Happy Pride Month! Theatre has long been a place of welcome, embracing and celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community. Theatre is an environment where creativity thrives, where seeing the world from a unique perspective can be a positive advantage. Gender fluid casting has even seen Toby Marlow step into Catherine Parr’s shoes as one of the SIX wives of Henry VIII. Join us as we explore Theatre’s Most Iconic LGBTQIA+ Moments!
The Canterbury Tales
If you studied Chaucer at school, you’re probably still traumatised by Middle English. But decode the archaic language and you’ll find, amongst others, The Pardoner’s Tale. The Pardoner is described by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Prologue – “I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare”. Referring to the character’s effeminacy, it’s unlikely Chaucer used this phrase as a compliment. Even so, it’s our earliest evidence for an LGBTQIA+ character in English Literature. Chaucer’s characters are all colourful – drunken, debauched and not averse to some medieval rumpy-pumpy. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales last visited the West End in 2006, produced by the RSC at the Gielgud Theatre.
Christopher (Kit) Marlowe’s sexuality has been much debated. Scholars point towards LGBTQIA+ influences in much of this Shakespeare-contemporary’s writing. There is no better evidence for that in his play Edward II, which focuses on the relationship between England’s 14th Century king and his favourite, Piers Gaveston. A 1970 production broadcast on the BBC and starring Ian McKellen featured the first ever gay kiss broadcast on British television.
Cross-dressing was surprisingly common in the Elizabethan era. All Shakespeare’s female characters were played by men, with women not permitted on stage until long after Shakespeare’s death. That lends a whole other layer of confusion in the land of Illyria, the setting for Twelfth Night. There, the play’s central character Viola adopts male attire, creating much confusion for her fellow characters. The ‘Period of Misrule’ to which Twelfth Night’s title refers, creates a world where gender is illusory. Sexuality is fluid. It also contains Shakespeare’s most overtly LGBTQIA+ storyline – the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian. In the following clip we see Olivia (Mark Rylance) and Malvolio (Stephen Fry) in the Globe’s 2012 production.
This may seem a surprising (and controversial) entry. The story of Martha Jane Cannary, has been told many times on film. Most famously, starring Doris Day as fearless pioneer of the Wild West frontier, Calamity Jane. A stage version came to the Shaftesbury Theatre in 2003 starring Toyah Wilcox. Whilst sparce evidence exists for Martha Jane Cannary’s sexuality, her preference for dressing in male clothing warrants her inclusion in our LGBTQIA+ pantheon. The film itself contains the song “Secret Love”. This has long been considered a love song to the LGBTQIA+ community. In the musical, Calamity has a crush on Second Lieutenant Gilmartin. However she seems happiest setting up home with Katie Brown.
A Chorus Line
Once Broadway’s longest running show, A Chorus Line tells the story of dancers auditioning to be in the chorus of a Broadway show. The characters were all based on real-life interviews with Broadway dancers. The most moving of all is Paul’s story, which still brings a lump to the throat after 50 years. It’s just one reason this magnificent musical is so important to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Torch Song Trilogy
Torch Song Trilogy is a three part play by Harvey Fierstein. Comprising International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First! The story revolves around gay, Jewish drag queen Arnold Beckoff’s life in 1970s/80s New York. Torch Song Trilogy premiered at the Richard Allen Center in 1981. Starring alongside Fierstein were Matthew Broderick and Estelle Getty (Sophia in TV’s The Golden Girls). The stage show was revived in 2012 at the Menier Chocolate Factory with David Bedella playing Arnold. Its opening monologue is one of theatre’s Most Iconic LGBTQIA+ Moments.
Hello, Dolly! is notable for one reason alone – Danny La Rue. Danny was already famous for his drag persona when he was cast in the title role of Jerry Herman’s musical masterpiece in 1982. At the time, Danny kept his own LGBTQIA+ identity hidden, which seems remarkable today. Times certainly have changed.
La Cage Aux Folles
In 1983, a show opened on Broadway that would change history. For the first time, a major musical featured a gay couple at the heart of the story. Based on the 1973 play by Jean Poiret, Albin and Georges run a drag nightclub in St Tropez. Everything is fine until their son falls in love with the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician. Though La Cage closed in London after just 301 performances, its legacy changed LGBTQIA+ theatre forever. George Hearn’s I Am What I Am is truly one of Theatre’s Most Iconic LGBTQIA+ Moments.
Kiss of the Spiderwoman
When Kander & Ebb’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman was first workshopped in New York, it was savaged by critics. Fortunately, this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel El Beso de la Mujer Araña lived on. Spiderwoman tells the story of Luis Alberto Molina, sentenced to eight years in a brutal Argentinian prison for his homosexuality. One day, a new man is brought to Molina’s cell – political prisoner Valentin Arregui Paz. At first, Valentin detests Molina, but in time, the two men form an unlikely friendship. To survive prison’s brutality, Molina invents the enigmatic diva Aurora – The Spider Woman. After opening in Toronto, the musical had a West End premier at the Shaftesbury Theatre. It then transferred to Broadway where it won multiple Tony awards. These included wins for its three stars, Anthony Crivello, Brent Carver and Chita Rivera – confounding those early critics!
Falsettos is a musical with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Finn and James Lapine. It combines March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990), two of three one-act off-Broadway musicals. The story revolves around Marvin, who leaves his wife to be with his male lover, Whizzer. The show has central themes of Jewish faith, gender identity and gay relationships in the 1970s & 1980s. Premiering on Broadway in 1992, it was most recently seen in the UK at the Other Palace. One of the show’s best numbers is reserved for Marvin’s long-suffering wife.
