Thursday 7 May 2015


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 :

Leonard Bernstein
Fred Ebb
Lorenz Hart
Jerry Herman, and
Stephen Sondheim.

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)
“Cabaret” (Ebb)
“Chicago” (Ebb)
“Follies” (Sondheim)
“Gypsy” (Sondheim)
“Hello Dolly” (Herman)
“La Cage Aux Folles” (Herman)
“Mame” (Herman)
“On the Town” (Bernstein)
“Pal Joey” (Hart)
“West Side Story” (Bernstein, Sondheim)

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).

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