The Problematic History of Lesbians in Musical Theater

For an even more infuriating lesbian stereotype — the lesbian who just needs a good man — look no further than the notorious flop Nick & Nora (Broadway: 1991), a musical murder mystery where the lesbian murder victim (Lorraine Bixby, played by Faith Prince) is seduced by her male boss. She later laments the affair in a cringe-worthy song, "Men":

He would call

I would come

On his floor

On his desk.

A handful of other musicals have avoided these types of clichés, but their lesbian characters and relationships lack depth or passion — and often both. Falsettos (Broadway: 1992), a musical that focused on a gay male couple, also included a demure lesbian couple (Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, played by Heather MacRae and Carolee Carmello).

This couple was a first — the first lesbian couple in a musical on Broadway. But they were also “safe lesbians,” providing comic relief as well as emotional support for the male leads.

More recently, The Wild Party (Broadway: 2000) included a lesbian couple (Madelaine and Sally, played by Jayne Summerhays and Sally Murphy) as equal participants in the show's 1920s debauchery. Progress, yes, but the two characters blended into the background, minor parts of a larger ensemble.

With all these shallow, ill-conceived portrayals of lesbians, it's natural to ask why we aren't seeing more lesbian characters and relationships that offer depth and complexity. The answer is the same for musicals as it is for television and film: economic and creative interests.

Mounting a show on Broadway or the West End is expensive — and rarely profitable. Most Broadway shows lose money, so writers and producers try to appeal to the broadest possible audience in hopes of achieving mega-hit status. Hitting it big is the only way to survive, which explains the old Broadway adage, "You can't make a living, but you can make a killing."

These extreme financial pressures may be one reason for the other factor: Few lesbian characters appear in musicals because few lesbians write mainstream musicals. There may simply be a lack of lesbians who have the desire or talent write musicals. Or it may be that producers are unwilling to risk $10 or $15 million on female writers.

Some regional or small productions of musicals, such as Zanna, Don't! and The Break-Up Notebook: The Lesbian Musical, have focused on lesbian characters. These smaller shows fill a void, but with total audience attendance numbering at most in the tens of thousands, they lack the cultural impact of Broadway and West End musicals, which are seen by theatergoers in the tens of millions worldwide.

Bad Girls: The Musical, with its lesbian producers and creative team, has risen above these challenges and excuses that have kept prominent, well-developed lesbian characters offstage throughout the history of musical theater.

As Helen and Nikki take their bows, lesbians will be rising from their seats cheering. The question that remains is whether a show featuring a complex, satisfying lesbian romance can draw crowds for months or even years. Because only if Bad Girls: The Musical is a certified hit will it inspire other shows to take similar risks and change the future for lesbians onstage.

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