Recent Broadway revivals of “Angels in America,” “M. Butterfly,” “The Boys in the Band” and “Torch Song”— shows dealing with the gay experience — have attracted star power, awards and attention. Earlier this year, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s acclaimed Broadway debut, “Choir Boy,” focused on a charismatic gay youth who runs into trouble at his boarding school.
This season looks just as bountiful. Matthew Lopez’s six-hour-long “The Inheritance” is coming to New York after a London run that earned it comparisons to “Angels,” while “Take Me Out,” Richard Greenberg’s study of a baseball player’s coming out, is scheduled to return 17 years after it won the Tony Award for best play.
Wait, let me rephrase for maximum accuracy: It’s the gay-male experience we’re talking about. Lesbians are more elusive on America’s premier stages.
And last season wasn’t even that bad for us, considering that aside from Maureen and Joanne from “Rent,” lesbians are usually relegated to the supporting ranks, like the friendly neighbors in “Falsettos.”
Let’s rewind — it won’t take long.
We’ve had a teenager fighting for her right to bring her girlfriend to the titular event in the very funny musical “The Prom,” and a princess falling in love with her lady-in-waiting in the underrated Go-Go’s jukebox show, “Head Over Heels.”
Those productions followed in the footsteps of “Fun Home” (a lesbian coming-of-age story that devotes quite a bit of stage time to the heroine’s closeted father); “The Color Purple” (whose Sapphic content hinges on the way the show is directed and performed); and “Indecent” (which is partly about a real-life lesbian kiss that was the smooch of death for a 1920s Broadway show).
Grasping at straws, some theatergoers are projecting feels onto Janis in “Mean Girls” (an art nerd who’s not officially straight), Princess Elsa from “Frozen” (single, alienated) and Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird” (wears overalls).
The recent supersize Pride celebrations allowed me to see work I had somehow never managed to catch. At the five-day “Pride Plays” reading series, which featured an equal number of gay and lesbian works, I finally saw a live version of Jane Chambers’s 1980 weepie “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove,” which is just as good, if not better, than Terrence McNally’s similarly themed “Love! Valour! Compassion!” (The McNally play won a Tony; “Bluefish Cove” has never been on Broadway. One senses a pattern.)
A curator with a good sense of humor had even programmed on the same day the Five Lesbian Brothers’ “Brave Smiles … Another Lesbian Tragedy,” a wickedly funny 1993 spoof of stories featuring tragic lesbian destinies like, well, “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove.” (Disclosure: Lesbian Brother Moe Angelos is a good friend.)
It’s telling that “Pride Plays” took place at the Rattlestick Theater, a slightly dingy downtown venue not too dissimilar from than the ones where I used to see lesbian performance artists, musicians and spoken-word practitioners in the early 1990s — the pre-renovations La MaMa, WOW Café, P.S. 122 and Dixon Place. Watching the Five Lesbian Brothers’ plays in those rock ’n’ roll settings was revelatory and joyous: We could be funny!
And it was Dixon Place (now in a legitimate space after starting in founder Ellie Covan’s living room) that hosted the 25th-anniversary celebration of Lesbopalooza, a shambolic revue that was so happily, tongue-in-cheekily old-school that it featured a prop labrys (the double-headed ax that was the emblem of 1970s feminist-lesbians).
Of that generation of brilliant women, only a precious few have made it to the limelight — most prominently Lesbian Brother Lisa Kron, who went from “Paradykes Alley” and “Paradykes Lost” at WOW Café in the late 1980s to Broadway with her own “Well” and as the co-author of the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home.”
The discrepancy between the visibility of gay men and the invisibility of gay women is frustrating, but sadly not all that surprising.
To begin with, if female writers, composers and directors are underrepresented on the biggest American stages, then gay ones have their work cut out for them. It’s like being hit by theatrical double jeopardy.
Then there is the common wisdom that Broadway, and by extension theater, is the province of gay men. This is partly because they are assumed to have a greater disposable income, and partly because of a perceived sense of ownership.
As the Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones recently wrote, in reference to Mr. McNally’s lifetime achievement award speech at the Tonys, “They were the ones who composed most of the musicals, choreographed most of the dance numbers, wrote a whole lot of the plays. They ran things, too. And they were most of the critics. (They still are.)”
Two gay playwrights made their Broadway debuts in the spring of 2017, for instance. But while it took Joshua Harmon a mere five years to go from “Bad Jews” at the pocket-size Roundabout Underground to “Significant Other” on Broadway, a quarter century elapsed between Paula Vogel’s first major production, “The Baltimore Waltz” (included in the Rattlestick series), and her finally being eligible for a Tony with “Indecent.” Many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for “How I Learned To Drive,” did not speed the process.
This comparison is not meant to disparage Mr. Harmon, but to point out a galling discrepancy. Gay stories are assumed to have a relatable universality — and thus a commercial appeal — that is not as easily granted to lesbian stories.
Obviously, Broadway is not the be-all and end-all of American theater. But it does represent validation and awareness, the ability to put on big spectacles, and the opportunity to land regional productions, have a nationally televised platform with the Tonys and possibly make a living from your craft instead of trying to cobble an income from day jobs and grants.
It’s worth noting that lesbians are much better represented in mainstream comedy, from the trailblazing Sandra Bernhard, Carol Leifer and Ellen DeGeneres to such current popular acts as Wanda Sykes, Tig Notaro and Hannah Gadsby.
So gay women have to make the most of Off and Off Off Broadway. The lesbian writer María Irene Fornés’s single Broadway production, “The Office,” closed in previews in 1966, but that did not stop her from becoming one of the great innovators of American theater — for the relatively small circle of people aware of her work. (In November, Theater for a New Audience is giving Fornés’s “Fefu and Her Friends” its first Off Broadway revival since 1978.)
And lesbian stories have not stopped getting told around town.
Just this past year we saw Aziza Barnes’s gleefully, raunchily pansexual “BLKS”; Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake” (which featured one of the most awkwardly acted lesbian couples I have ever seen); Crystal Skillman’s melancholy “Open” (about an amateur magician attempting to summon her gravely injured girlfriend); and Madeleine George’s apocalyptic eco-comedy “Hurricane Diane,” whose ambition necessitated deeper pockets than New York Theater Workshop’s to be fully realized.
At the same time, it’s hard to deny that too many lesbian stories are stuck in arrested artistic development. It feels as if lesbians are still trying to build a theatrical house while gay men — having had a house, a two-car garage and a gazebo for years now — have moved on to deconstructing and repurposing the real estate they can afford to be tired of.
I can’t think, for instance, of a lesbian equivalent to the thrilling, savagely funny way Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” and Robert O’Hara’s “Bootycandy” dismantled tropes and preconceptions associated with the gay-male identity and community (more specifically its African-American subset).
Similarly, gay men have the luxury to reconsider characters and plots once derided as destructively stereotypical, as with successive redemptive productions of Mart Crowley’s era-defining “The Boys in the Band” — once accused by some gay people of being self-loathing.
If only the same treatment could be applied to, say, “The Children’s Hour,” the Lillian Hellman drama about closeted teachers that has not been seen on Broadway since 1953. (A 2011 West End revival, starring Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss, never made it to New York.) Britain has even had two musical adaptations of women-in-prison TV series, “Prisoner Cell Block H” and “Bad Girls,” which dipped their toes in the barely charted waters known as lesbian camp.
Perhaps American lesbian theater will reach commercial maturity when it has the strength and confidence to look back at itself, and the community that spawned it, and maybe even laugh.