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date: 21 August 2019

Gender and Sexuality

Abstract and Keywords

The article provides several frameworks for analyzing gender and sexuality in musicals. The characters as gendered fall into types, and often according to vocal range such as for women, these include the ingénue, typically a soprano, such as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera or Marian in The Music Man and the comic sidekick, or bitch, or witch, typically a mezzo, such as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha or Sally in Urinetown. Altos there sometimes are middle-aged principals, such as Rose in Gypsy or Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, or older character roles, such as Mme. Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. Many male romantic leads are tenors, such as Tony in West Side Story and the title character in Pippin but male roles are less typecast by vocal range than women's. When every character is gendered, some musicals actually present the process of becoming gendered as the central narrative such as Gypsy follows Louise from a disregarded tomboy who plays the back end of a cow to a rich and successful stripper. Heterosexual relationships, romance, and marriage provide the narrative foundation of most musicals, typically this comes in the form of the story of a couple's initial antipathy followed by a series of complications that eventually lead to their admission of love. Many musicals also introduce a secondary couple, sometimes comedic, forming a quartet of contrasting representations of masculinity and femininity.

Keywords: vocal range, gender and sexuality in musicals, soprano, male romantic leads, central narrative, representations of masculinity, musical's title

The representation and performance of gender and sexuality in musicals function as building blocks as basic to the form as song, dance, script, or design. Whether or not a musical seems to be “about” gender or “about” sexuality, these axes of identity invariably organize a musical's message, its ideological work, and its emotional effects, since all of the characters in a musical can be identified and analyzed in terms of their gender and sexuality.1 We can ask, What do the characters, as male and female, do in the story? What do they sing? How do they move? How do they relate to one another as men and as women? How are characters’ sexualities embodied and envoiced in a musical? What is the effect of characters’ sexualities on the musical? Like any identity written on the body, gender and sexuality operate semiotically; actors and audiences rely on culturally and historically specific images of gender and sexuality to interpret characters, their actions, behaviors, and desires. Moreover, a character, as written on a page in words and musical notes and as inhabited by a performer who sings, dances, and acts, comprises innumerable additional identity categories, such as race, ethnicity, age, and even the body's shape and size. What emerges in the musical as a character's “personality” is inseparable from these identity categories.

This chapter offers several frameworks for analyzing gender and sexuality in musicals. With expanding spheres of focus, I first consider characters in themselves, or character types. I then look at characters in relation to one another, both within and across genders, and especially, the heterosexual couple, the figure that fundamentally organizes most musicals. I then move from text to performance, to examine the contradictions that bubble up when a role is embodied; the varying interpretations that actors bring to a given role; and the different readings that materialize at specific historical moments. At the end of the chapter, I briefly connect gender and sexuality to the musical as a genre.2

(p. 211) Characters and Character Types

Characters in musicals are drawn in broad strokes. As Lehman Engel puts it, “Characters are always (to the audience) precisely who and what they seem to be.”3 Thus, characters as gendered fall into types, and often according to vocal range. For women, these include the ingénue, typically a soprano, such as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera or Marian in The Music Man; the comic sidekick, or bitch, or witch, typically a mezzo, such as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha or Sally in Urinetown. Altos are sometimes middle-aged principals, such as Rose in Gypsy or Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, or older character roles, such as Mme. Armfeldt in A Little Night Music.4 Although many male romantic leads are tenors, such as Tony in West Side Story and the title character in Pippin, male roles are less typecast by vocal range than women's.

While every character is gendered, some musicals actually present the process of becoming gendered as the central narrative. Gypsy, for example, follows Louise from a disregarded tomboy who plays the back end of a cow to a rich and successful stripper. The story of the character's development—how she comes of age and finds her identity—is her gendering, or the process by which she becomes a woman. In addition, many mid- and late-twentieth-century musicals elide the process of becoming gendered with that of becoming heterosexual. Both Funny Girl and The Sound of Music, for example, feature central female characters, Fanny Brice and Maria, who begin as independent and somewhat childlike, and move toward romance and heterosexual coupling over the course of the musical. The Sound of Music's story is Maria's Bildungsroman. As she comes to understand her life's true calling, she moves from one idealized image of “Woman” to another, occupying over the course of the musical the two stereotypical edges of the good feminine: nun/virgin and wife/mother. The musical wants the audience to see this process as Maria's natural, inevitable maturation from tomboy to woman. She was never meant to be a nun anyway, the musical argues, and her protestations to falling in love, which she enacts by leaving the von Trapp household and returning to the abbey at the end of act 1, emphasize both her guilelessness and the naturalness of her attraction to Captain von Trapp. The musical equates Maria's being a nun with entrapment (even though the nuns are portrayed as warm, good-humored, and intelligent) and being a mother and wife (especially of children who are nearly grown, and of a very wealthy man) with freedom and worldliness, albeit an unpretentious and tempered sociability compared to that of the Baroness. From a feminist perspective, Maria's trajectory is ultimately narrowing and conservative; she sacrifices her independence to be a mother. On the other hand, a feminist reading also observes that Maria makes her own choices and transforms the entire von Trapp household: she redirects the children's bad behavior by channeling their energy into play and music and reopens Georg to music and feeling. Maria, the star, dominates the family and the musical alike.5 In contrast to Fanny Brice, whose marriage fails because she insists on staying in show business even when Nick is arrested (p. 212) (implying that Fanny wasn’t an appropriately dutiful wife in the first place since she failed to protect her man), Maria's marriage succeeds because she gladly becomes a (step)mother and leads her family to freedom. The tone of each musical's ending, one tragic and one triumphant, corresponds to Fanny or Maria's matrimonial, or heterosexual, success. Like Sweet Charity and Cabaret on the tragic side, and Guys and Dolls and The Music Man on the triumphant side, Funny Girl and The Sound of Music naturalize the affiliation between maturity and heterosexual romance.6

