In musicals, the women are usually straight

Name a musical with a lesbian character. According to British academic James Lovelock, founder of and author of the book LGBTQ* Characters and Queer Representation in Musical Theatre, you should be able to list five of them. That’s an optimistic estimate, because there aren’t many musicals with women who (also) like women. We will be able to add another one from September 26th. Saw the Dutch premiere on The Prom, a musical about a high school girl who wants to go to prom with her friend. The school board rejects this and cancels the party, after which the girl suffers a lot from her classmates. The story is based on a true controversy.

First lesbian lead role

At the moment, the most famous lesbian musical character in the Netherlands has not yet played the main character Fun home to be. This musical was shown in 2019 and received a lot of attention – although the run was short and the play was only performed in Amsterdam. In the show, a lesbian cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, delves into her family history and makes connections between her father’s homosexuality and her own coming out.

Fun home was brought to the Netherlands by OpusOne, a producer who often puts gay characters on stage. It is usually men, e.g Spider-Woman’s Kiss (2015), Buyer & Cellar (2020) and Spring Awakening (2021), but sometimes also women. Last summer, for example, Charlotte and Cordelia were involved Falsettos, the protagonist’s lesbian neighbors. OpusOne also produced in 2018 The color Purple, in which the main character Celie becomes involved with the singer Shug Avery. This barely appeared in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, but it could be read in the original book.

Another example is the musical rent, which last toured the Netherlands in 2016. In it, a lesbian lawyer and her bisexual boyfriend are part of a group of friends in New York. Where Celie and Shug enter The color Purple They sing a modest love duet and have an uplifting song about the jealousy in their relationship.

Lesbians should be encouraged to write musicals

James Lovelock, researcher

If you go further back in time, you come across lady (1981). In it, author Annie MG Schmidt presents a group of feminists as man-eating lesbians. Action group Warm Lesbies Front protested at the time, calling the characters “naive, asexual, squealing, bickering women trying to glue other women with stroopwafels”. In short: a representation that you, as a lesbian woman, do not really expect.

The senator’s mistress

Musicals with lesbian characters can be counted on one hand, but why is the representation so poor? Because women had few chances to make musicals for a long time, there are few female – and therefore also lesbian – voices in this field, says British theater researcher Lovelock in a video call. Writers often write from their own experience and are less inclined to think from other perspectives. You can also see this in the examples mentioned above: Fun home is based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel; the short story The color Purple was written by the bisexual Alice Walker.

The solution is simple, according to Lovelock: lesbian and bisexual women should be encouraged to write musicals. Then their experiences will take a place on the stage and the number of gay female characters will increase.

This is not the only solution to the lack of representation. The choices of directors also play a role. They can choose to barely depict a lesbian relationship, as Spielberg did in it The color Purpleor increase diversity. The latter happened last summer inHello again of the core team.

Not hidden

In this musical, based on the play clean, the audience sees a series of meetings between couples of different sexual orientations. Writer Michael John LaChiusa already substituted some heterosexual characters for gay men in his musical adaptation, but a lesbian scene only appeared in a 2017 film version. The whirling ‘senator’s mistress’ was suddenly sung for a woman, whereas the senator was previously always a man . At De Kernploeg, director Benno Hoogveld also decided to go for this and added lesbian/bisexual characters to the Dutch musical landscape.

Compared to America or Great Britain, the Netherlands lags behind. The list of productions with lesbian characters on has so far counted around thirty titles, but the vast majority have not (yet) reached the Dutch stages.

Which probably helped producer De Graaf & Cornelissen in the decision to make a Dutch version of The Prom is that the musical recently reached a large audience as a Netflix movie starring Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman. They play outcast celebrities who want to improve their image by helping the disadvantaged high school girl. In the end, they are the main characters, and the girls’ relationship, which started it all, is secondary.

Still have The Prom significant in the representation. With a song like ‘Unruly Heart’, for example, where high school student Emma describes how she tried to suppress her lesbian feelings for a long time. The song starts intimately with just Emma’s voice and quiet guitar sounds, but eventually reaches a splashy climax as a chorus of LGBTQI students join her: ‘I don’t want to hide anymore‘. Let’s hope that this credo will apply to more lesbian characters and that the musical audience will be able to easily list ten in a few years.

The musical ‘The Prom’ premieres on 26 September. More info: The book LGBTQ* Characters and Queer Representation in Musical Theatre by James Lovelock will be published in late 2023 by Methuen Drama

Also read: ‘It’s about not expressing feelings and being stuck as a result’

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