Our Love Is Here To Stay IX

Gay Musical-mania

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996, revised 2008)

"What is This Thing Called Love?"

We have established that the connection between gays and musicals has existed for some time, but what makes so many gays gaga over musicals? It is one thing to document the history of a love affair, but it is quite another to dissect the reasons for it. We could all too easily stray into a deep psychological discussion, something that this writer has neither the credentials nor the inclination to do. To my knowledge, no one has published a scientific analysis of the gay musical buff's mind (and I pity the yutz who tries it), but there isn't a gay musicalmaniac in existence who would hesitate to venture an opinion on why we love musicals.

I dug up the few written sources and canvassed the troops, talking to everyone from Broadway production assistants to sing-along buddies in piano bars. Granted, it was the most informal of surveys, but it revealed some suggestions of common experience.

Is It Genetic?

Science may never prove a genetic cause for gay musicalmania, but my survey indicates that the signs usually appear at an early age. For some, it began with the music they grew up with in their parent's homes, places where the only rock collection was in the garden. A lucky few were taken to the theatre from an early age and caught the bug directly. In his autobiography, Jerry Herman writes that he and his family played and sang showtunes together every night. As a child, he was taken to the great Broadway musicals of the 1940s and 50s, and decided that he had to write musicals after seeing Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.

Others got their start by seeing musicals on the big screen. My mother still recalls the day her four-year old son refused to leave the theatre after seeing his first musical film, Mary Poppins (Disney 1964). Only after sitting through “Spoonful of Sugar” a second time could I be coaxed into going home – so I was demanding encores right off the bat!

As a child, I amassed a sizable collection of Disney storybook albums that combined soundtrack selections with narration – cementing my lifelong belief that the best stories are told with songs. However, things really took off when I saw a 1969 re-release of My Fair Lady (Warner 1964). Shopping for the soundtrack the next day, I discovered an "Original Cast Album" of the same score with none other than "Mary Poppins" in the lead! At $4.99 a piece, my parents let me buy both – if only they had known what they were getting into! I fell in love with both recordings, and began collecting cast albums and soundtracks in earnest. All at the tender age of ten!

An elementary school classmate of mine provides a more colorful case. By third grade he was a talented musician, the only person in our class who had seen a Broadway show, and one of the most outrageous musical queens I've known at any age.

Since musicalmania can start early, it may be that, like homosexuality, it is not something we choose; rather, it is something we sooner or later realize we have within us. However, young M.Q.I.T.'s (Musical Queens In Training) are not proof that gay musicalmania is genetic. A hint, perhaps, but not proof.

Mania By Choice?

My respondents were in universal agreement on one point – musicals are tangible, extant regions of time and space within which the impossible can happen. Or, to use less formal terminology, we love musicals because they are faaaaaaabulous!

The domains we are believed to cluster in -- theater, music, design, fashion, performance, decoration, arts, even personal care -- embody elements of play, spectacle, and beautification. They reflect what one study terms our "ongoing search for a link between playfulness and seriousness in everyday life." In the view of modern Western cultures, at least, our clan's life work is deeply tied to the invention and production of opportunities for bliss, in the broadest sense. It is a prime gift we bring to the societies where we live.
- David Nimmons, The Soul Beneath the Skin: The Unseen Hearts and Habits of Gay Men (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002), p. 169.

How wonderful to imagine a world where spontaneous song and dance occur on a crowded city street or a secluded mountainside – a world in which talent, style and guts are all you need, except of course for "faith, hope, and a little bit o' luck." In such a never-never land, even homosexuals can imagine a life filled with the forbidden joys of "moonlight and music and love and romance." To borrow Dr. Frankenfurter's phrase from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Fox 1974), in musicals we don't merely "dream it" – we can "be it." Many genres allow one to escape reality and find vicarious joy in the adventures of others, but nothing has the same stylish, witty, melodious fun that classic musicals do. The musical is where all art forms (literature, dance, drama, music, the visual arts, etc.) come together to form as complete an artistic expression as Western civilization can lay claim to.

Accessibility is a key issue here. Musicals touch the widest possible audience, including many left cold by other narrative forms. In the musical Les Miserables, Jean Valjean comes to life for millions who would never read Victor Hugo's ponderous novel. Grand opera and ballet are too big, too stylized to have the same effect. A good musical is the realm of human beings, while opera and ballet are all too often the realm of characters who belong to another species. Dolly, Rose, Tevya, Evita, Pippin, Annie, Curly, the Phantom and Max Biyalistock are all terribly, wonderfully, and undeniably human. We recognize their feelings and in the process can reach a better understanding of ourselves. Dying swans in tutus or overweight tenors wooing porcine sopranos cannot inspire such understanding -- at least not in most auditors. Certainly, such understanding occurs in non-musical dramas, but the effect can be more visceral and immediate when music is part of the package.

As the fight for gay rights continues into the 21st Century, musicals remain a much needed source of release and recreation. Hell, even when AIDS is conquered and gays are fully enfranchised, we'll still need to have fun!

But will the musical still be there for us?

Next: Are Musicals and their Fans Doomed?