I’ve never been one to approve of gay stereotypes, but it has to be said that the old 20th-century euphemism “he likes musical theatre” when implying a man’s sexuality is too strong to ignore. It’s no secret that there were a lot of gay men in the entertainment world – singers, dancers and chorus boys on stages all over the world. In one of my “Coded Lives” articles in March I explained how a gay subculture developed in the UK theatre that made use of its own variation of a type of slang called polari.
It has been said that many
gay men found musical theatre (and later the film versions) appealing because
they found some affinity with some of the themes and leading characters in
major musicals, whether it was Dorothy wanting to go “Over the Rainbow”, or
Calamity Jane singing about her “Secret Love”.
As America celebrates its
Jewish heritage this month it seems appropriate to look at the American Jewish
lgbt songwriters and their musicals, and come to realise just how major their
contribution has been to musical theatre and to lgbt culture alike.
Many of the iconic gay
anthems have come from the pens of Jewish composers and lyricists. For the
purpose of today’s article I’ll just concentrate on what may be described as
the “classic” musical era of the 20th century. Among the most famous
American lgbt Jewish musical writers have been :
Jerry Herman, and
Between them these men
have been responsible for some of the biggest musicals and subsequent film
versions there has ever been. Here are just a few :
“Babes in Arms” (Hart)
“Hello Dolly” (Herman)
“La Cage Aux Folles”
“On the Town” (Bernstein)
“Pal Joey” (Hart)
“West Side Story”
Most of these musicals
have provided one or more anthem or iconic song for the gay community. I’m sure
you have your own favourite from among this list, or even one that I haven’t
space to include. Speaking of which : one of my own personal favourite
musicals, and one which is underrated in the lgbt community, is one by Stephen
Sondheim (it’s also the only stage musical I’ve ever dreamt of being in) – “A
Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”.
I fell in love with this
musical when I was a teenager and saw it on television for the first time.
Until then I thought musicals were all the same, the typical American song and
dance musical, not that I thought there was anything wrong with that but that
it would have been nice to see something different, and "Forum" was different. Subsequently I’ve seen live
productions of the musical. I wish it was popular enough for a “Sing-along-a-”
format like “The Sound of Music” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show”. (Advance
warning: “Forum” will return later in the year in my “Around the World in 80
Gays” series where it provides the middle link between an art-loving Cardinal
and the space shuttle.)
I’d also like to add
another name to the list of Jewish lgbt musical writers – Howard Ashman. He is
best remembered for his lyrics for the Disney classic cartoons “The Little
Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin”. But he is also responsible for
the lyrics to the classic, almost cult, stage musical “Little Shop of Horrors”.
There are many more Jewish
lgbt musical theatre writers who have contributed more recent anthems and
iconic show tunes to lgbt culture. For now, let’s celebrate all the Jewish
composers, librettists, lyricists and writers from the lgbt community who have
encouraged us all to declare fearlessly to the world “I Am What I Am” (from “La
Cage Aux Folles”, words and music by Jerry Herman).