Similarly, men in some musicals embark on a performative journey that intertwines gender and sexuality and moves from homosocial to heterosexual, from their buddies to a wife. Examples include Tony in West Side Story, Marius in Les Misérables, and Sky and Nathan in Guys and Dolls. Through the force of the narrative, told insistently in song and dance and script, many musicals convey the ideological message that proper maturity is becoming feminized/masculinized. Moreover, proper feminization/masculinization is inseparable from heterosexual awakening. In this way, musicals tie together psychological development, gender, and (hetero)sexuality.

Still, characters in many musicals are coded as gay, such as Moonface Martin in Anything Goes, Randy Curtis (first played by Danny Kaye) in Lady in the Dark, Henry Higgins and Pickering in My Fair Lady, the tomboy Anybodys in West Side Story, and to some commentators, Robert in Company.7 Gay-signifying men in musical films include, for example, Adam (played by Oscar Levant) in An American in Paris, Cosmo Brown (played by Donald O’Connor) in Singing in the Rain, and Max (played by Richard Haydn) in The Sound of Music. Explicitly gay characters appear in the films Cabaret, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Victor/Victoria, and on stage in Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's La Cage Aux Folles and William Finn's Falsettos, to name a few. A bevy of short-lived adult musicals sprang up in the 1970s, such as Let My People Come, which included gay characters for social activist as much as art-making purposes.8 More typically, though, until the mid-1990s, when an explicitly gay character appeared in a musical, he (and it was almost always a man) had to bear the burden of representation, signifying more than simply an individual character, standing in for the very idea or whole category of gay people.

A Chorus Line, for example, introduced several characters (all men) who admitted they were gay, but only one whose story was told in detail. Paul's confessional monologue forms the emotional climax of A Chorus Line. What does Paul's gay identity mean in the musical? In an extended spoken “scene” near the end of the musical, Paul tells the heartbreaking story of his parents’ discovery that he was performing in a drag show. He explains that, during the final show before the company went on tour, his parents came to the theater to say good-bye. They arrived too early and recognized him dressed as a woman. As Paul relates the story, “So I took a deep breath and started down the stairs and just as I passed my mother I heard her say: ‘Oh my god.’ ” Stunned and horrified, his parents still stand by him, as Paul tells it, and his father commands the producer, “Take care of my son”; it's the first time he has referred to Paul as his son. By the end of the monologue, Zach, the director of the unnamed musical for which the characters in A Chorus Line are auditioning, and the lone witness to the story, comes onto the stage for the first time since the (p. 213) opening scene and puts his arm around Paul. This kind and sympathetic gesture is Zach's only one in the show, and compared to his shrugging cruelty toward Cassie, his ex-lover, it at once suggests his humanity as well as his homosocial (if not homosexual) affiliation. For the theater audience, Zach's attention and onstage appearance underline the importance of this moment and invite sympathy toward a gay character, too. During the next section of the audition, however, Paul's knee gives out, eliminating him from contention. The musical at once values, rouses sympathy for, and punishes the gay character.

Paul's ethnic identity as Puerto Rican is equally significant and inseparable from his homosexuality in A Chorus Line.9 He is stunned that his traditional parents embrace him, and their steadfastness makes his story even more potent, since it suggests that he is such a sweet and loving son that his parents can’t desert him in spite of his being gay. All of the characters in A Chorus Line identify themselves by their hometown per Zach's opening gambit, often referring to race and ethnicity. The significance of race and ethnicity in this 1975 musical reflects the era of its birth, when the push for racial and ethnic equality was very much a part of U.S. culture. Diana's charming and devastating solo, “Nothing,” recounts her failure to do “improvisation” in an acting class, which she blames as much on her being Puerto Rican (“they don’t have bobsleds in San Juan!”) as on her skepticism of the whole enterprise. When Richie announces, “I’m black,” it plays as a joke in the musical because he is visibly African American.

Although A Chorus Line writes characters’ races and ethnicities into their lines and songs, every character in every musical is racialized, whether or not race is marked, and a character's race/ethnicity inflects what gender and sexuality mean at every turn. In some musicals, racial or ethnic identity is part of the very fabric of the story. For example, in West Side Story, Anita seems sexually available to the white boys in Doc's drugstore because they see her as a “spicy Latina”; in The King and I, Anna can challenge the King of Siam because she is an educated white woman and he is a “primitive” Asian man; in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye is confronted with diminishing patriarchal power as a Jewish man; in The Color Purple, Celie's financial and emotional independence are extraordinary because she is an African American woman; in In the Heights, Nina struggles to adjust to Stanford because she is Latina. Moreover, in each example, the significance of a character's race/ethnicity is historically specific, both in relation to the musical's setting and to its time of production.

