As we face the prospect of another six months spent watching Star Wars and ‘sport’ (?) with heterosexual relatives, now more than ever we must immerse ourselves in great queer storytelling. This Pride, instead of mourning what would have been another year of grinding in a club to the music of Gaga and Grande, let’s take a trip down memory lane, and remember some of the finest queer songs the Great White Way has to offer. Warning: some real tear-jerkers to follow.
Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Tony award-winning Fun Home is a tour de force: a masterclass in storytelling. It strips back the ‘razzle dazzle’ of Broadway, revealing a bittersweet tale of family tragedy, coming of age, and lesbianism. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name, the musical traces the author’s attempt to come to terms with her tumultuous relationship with her father and her own sexuality. ‘Changing My Major’ is sung by Alison after her first lesbian experience with her girlfriend, Joan. It’s a wonderful song about the first time and the joy at finding someone to accept you for who you are. Maybe you’ve found your Joan, or maybe you’re still looking, either way ‘Changing My Major’ is well worth a listen.
Often regarded as ‘Sesame Street for adults’, tackling issues of racism, sexuality, class, and existential angst through the medium of puppetry, the premise of Avenue Q is certainly a strange choice for a Broadway musical. ‘If You Were Gay’ is performed by Nicky to his closeted best-friend and roommate, Rod. Nicky unsubtly tells Rod that if he were gay, he’d still be his friend. It’s a sweet sentiment, made hilarious by Nicky’s tactless approach and Rod’s growing discomfort. Unlike a lot of early 2000s ‘gay’ comedy, Avenue Q doesn’t make its queer character the butt of the joke. Instead, the audience is invited to laugh at the well-meaning, but ultimately inept heterosexual. It’s a refreshing take on a well-worn concept.
The Boy From Oz saw Hugh Jackman trade in his adamantium claws for some impressively tight trousers, playing the role of the late singer and legendary entertainer Peter Allen in this biographical musical. This song is performed by Peter on returning home after at attempt at forging his musical career (and a failed marriage to Liza Minnelli). He sings ‘Not The Boy Next Door’ in jubilant defiance, as he realises that his experiences have changed him, and he’s no longer the ‘straight’-laced chorus boy he once was. Jackman’s performance is legendary; what he lacks in vocal ability he more than makes up for with his stage presence, inhabiting Peter’s mannerisms in a way that doesn’t feel at all stereotyped. It’s truly spellbinding.
Originally performed by Idina Menzel and Fredi Walker, this song has managed to transcend the shit-show that is Rent, rising from the ashes of this god-awful musical, and taking its rightful place as one of the most revered musical theatre ballads of all time. It takes guts and some very impressive vocal chops to pull it off. Many try, few succeed. Unlike the rest of the two-dimensional ‘bohemians’ that crop up in Rent, Maureen and Joanne are developed characters, with realistic and clashing personalities. So rarely do we see queer relationships portrayed on stage, break-ups even less so. It is truly a travesty that Jonathan Larson chose to focus his musical on two heterosexuals, with personalities that can be summed up neatly as ‘the sad one with AIDS’ and ‘the sad one with the camera’, rather than this iconic duo.
Another beautiful song from Fun Home; if ‘Changing My Major’ is a love letter to the people who love us, ‘Ring Of Keys’ is one to ourselves. It’s a song about self-acceptance, depicting Alison as a child and her reaction to seeing a butch lesbian for the first time. She’s fascinated by this woman. It stirs something within her: not a sexual awakening – something more powerful than that – a self-recognition. She doesn’t have the language to verbalise what she feels so, instead, she focuses on what she can describe – the woman’s lace-up boots, her dungarees, her ring of keys. She recognises the beauty of this woman who, like her, exists outside the framework of heteronormativity. It gives her hope that she is not alone.
Originally written for a man and a woman, ‘Getting Married Today’ is performed by Amy and her husband-to-be Paul on the day of their marriage. Amy is experiencing what can only be described as a full-on mental breakdown as the gravity of the situation suddenly dawns on her. The most recent West End revival of Company had this song performed by two men, swapping Amy for Jamie. The song takes on new life, serving as a way of exploring modern homosexuality and its relationship with outdated, heteronormative views on marriage and gender roles. With its fast-pace and quick-witted lyrics, this song makes for spectacular viewing.
A favourite from the musical Cabaret, this song is performed by the Emcee and two of the cabaret girls, detailing their very particular living situation. It’s a catchy song, with strong queer undertones, displaying a fluidity towards sexuality and gender. Though, of course, it’s not the only example of queer subtext in Cabaret; a camp joie de vivre permeates every nook and cranny of the Kit Kat Klub, whether it be in the Emcee’s affectations, Cliff’s implied sexual relationship with a cabaret boy or Sally Bowles’ playful invitations for us to ‘come to the cabaret.’ Both the musical and the film are a lesson in camp frivolity. When it comes to queer representation, Cabaret is definitely surface over substance, but oh my…what surface.
Admittedly, the song is not performed by or about a queer character. In fact, there are no openly gay characters in The Wizard of Oz (though I do get vibes from the Tin Man). That said, with a cult following among the LGBTQ+ community, ‘Over the Rainbow’ rightly deserves its place on this list. For starters, Judy Garland is a gay icon, termed ‘The Elvis of homosexuals’ by The Advocate. More importantly, this song, with its themes of yearning and escapism, became an unofficial anthem for queer liberation, giving hope to many LGBTQ+ folk who, like Dorothy, longed to leave their troubles behind them and join the happy little bluebirds over the rainbow.