stereotypes. Some theatergoers — including lesbians — have found the gym teacher and prison guard to be a total scream, particularly as performed by Hoffman, a lesbian favorite. But in the hands of the less well-known, less gay-friendly actresses who have replaced Hoffman, the role veers into mean-spiritedness.

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