Characters in Relation: The Heterosexual Couple and Homosocial Communities

Heterosexual relationships, romance, and marriage provide the narrative spine of most musicals, typically the story of a couple's initial antipathy followed by a series of complications that eventually lead to their admission of love. Differences of (p. 214) origin, background, and temperament align with gender differences, and the musical's first duet, the subjunctive love song, foreshadows the couple's unification two or so hours later. In addition to presenting the meeting and mating of two characters of the opposite sex, the heterosexual imperative, or what Raymond Knapp calls the “marriage trope,” performs Broadway musical theater's grander ideological project: to symbolically unite opposing forces in U.S. culture. When the couple admits their deep and abiding love for one another, their joining together represents a social, even political union. The ensemble's rousing finale in many musicals from Oklahoma! to In the Heights affirms how the couple is a synecdoche for the community.

Many musicals also introduce a secondary couple, sometimes comedic, forming a quartet of contrasting representations of masculinity and femininity. In Guys and Dolls, for example, the differences between men and women, signaled in the musical's title, is central to the plot. The musical concerns how “guys” and “dolls” occupy their own worlds and live by their own rules, but it also reveals how different guys and dolls can be from others of the same gender. Both leading men are inveterate gamblers, but that's all they have in common. The suave, elegant, but gentle Sky Masterson, introduced as the perpetual bachelor, sings two richly melodic duets with Sarah, the first the subjunctive love song, “I’ll Know (When My Love Comes Along)” and later the openly romantic, “My Time of Day/I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Sky contrasts with the brash, bumbling, affectionate, and barely musical Nathan Detroit, Adelaide's longtime boyfriend, who sings only the opening of “The Oldest Established” and responds, half-speaking, to “Adelaide's Lament,” “Sue me, Sue me, What can you do me? I love you.” In a parallel construction, Sky unwittingly falls for and then seduces through a tricky bet and considerable alcohol the straitlaced, judgmental, sermonizing, Save-a-Soul mission doll Sergeant Sarah Brown, the musical's soprano ingénue. In contrast to Sarah, Nathan's match is the cold-afflicted, gum-cracking, husband-hungry, nightclub dancer/pseudo-diva, Adelaide. By the end, the women decide to accept the men's flaws, and the wayward men agree to marry, and with double weddings, the ensemble reprises the bouncy title song. The conventional architecture of two couples is also employed by, for example, Oklahoma!, Wonderful Town, South Pacific, West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, and In the Heights.

Another typical arrangement of story and romance occurs in triangulated relationships. Both Arthur and Lancelot compete for Guenevere's love in Camelot; both Curly and Jud Fry are in love with Laurey, and Ado Annie wants both Will and Ali Hakim in Oklahoma! Other characterological triangles that also include queer affections include Henry Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza in My Fair Lady; Oliver, Bill Sykes, and Nancy in Oliver!; Cosette, Marius, and Eponine in Les Misérables; and Don Quixote, Sancho, and Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. While homosocial relationships abound, more explicit homoerotic (or actually gay) connections occur in contemporary musicals, such as Rent, in which both Mark and Joanne bemoan their mutual attraction to Maureen (and they sing “The Tango Maureen”); or Wicked, in which Glinda and Elphaba each have a crush on Fiyero (and by the end of Wicked, (p. 215) both Glinda and Fiyero are in love with Elphaba); or Spring Awakening, where Wendla and Moritz are both in love with Melchior. In every case, duets chart the weightiness of the relationships, and the musical's concluding tone conveys its ideological project.10

Homosocial groupings in duets, trios, and chorus numbers at once foreground differences within one gender and blur individual characters’ differences under the rubric of the feminine or masculine. In “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” in Fiddler on the Roof, for example, Tzeitl, Hodel, and Chava sing a lilting waltz about their hopes for a husband whom the matchmaker will bring. In the song's half-spoken middle section, Tzeitl imitates Yentl the matchmaker and teases her sisters about the old and ugly men whom they’ll be forced to marry. The song allows each girl to express her own unique fantasy and also underlines how they’re all the same in their desire to marry. Just as the romance narrative of many musicals reinforces heterosexuality as the norm, single gender musical numbers reaffirm social norms, which for women in most musicals means desiring marriage. Still, in Fiddler, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russian-Jewish young women choose mates that buck tradition. In Sweet Charity, which opened just two years after Fiddler, taxi dancers Helene, Nicky, and Charity sing and dance an exuberant, Latin-inflected number, “Something Better Than This,” in which each outlines her escape from life as a taxi-dancer, whether to marry rich or become a respectable secretary. Charity's friends ably articulate their dreams; Charity can’t quite envision hers. Yet all three women sing the chorus and each takes up a verse to announce her fantasies, however formed or not. Bob Fosse's choreography is expansive, alternating airborne leaps and kicks with angry and determined cha-cha stomps. In A Chorus Line's “At the Ballet,” Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie, isolated from the others, each sing about how ballet became her refuge from a troubled childhood. The three women stand on a diagonal, their stillness contradicting the joyful motion about which they sing in soaring harmonies. In the background in shadows, the rest of the cast enacts their memories, practicing simple exercises and stretching at the barre. Like the trio in Fiddler and Sweet Charity, this number connects femininity with desire and longing, but here to escape to the world of ballet.11 Other numbers that perform femininity include “America” in West Side Story, “Lovely Ladies” in Les Misérables, and “Junk” in Spring Awakening.

