What’s Next for the Great Gay Play? Everything.
I don’t know whether it was because my parents were just generally open-minded, or because they had a specific, kindly yet mortifying agenda, but one of the first Broadway plays they took me to, in June of 1977, was way too gay for comfort. It was about the closeted son of a Philadelphia family who returns from his fancy New England college to spend the summer at home — which is exactly what I was at that moment.
At least the play — “Gemini,” by Albert Innaurato — was a comedy, full of hilarious distractions from its overriding and (for me) cringy subject: the struggle of the college student, Francis, to accept his sexual orientation so that his kin might do so as well.
Guess what? He succeeds! As, a few years later, did I.
Indeed, so many of us did in the ensuing years that you will barely find agonized Francises, at least not privileged white ones, onstage anymore. The first phases of the gay play, crucial in their moment, which broadly speaking encompassed the second half of the 20th century, are over. The spotlight has passed from that narrow band of the L.G.B.T.Q. rainbow, and the specific drama of coming out, to a much wider and wilder journey into the heart of queerness and beyond.
This is not a journey you would expect mainstream theater to take until well after the destination had been agreed upon in the larger culture. Producers mostly swim behind the wave of consensus, not ahead of it. But in the last year, Broadway and Off Broadway have offered a flood of new works that would have been unrecognizable, in form, content and acclaim, to me and Francis in 1977 — and may still surprise people on both sides of the culture wars.
Some, like the musicals “& Juliet” and “Some Like It Hot,” explore nonbinary identity. Some, like “A Strange Loop” and “Fat Ham,” dramatize how the experience of racism amplifies that of homophobia, and vice versa.
Others defy expectations by making sexual orientation a distinctly secondary concern among characters who “happen to be” gay or lesbian, as in “A Case for the Existence of God” and “At the Wedding.” In another pair, “I’m Revolting” and “You Will Get Sick,” that concern isn’t even secondary, but tertiary to the point of near invisibility. You could almost call them post-queer.
Not that the characters in any of these shows waste much time agonizing about identity; they agonize only about what they can and can’t do with it. The most surprising example may be Jerry in “Some Like It Hot,” a bass player who outruns a mob hit by dressing as a woman and joining an all-girl band. In the 1959 Billy Wilder movie on which the musical is based, drag is a punchline; Jerry’s new alias, Daphne, is funny because it seems ludicrous attached to someone with a five o’clock shadow. Now, though still funny, it’s no longer ludicrous but moving. It’s a door swinging open on self-discovery.
The musical’s book, by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin, makes Jerry’s journey to Daphne the joyful spine of the story, and it’s such a strong one that the other characters — including Jerry’s bandmate, Joe, whose drag is a mere expedience — are emotionally upstaged. It’s no accident that the nonbinary performer J. Harrison Ghee, who plays Daphne, gets the final bow. On Broadway, a character who in many parts of the country might encounter violent hatred instead gets a standing ovation.
That was already true as long ago as 1983, when the musical “La Cage aux Folles” argued, rather strenuously, that drag is a family value. But the novelty and success of queer characters no longer depends on their angst, their fabulousness or even their centrality to the story.
Take May, for example, a nonbinary friend of the heroine in “& Juliet.” In a jukebox musical set to songs by the pop whisperer Max Martin, May is obviously going to sing, by hook or crook, Britney Spears’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” while pondering exactly where on the gender spectrum feels right. But May is carefully positioned as just one part of a party of liberation. When a (male) love interest enters the picture, and they sing Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” as a duet, you feel something new has happened, as controversy melts into a blissful cloud of nonbinary bubble gum.
This is the equalizing, homogenizing influence of pop culture at work — an influence that some queer people understandably mistrust. But musicals, built on ensembles and choral singing, inevitably make groups out of individuals; the confetti cannon aims equally at us all. Thus, though the cast of “& Juliet” is notably diverse, the subject of race never comes up in David West Read’s clever book for the show. In most feel-good musicals, two defining traits per character is already one too many.
