The Problematic History of Lesbians in Musical Theater

The lesbian prison guard isn't a character unique to Hairspray and Bad Girls. She's had a long life on Broadway and the West End in the 11-year-old revival of Chicago (Broadway: 1975, 1996; West End: 1976, 1997).

Matron Mama Morton runs the women's prison where the musical's two tabloid-friendly "murderesses" reside. While Mama's sexuality is never stated explicitly, celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn talks to her using the nickname "Butch." Mama's solo outlining her quid pro quo philosophy on prisoner-guard relationships, "When You're Good to Mama," is chock full of same-sex sexual innuendos, such as "When you're strokin' Mama/Mama's strokin' you" and:

They say that life is tit for tat
And that's the way I live.

So I deserve a lot of tat
For what I've got to give.

Mama Morton reflects some of the prejudices of the 1970s, when Chicago was written, and her lesbianism is largely relegated to subtextual and stereotypical innuendos. But Mama, while shallow and stereotypical, narrowly avoids offensiveness: Her exploitative tendencies are no worse than those of any other character in the musical. But the lesbian characters in Legally Blonde and Hairspray have no such excuse. They traffic in the same tired lesbian stereotypes as musicals that hit the stage decades ago.

One of the earliest musicals that showed an explicit romantic connection between two women was Aspects of Love, which appeared on the West End in 1989 and on Broadway a year later. Rose (Ann Crumb) and Giuletta (Kathleen Rowe McAllen), the two primarily heterosexual female leads, shared a kiss and possibly more (depending on the hopefulness of your imagination).

However, their kiss occurred partially for the benefit of George, Rose's husband and Giuletta's lover. In addition, their dalliance was one short moment in a show focused on their numerous love affairs with men.

The lesbian clichés don't stop at women kissing for the exhibitionist thrill of it. All of the familiar favorites have graced the stage in the past 20 years. Grand Hotel (Broadway: 1989, West End: 1992) depicted a lesbian's futile love for a straight woman. The song "How Can I Tell Her?" sung by Raffaela (Karen Akers) about her employer, the aging ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Liliane Montevecchi), is perhaps Broadway's first unrequited lesbian love song.

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