To date, no musical has simply replaced straight characters with gay or lesbian ones in a conventional structure. Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holtzman's Wicked comes closest, using the conventions established by Rodgers and Hammerstein and their contemporaries to create a feminist and queer musical. Wicked musically tracks Elphaba and Glinda's relationship from antipathy/attraction (“What Is This Feeling?”) to common ground (“Popular”) to relationship (“One Fine Day”) to division (“Defying Gravity”) to expression of devotion (“For Good”). While Wicked includes a heterosexual romance, a triangulated crush that both women have on Fiyero, and while Elphaba stages her own death and leaves Oz with him to pursue a heterosexual life, the end-run machinations of the plot hold less emotional sway than the sweetly wrenching final duet between the two women. In the final verse of “For Good,” the women's voices wrap around each other, constantly switching voice (p. 216) parts and concluding the song in unison. The final dissonant chord of the musical, sung by the chorus, signals the community's dystopian state, since the proper romance has been denied. Wicked testifies to the flexibility of the formal conventions of the “Golden Age musical”—in other words, form doesn’t determine content although it does determine narrative structure—and Wicked's commercial success rejects the presumptive centrality of “boy meets girl.”12

Contemporary Musicals and Gay and Lesbian Characters

Rent creates new possibilities for characters’ sexualities in musicals by representing multiple gay and lesbian characters with frank and casual openness. Rent is peopled with a gay male couple (Angel and Collins) and a lesbian couple (Maureen and Joanne) and it takes those sexualities for granted in the musical's world of NYC's East Village circa 1990. Rent's structure—a single protagonist, Mark, surrounded by a close-knit community—borrows formal conventions of ensemble musicals of the late 1960s and 1970s, including Hair, Company, Godspell, and A Chorus Line. This structure enables the musical to nod to nonheterosexual identities and relationships, an ideological gesture that speaks to its (successful) intention to address musical theater's wide range of spectators and even make them feel politically progressive. This device of including a few gay characters in a community-based story is repeated with the gay male couples in Avenue Q and Spring Awakening, and perhaps foretells a musical theater future with a more consistent nod to gay people (or gay men, at least).13

Still, both Rent and Spring Awakening ultimately use gay characters to bolster heteronormativity. Angel serves as the emotional touchstone of Rent, endlessly generous and hopeful, caring and sensitive. All mourn his death, which compels the other characters to look at their lives and choices. That Angel's death enables the other characters to learn about themselves replicates a typical (tired) trope in which an Other (usually a person of color or with a disability) aids in the self-actualization of the principal character. Also, Collins and Angel have the most loving and healthy relationship, which the musical needs to eliminate so as not to valorize the gay male couple above all else. In addition, Joanne and Maureen sing a lively number, “Take Me or Leave Me,” but the musical doesn’t take their relationship seriously. Maureen is presented as a fickle, emotionally abusive, yet irresistible lover (Joanne and Mark's duet, “The Tango Maureen”) and a less-than-accomplished artist (her “The Cow Jumped over the Moon” is a parody of performance art).14 In contrast, Mimi and Roger's relationship lasts through the end of the musical, since Mimi comes back to life. This choice, one of the few that differs from Puccini's La Bohème (which provides the primary situational basis for Rent), shows how beholden twentieth-century musicals—even tragedies—are to the convention of a heterosexually happy ending.

(p. 217) Similarly, Spring Awakening offers a tacked-on celebrate-the-day ending that differs from its source material, even more jarring since it follows the suicide of one character and the death from a botched abortion of another. Like Rent, Spring Awakening affirms youth's hopefulness and the unstoppable passage of time, packaged with a seemingly progressive representation of homosexuality. Like Rent and Hair, Spring Awakening puts a male friendship in the center with a homosocial hue, heightened by Moritz's anxious and passionate admiration for and attachment to the confident, accomplished, renegade Melchior. The desire of the gay (male) characters, Hanschen and Ernst, is no more verboten than heterosexual attraction in the musical, as they repeat Melchior and Wendla's love duet, “Word of My Body.” And yet, the gay scenes are played for laughs, with Hanschen a stereotype of a fey, arrogant cruiser. The presence of the gay couple effectively re-centers the straight couple as the norm.15 A similar dynamic exists in Avenue Q, where the gay characters are sweet and silly but the center of the musical is Princeton and his love interest Kate. Even as these musicals show gay and lesbian characters, their ideological work is complicated and even contradictory.