There are exceptions, of course; in “Some Like It Hot,” three of the leads, including Daphne, are Black, and their Blackness explicitly echoes the queer story. Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” goes further, making the cross-pollination of identity the prime source of its conflict, as the main character confronts both the homophobia of his Black family and the racism of his queer one. (One of the songs is called “Exile in Gayville.”) The production, which closed Sunday, even built intersectionality into a marketing tagline, calling itself “the big, Black, and queer-ass Great American Musical for all.”
Of those several identities, the only one “A Strange Loop” seems to feel optimistic about is the last: “Great American Musical.” (It did win the Pulitzer Prize.) Its body, race and orientation issues are left in a kind of stalemate that suggests what might happen if a foundational gay play like “The Boys in the Band” (which had only one Black character) were multiplied in fun house mirrors ad infinitum. Today, complexity is not only politically but dramatically correct.
That was borne out by another Pulitzer winner, James Ijames’s “Fat Ham,” which ran at the Public Theater last spring and transfers to Broadway in March. The title alludes to its jumping-off point: It’s a version of “Hamlet” set in the barbecue belt. That the Hamlet figure, called Juicy, is Black and gay, with an intermittent crush on a Laertes-like friend, suggests that the queer theme will dominate, yet it doesn’t; “Fat Ham” is really a play about Black masculinity and, even more broadly, the violent inheritance all men must renounce. For Juicy, queerness may be a temporary problem, but for Ijames it’s a long-term solution.
That solution — a world that valorizes a self-proclaimed “big ole sissy” like Juicy — suggests the surprising perspective of many recent plays. Which isn’t to say that the pickled self-loathing of “The Boys in the Band” has no place in our new queer dramaturgy.
Take Carlo, the main character in Bryna Turner’s “At the Wedding.” In some ways a lesbian version of those men from 1968, she hilariously cuts down anyone who crosses her, leaving a trail of havoc in her wake. But the brilliance of the play, in which Carlo crashes her ex’s wedding — to a man, no less — is that it builds its undertow of pathos from the fact that she is now an extreme outlier, refusing to get with the integrationist, every-choice-is-valid program. She may have a boy’s name, but she has no band.
My other favorite queer plays of the past year likewise offer no bands; their gay characters (there are still far too few lesbian ones) operate as if their gayness were mostly internal and completely irrelevant. In Samuel D. Hunter’s heartbreaking “A Case for the Existence of God,” that turns out to be an illusion, as a gay Black man, after fostering a little girl for more than three years, finds his plan to adopt her undone at the last minute. Do you have to wonder why?
The questionable idea that queer identities are like freckles — meaningless if perhaps appealing circumstances of birth — reaches its logical extreme in Gracie Gardner’s “I’m Revolting” and Noah Diaz’s “You Will Get Sick,” two plays about illness. “I’m Revolting” centers on a 19-year-old college student who is getting treatment for her skin cancer. “You Will Get Sick” concerns a man who has a disease that goes unnamed but that resembles multiple sclerosis. If there are subtle ways in which their sexual identities affect their character or behavior, they were too subtle for me; miss a line or two and you may not even know that gayness is a part of their makeup at all.
That makes sense in plays about crises that threaten to obliterate a person entirely: gender, race, orientation and all. Even so, the increasing independence of queer characters from their communities, and more radically from their queerness itself, is a fascinating development, producing, in me, a whipsaw of emotions: pride, relief, regret, concern. Pride and relief because full visibility and unapologetic citizenship are after all what the landmark works of the old queer theater, culminating with the oracular “Angels in America” in 1991, prepared us to want. We got there; we don’t have to fight so hard, you’re used to us — thus the relief.
And yet who is this “we”? The truth is that only some of us got there. Francis, the closeted college student in “Gemini,” probably did; if he lived through AIDS, I expect he achieved full five-star gay privilege, complete with marriage, children and Crate & Barrel cheese boards. I know I did.
But — here comes the regret and concern — what of those boys in the band? (Five of the nine original cast members died of AIDS.) What about the gay characters who, lacking white skin, almost never appeared on commercial stages in those supposed great gay play decades? What about queer people in so many parts of the country and the world, where coming out actually remains a traumatic and often dangerous experience?
So don’t be fooled by what you see, or don’t see, onstage. We’re still here, and we’re expanding.