Angels in America
Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Tony Kushner’s 1991/1992 two-part play is a complex examination of AIDS and homosexuality in America in the 1980s. Rich in metaphor and symbolism, Angels in America was adapted into a mini-series for HBO. It was most recently revived in London at the National Theatre, starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield. We’ve borrowed a truly magnificent moment from the HBO version. Rest assured, the stage version is full of Theatre’s Most Iconic LGBTQIA+ Moments too.
If you’ve seen Tick Tick Boom! on Netflix, you already know a little of what makes Rent so special. Written by Jonathan Larson (played in Tick Tick Boom! by Andrew Garfield), the show opened on the night that Larson was found dead. Larson never got to enjoy the success of the show he created. Based on La Boheme, the show follows the lives of New York creatives, struggling to make lives under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. Uplifting, joyous and heart-breaking, the relationship between Angel and Tom Collins has to be one of Theatre’s Most Iconic LGBTQIA+ relationships. And they’re not the only same sex couple in Rent…
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
With music and lyrics by Stephen Trask and a book by John Cameron Mitchell. This genderqueer rock musical follows Hedwig Robinson, singer of a fictional rock band. First showcased in 1994 on NYC’s drag-punk scene, Mitchell maintains that Hedwig is not a trans woman. “She’s more than a woman or a man…She’s a gender of one and that is accidentally so beautiful.” Not only is Hedwig and the Angry Inch one of Theatre’s Most Iconic LGBTQIA+ Moments, it’s the closest we have to all of those letters in one character!
Boy George’s now-legendary stage musical tells the story of a group of larger-than-life characters who frequent the 1980s nightclub Taboo. Created by performance artist Leigh Bowery, the club attracted names from across the pop-spectrum. They included Steve Strange, Marilyn, and Boy George himself. The story focuses on Billy, a handsome young photographer who escapes into a world of new romantics, punks, and soho clubs. Featuring a spectrum of LGBTQIA+ characters, Taboo doesn’t shy away from portraying the darker side of London’s club and drug scene. A greater critical success than the earlier Pet Shop Boys/Jonathan Harvey musical Closer to Heaven. The show featured a young actor by the name Luke Evans.
Based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, Hairspray is a celebration of acceptance and difference. Waters is a great supporter of Pride and LGBTQIA+ equality, and that comes through in all his characters. Add to the mix the gender-swap casting of Edna Turnblad. Edna was played by Divine in the original movie, Harvey Fierstein and Michael Ball on stage, and John Travolta in the musical on film. Even without LGBTQIA+ characters, Hairspray still qualifies as one of Theatre’s Most Iconic LGBTQIA+ Moments. It’s just so open-hearted.
Fun Home is a coming-of-age story for a young gay woman. The musical is adapted from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, with a score by Jeanine Tesori and book/lyrics by Lisa Kron. Fun Home tells Bechdel’s story of sexual discovery and her relationship with her own gay father. Remarkably, Fun Home was the first Broadway musical to ever feature a lesbian protagonist as its central character.
Cyndi Lauper’s musical version of 2005 British film Kinky Boots premiered in Chicago in 2012 before transferring to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway. Inspired by true events, the musical tells the tale of Charlie Price who inherits a shoe factory from his father. With the business in freefall, Charlie is thrown a lifeline when he meets Lola, a drag queen. With Charlie needing to save his business and Lola needing high-heeled boots, the two strike up a bond. Soon, business becomes friendship – although not without complications. That is, until Charlie and Lola discover that they have more in common than they think.
Long before it was a Netflix movie, The Prom was a Broadway show. With music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin and book by Beguelin and Bob Martin, the story follows four fading Broadway actors who travel to Edgewater, Indiana, to help a lesbian student banned from bringing her girlfriend to their high school Prom. There are definite similarities to Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. After Fun Home, It’s refreshing to see another young female protagonist taking centre stage in Theatre’s Most Iconic LGBTQIA+ Moments.
CURRENT LGBTQIA+ SHOWS
If you’re looking for the perfect way to celebrate Pride, check out these absolutely fabulous shows featuring LGBTQIA+ characters:
Who needs Romeo anyway? Juliet decides that killing herself over a fling probably isn’t the smartest move. Starting a new life, she heads off to Paris with nurse in tow. This empowering new musical features the music of Max Martin and a genius script by Schitt’s Creek writer David West Read.
Come From Away
The heart-warming tale of air passengers from around the world unexpectedly turned immigrants in a small town in Newfoundland. When 9/11 attacks shut down the entire US airspace, the small town of Gander finds itself playing host to thousands of new arrivals – this is their remarkable story.
Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch
This subversive take on The Little Mermaid explores the much-maligned character of Ursula. Released from the constraints of her ‘Disney Witch’ role, Ursula is free to break gender norms, bitch about other characters and generally do what the hell she wants in this hilarious parody of Disney’s classic movie.
We only had time to highlight a few of our favourite LGBTQIA+ moments. From The Boys in the Band to The Inheritance, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert to The Normal Heart, there are just so many important pieces worthy of inclusion in Theatre’s Most Iconic LGBTQIA+ Moments. Which moments would you have included?
Fancy being Queen for a day? Then check out our Henry VIII Six Quiz: Which royal wife are you?