In this way, these musicals’ politics of sexuality echo earlier, pre-Stonewall musicals in which the gay-seeming characters, always part of the theatrical world, force sympathy and identification onto the heterosexual couple.16 Typically, these queer characters sing little or not at all. In The Sound of Music, for example, Max is a gay stereotype (and perhaps Jewish, even though he is for a time accommodating to the Nazis), singularly obsessed with the niceties of life and a successful public image and not the least bit romantically interested in women. He is the friend/sidekick who is never a threat to the leading man. Nor is he a match for Else, the Baroness, who calls up her own vampirish lesbian stereotype. The presence of Max and Else sharpen the inevitability of Maria and Georg's union.17 For a given musical, then, it's not enough to merely identify gay or gay-seeming characters; one should also consider what those characters do and how their existence and their actions contribute to the overall meaning and effect of a musical.

Embodied Contradictions

While considerable information about gender in a musical can be gleaned from a script and a score, for audiences, musicals consist of embodied performances in real time. Performance analysis acknowledges this reality by examining what the men and women actors actually do over the course of the show. How often is the performer on stage? How many songs does she sing or dance and what kinds of songs and with whom? How, when, and with whom does he occupy space on the stage in song, dance, or spoken scene? While the script specifies such details, only in performance can an audience feel the dynamic effects of space, kinesthetics, and time, as well as the actor's performance choices and presence.

(p. 218) Dance's aestheticized, formalized movement, typically more symbolic than mimetic, defines gender as well. Diegetic waltzes in Cinderella, The Sound of Music, and My Fair Lady, mambo, jitterbug, and cha-cha in West Side Story (“The Dance at the Gym”), and athletic modern dance in Wicked (“Dancing through Life”) also provide scenes of many bodies moving, enabling the couple to form through choreography. Other dances within single gender groups expand and define the meaning of masculinity or femininity, such as the Puerto Rican women in “America” in West Side Story as well as the male gangs, both the Jets and the Sharks, the nineteenth-century German schoolboys in “Bitch of Living” in Spring Awakening, or the jaded taxi-dancers in Sweet Charity's “Hey, Big Spender,” with each woman draped over a ballet bar in a unique pose of bored seduction, and then exploding in a rage-filled, gyrating frenzy of movement. Ensemble dance numbers such as “La Vie Boheme” in Rent, the extended “Hello, Twelve” sequence in A Chorus Line, or the opening number of In the Heights individualize the choreography for each dancer with movement vocabularies that express each character's identity.18

In some musicals, the onstage activities, or stage power, of the performer contradicts the written character's. The end of Cabaret, for example, finds Sally Bowles alone, having decided to abort her baby. Cliff leaves her to return to America, disgusted and fearful of the political situation and disappointed that she refuses to leave Berlin with him to marry him and raise a family. A “preferred” (that is, dominant or with-the-grain) reading of the musical sympathizes with Cliff, as the story is told from his perspective, framed (in the 1972 film version and the 1998 Sam Mendes-directed revival) by scenes of his arrival and departure from Berlin by train.19 Over the course of the musical, Cliff grows from a naϯve aspiring writer to a sharp observer of the Nazi's encroaching power. In the meantime, Sally's denial of the reality of the political scene is conflated with her refusal to marry Cliff: the musical frames both choices as her avoidance of reality, her immature, unreasonable resistance to conventional options. Cabaret presents Sally's insistence on remaining single and a performer as childish, especially since she is not especially talented or successful. But the musical works against itself, because Sally sings numerous charming songs, dances in the Kit Kat Klub in alternating scenes, and is a vibrant, active character compared to Cliff's quieter, less musical presence. The audience, then, understands Cliff's choices but is more drawn to Sally. By the end, Sally's heartrending rendition of the musical's title song cements her stardom. Although Cabaret wants the audience to judge her, Sally's belting voice and charismatic presence demand that the audience adore her.20

Like Cabaret's treatment of the woman Sally Bowles, A Chorus Line's treatment of the gay character Paul is contradictory. On the one hand, he is a main character and among the most memorable in the ensemble-based musical. When he admits his homosexuality, neither Paul's Puerto Rican father, nor Zach, the father figure, deserts him, which suggests his absolute goodness. Paul's beautifully wrought story takes up considerable stage time—a “number” made all the more effective for not being sung—and is central to the emotional movement of the musical. His subsequent injury is a key dramatic moment: it stops the action cold, compels Zach to ask the other dancers why they keep dancing, and leads into the penultimate number, (p. 219) “What I Did for Love.” On the other hand, Paul is a victim in the diegesis, his emotion-laden story “kills” him and renders him unable to dance, to perform, to finish the audition. He cannot finish what he started. Moreover, Paul's account is the only one with heft in A Chorus Line that is spoken rather than sung or danced, in contrast to the powerful memories of the women in “At the Ballet,” “Nothing,” and Cassie's “Music and the Mirror,” another emotional high point in the show. The musical implies that Paul's story is so raw and honest that it exceeds music and dance, but in the conventions of musical theater's languages, this choice of communicative mode shows how Paul can’t fit in; he can’t express himself in the languages that are valued here. That he is gay and Puerto Rican—two non-normative identities—the musical (perhaps unconsciously) suggests, excludes him from the white and heterosexual musical theater of A Chorus Line.

Rent also compromises its progressive intentions when the characters are actually inhabited by actors. Because Angel cross-dresses and the role tends to be cast with an actor who is slim and effeminate, he and Collins look remarkably like a heterosexual couple on stage. This performance choice normalizes homosexuality but denies its visibility.

The performative energy of musical numbers, especially duets or trios, creates intimacy between and among actors and deepens relationships from how they read on the page. The Sound of Music, for example, complicates its heterosexual romance story with the infusion of homosocial connections. The songs between Maria and the Mother Abbess, “My Favorite Things” (a duet in the stage version) and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (the latter's solo act 1 finale that includes Maria in its purposeful address), along with the thunderstorm bedroom scene between Maria and Liesl and their reprise of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” all portray close connections between women.21

Contradictions that emerge in performance are also built into the conventional scaffold of musical theater's heterosexual romances. That is, a musical is indeed “about” heterosexual romance in terms of its meaning and ideological work, but that doesn’t describe what is actually performed on stage. Because a musical represents the developing romance of its heterosexual couple through a series of obstacles and conflicts, it may, ironically, spend more stage time revealing how thoroughly incompatible the couple is. Heteronormativity and narrative conventions may naturalize the romance and its matrimonial conclusion, but often in contrast to what is represented on stage.

Actors and Gendered Performances Historicized

Musical theater's history as a popular, commercial art form has meant that many characters were created for specific actors. Moreover, as Bruce Kirle has shown, exigencies of production, more than composers’, lyricists’, and librettists’ idealized (p. 220) creative impulses, typically drive the creation of character and determine the details of a character's gender and sexuality. An actor in a role simultaneously creates the character and re-creates her, giving the character body and voice, so that a character is ultimately inseparable from the actor who plays her. For example, Nellie in South Pacific and Maria in The Sound of Music were written for Mary Martin, accommodating her vocal range and offering particular musical flourishes to flatter her voice. Similarly, Gypsy composer Jule Styne wrote songs to play to Ethel Merman's strengths as a singer, so that later actors must re-perform songs composed for Merman.

When we talk about “Rose” in Gypsy, then, which Rose do we mean? Merman, who originated the “mastodon of all stage mothers,” as the New York Times review described her, and whose voice is captured (albeit in a recording studio and not on stage) in an original cast album and whose form is frozen in photographs (again, not from the performance itself but from a rehearsal specifically for photography)? Rosalind Russell, who made Rose permanent on film? Angela Lansbury, who performed the role in 1974 as librettist Arthur Laurents reimagined it (and directed it), bravely bowing beyond the audience's applause of the climactic “Rose's Turn” to reveal the character's slender tie to sanity? Tyne Daly, who revived the role to great acclaim in 1989 and gave Rose a new monstrous fierceness? Bette Midler, who brought a new Rose to audiences via film, ghosted by her campy star persona? Bernadette Peters, who found a vulnerable sexiness in the character that told audiences that Rose actually might have made a fantastic stripper herself? Or Patti LuPone, in a 2008 revival again directed by Laurents himself, who, as New York Times critic Ben Brantley put it, is “a laser, she incinerates.”22 To parse out who “Rose” is, then, a scholar gathers information by listening to cast albums, seeing photographs, viewing tapes of performances, or experiencing productions live. These materials, whether heard or seen, or both, whether taped or live, compose the archive that laminates the performer onto the character. Gender and sexuality are envoiced and embodied in the person of the actor playing the character.23

Each actor remakes a character anew, and both actor and character are tied to historical contexts and the historically available performance of gender. For example, Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, as rendered on the page, in the score, and in Mary Martin's 1949 performance, seems more than a little tomboyish. Martin's angular, guileless affect, the lack of a duet between Nellie and Emile (due to Martin's refusal to pair her musical theater voice with the opera singer Ezio Pinza's), and the quiet concluding tableau of the new interracial nuclear family, subsumed the romance within the larger story of race relations. Nellie, then, could seem to be an innocent southern girl whose racism merely stemmed from her lack of experience in the world.24 In the twenty-first century, though, even as audiences acknowledged the musical's World War II setting, when Nellie sings, “I’m only a cock-eyed optimist/Immature and incurably green,” she seemed dangerously like a scatterbrain unworthy of Emile's love. In the 2008 Lincoln Center revival, Kelli O’Hara's exuberant yet grounded portrayal of Nellie never compromised the character Rodgers and Hammerstein created, yet she emphasized Nellie's openness and her sincere curiosity, rather than stupidity. When O’Hara sang Hammerstein's lyrics, her Nellie was (p. 221) wisely self-reflexive. Without apology or embarrassment, she nonetheless conveyed the recognition that the character was aware that her sheltered life was a deficit that needed to be made up.

Other productions of South Pacific offer a range of historically based portrayals of the famous role, albeit on film and television. The 1958 film version, for example, features Mitzi Gaynor as an excessively perky, not-very-bright Nellie, and the strangely hued scenes (director Josh Logan used tinted lenses to express the emotion of each scene) and awkward camera angles constantly remind spectators that the film is a relic, static and stagey.25 Glenn Close played Nellie in a made-for-TV version in 2001. Not only is she older (a fact that rendered the character's naiveté unrealistic to some critics), but she is also serious and seriously convinced that each time she accepts or rejects Emile, it's for real. The different performances of femininity become especially clear in the famous “Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” number. The Gaynor rendition, modeled on Martin's (both staged by Logan), consists of Nellie strutting around the stage, framed by the other women who mostly stand, sit, or kneel. Her minimal gestures include arm flapping and waving, and the song is capped off by the famous hair-washing scene, which Martin performed on stage eight times a week.26 Martin's performance, captured on tape for a 1954 television tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein,27 and Gaynor's both portray Nellie as trying to convince herself that Emile is wrong for her; both are light on their feet and tentative in their gestures. In contrast, with Glenn Close, as choreographed by Vincent Paterson, all of the women participate, sing, and dance. Using everyday props of buckets of water, hoses, and a clothesline, the women express group solidarity through joyful exuberance, singing defiantly that they will “wash that man right outa (their) hair.” While the choreography still relies on mundane movements such as walking, strutting, and swaying, the women are physically grounded and interdependent, as sections of the song move across trios or quartets. In this version, Nellie is fully integrated into the community of women, who support her, sympathize with her position, and join her. The force of the ensemble, with Nellie in the center, renders the number a vibrant expression of female community, and Nellie's rejection of Emile, while temporary, seems committed and sincere. This Nellie is fully capable of taking care of herself and making decisions for herself. Without changing a word or a note or the era in which the musical is set, Close's version updated Nellie for 2001, just as O’Hara did in 2008.28

The Musical as Feminine and Gay

While the musical continually presents performances of gender and sexuality as crucial aspects of character and so reinforces those social scripts, the form itself, as a genre, connotes femininity and gayness. Aside from the stereotypical and accurate observation that the musical is the cultural terrain of gay men, some of the most (p. 222) important, early analyses of the musical were written by gay men who argued that the very form of the musical is feminine and gay. D. A. Miller, in his evocative autobiographical tribute to the musical, Place for Us, writes that the dominance of women in the musical encourages a feminine, empowering identification for gay men. He describes the musical as “a form whose unpublicizable work is to indulge men in the thrills of a femininity become their own.29 In Something for the Boys, John Clum observes that many diva or strong female characters in musicals appeal to gay men, providing a feminine escape fantasy for those gay men who may not comfortably inhabit traditional masculinity. Clum finds musicals with explicitly gay characters ironically less compelling for gay men's identifications. Alexander Doty, whose Making Things Perfectly Queer takes on a number of cultural forms, of which the musical is one, writes that the exuberant performance style of the musical calls out to many gay men's sense of their own performances of gender. My study, A Problem like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical, analyzes Martin, Merman, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand and the musicals in which they starred from a feminist and lesbian perspective. From a materialist and historical perspective David Savran links gender and sexuality to musicals’ cultural stratification.30

Even as the terms, definitions, and performances of masculinity and femininity in culture shift and morph into bi, trans, queer, and so on, the musical remains reliant on bodies and voices, movements and sounds, characters, and performers alone and in relation. These categories of identity and presence will always constitute a rich and important area of analysis and interpretation for the musical.


Thanks to Ray Knapp and Jill Dolan for reading and responding to earlier drafts of this chapter.

(1.) Although for the purposes of this essay, I understand gender and sexuality to be stable and recognizable characteristics, certain performance traditions play with such presumed legibility. Breeches roles, for example, cast women as men, and their appeal in part relied on male spectators’ desire to see women's legs. Drag roles, such as the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, stress the way that gender is performative and also critique gender's normalizing force. See, for example, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990).

(2.) The keywords “gender and sexuality” might lead one, for example, to consider women and gay and lesbian artists of the musical. Other studies that take this approach include selected essays in Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater History, ed. Kim Marra and Robert Schanke (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), and Women in the American Musical Theatre, ed. Bud Coleman and Judith A. Sebesta (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2008).

(3.) Lehman Engel and Howard Kissel, Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Musical Libretto (New York: Applause, 2006), p. 229.

(5.) For a longer discussion of The Sound of Music, especially in relation to Mary Martin, who originated the role of Maria on Broadway, and Julie Andrews, the film's Maria, see Stacy Wolf, A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).

(6.) Gypsy posits another, more ambivalent position. Louise grows up, but she is narcissistic, still trying to separate from her mother, and so not yet (properly) heterosexualized. In addition, Rose, the actual star of the musical, is singular and post-heterosexual. See Wolf, A Problem Like Maria.

(7.) For readings of these characters as gay-signifying, see Raymond Knapp, The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) and Knapp, The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

(8.) See Elizabeth Wollman, Hard Times: The Adult Musical in New York City (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

(9.) Most of the commentary on Paul has focused on the conjunction of his being gay and Puerto Rican. See, for example, Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez, José, Can You See? Latinos On and Off Broadway (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999); Frances Negrón-Muntaner, “Feeling Pretty: West Side Story and Puerto Rican Identity Discourses” (Social Text 63 18.2 [2000]: 83–106.

(10.) One might parse out the specific dynamics of two different kinds of romantic triangles: one in which two characters of the same sex vie for the love of a third person of the opposite sex, and one in which the pivotal character is currently homosocial but sees a heterosexual future.

(11.) Perhaps the feminine trio in musicals can be seen as a trope. As a trio, the women are less likely legible as “lesbian,” and so are heteronormatively safer. These trios also depend on each individual's unique perspective, unlike the ensemble number that stresses community. Interestingly, many of these numbers express a desire to escape, while most ensemble numbers emphasize the characters’ desire to belong.

(12.) For an extended version of this argument, see Stacy Wolf, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(13.) Gay-seeming characters also people the background of Wonderful Town.

(14.) The musical, perhaps unintentionally, expresses ambivalence about artists, since all of the art-making in the musical is bad, including Mark's film, Roger's song, and Maureen's performance art.

(15.) I saw the original Broadway cast with Jonathan Bradford Wright as Hanschen.

(16.) “Stonewall” refers to the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village and the location of the apocryphal birth of the gay rights movement. A riot ensued when police raided the bar and the gay and lesbian patrons fought back. On the history and significance of Stonewall, see, for example, Martin Duberman, Stonewall (New York: Penguin, 1993), and David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004).

(17.) Knapp makes a similar argument in The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (230–38). Also, the film centralizes the Maria/Georg romance event more by eliminating Elsa and Max's one song, “There's No Way to Stop It,” a trio with Georg, from the Broadway version.

(18.) See Liza Gennaro, “Evolution of Dance,” chapter 4 in this volume.

(19.) Among the numerous changes in the film version, Cliff is renamed Brian and becomes British and Sally (Liza Minnelli) is American.

(20.) For related discussions of Cabaret, see Knapp, The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity, and Mitchell Morris, “Cabaret, America's Weimar, and Mythologies of the Gay Subject” (American Music 22.1 [Spring, 2004]: 145–57).

A similar dynamic occurs in Sweet Charity and in Funny Girl. These characterizations are not unrelated to the period when these musicals opened—the mid-1960s—and they exhibit extreme cultural anxiety about gender at the time, simultaneously demeaning and empowering their female principal characters. Significantly, although Fanny in Funny Girl does become a star, her Jewishness complicates her success; she is not “white” enough to be a real star. For an extended discussion of single women in 1960s musicals, see Wolf, Changed for Good.

(21.) In the film version, the Mother Abbess delivers the news of Maria's new assignment without song, and Maria gains the solo, “I Have Confidence,” which she sings during her journey. “My Favorite Things” is moved to the thunderstorm scene and “The Lonely Goatherd” is added as a puppet show to emphasize how Maria fosters the children's playfulness and imaginations. See Wolf, A Problem like Maria.

(22.) Ben Brantley, “Curtain Up: It's Patti's Turn as Gypsy” (New York Times [March 28, 2008]),, Accessed March 14, 2010.

(23.) Envoicing is, of course, a form of embodiment, and the body could be inferred from the disembodied voice. One might argue that Merman always and forever ghosts the role of Rose. On actors and ghosting, see Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theater as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

(24.) This characterization would in no way excuse the character's racism, but it would place her attitude within a cultural and historical context.

(25.) See also “The Filmed Musical,” chapter 10 in this volume.

(26.) Martin became a representative for Breck shampoo, which suggests the visibility and importance of Broadway performers at the time.

(27.) The show was a “General Foods 25th Anniversary Show: A Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein.”

(28.) In addition, the earlier versions of the number, in which the women are weaker and less determined, read as more sexual and voyeuristic. In all versions of the song, the actor playing Nellie is subjected to the physical, real-life consequences of stripping, getting wet, and washing her hair in public eight times a week. While I put an optimistic, female-empowerment spin on the homosocial aspect of this number, such female bonding is also a well-worn trope of male heterosexual fantasy (cf. “June Bride” in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), here underscored by Emile's catching enough of the final part of the number to parody it later.

(29.) D. A. Miller, Place for Us [Essay on the Broadway Musical] (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 90.

(30.) David Savran echoes many other scholars when he notes that “musical theatre… has in popular mythology been adjudged a sacred preserve of gay men” (59). See David Savran, A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theatre (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003). See also John Clum, Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999); Alexander Doty, Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Tim Miller, “Oklahomo! A Gay Performance Artist Vows that Musicals Shaped His Political Consciousness” (American Theatre 20.9 [2003]: 91–93); Wolf, A Problem like Maria. See also Matthew Bell's entry, “Musical Theater,” in Gay Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, ed. George E. Haggerty (New York: Garland, 2000), pp. 621–24, where he observes of the musical, “Perhaps no other modern art form succeeds so thoroughly in appealing, at the level of reception, to a gay (and implicitly male) ‘sensibility,’ and in refusing, at the level of denotation, gay content” (621).