The boys in the band

The Boys in the Band/Facebook

A look at LGBTQ representation on Broadway post-Stonewall

May 30, 2019 - 10:23 am

Broadway theater historian Terry Miller once said that for many actors, homophobia ran so deep that men were more uncomfortable getting into character to play a gay character than to portray a murderer onstage.

Fifty Years Later

In 1968, “The Boys in the Band,” a comedy set at a gay birthday party, ran for 1,001 performances off-Broadway. The production was anything but mainstream.

Laurence Luckinbill, a straight man who played the lead named Hank, was told by his agent that he “might as well bid goodbye to his career” by accepting the role, according to the New York Times. The newspaper refers to “The Boys in the Band,” as “without doubt the first play in the American gay male theatrical canon.” Today, the play is considered a classic.

By the early 1980s, AIDS had begun to take its toll on the Broadway community. Five of the gay men in the original production of  “The Boys in the Band,” died from the AIDS, as did the show’s director, Robert Moore, and producer, Richard Barr. Terry Miller also died from AIDS-related complications.

By contrast, in 2018, nearly half-a-century after the Stonewall riots, “The Boys in the Band” was staged in revival at the Booth Theatre, with all the roles performed by an openly gay cast.

Scarce Gay Celebrities

There were few Broadway actors who were out of the closet in the 1960s.

Indeed, the website, which publishes a list of any celebrities who were openly gay during that decade, shows only a handful. Artist Andy Warhol tops the list, together with “Rebel Without a Cause” actor Sal Mineo. While Hollywood leading men such as Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift were suspected of being gay, they remained quiet about their personal lifestyles.

Gay Liberation

Even in New York City, the Gay Liberation movement that took hold in the 1970s was slow to meaningfully impact Broadway circles. It was not until the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and its aftermath before the theater world was truly impacted in the ways it depicts, casts, and interacts with the LGBTQ community.

Break-Out Musicals

There were exceptions in mainstream musicals. The 1970 Tony Award-winning musical “Applause,” dared to have a scene in a gay bar. Five years later, “A Chorus Line” introduced a sassy gay man as a character in its storyline and went on to become one of the most successful musicals in the history of Broadway. Ultimately in 1983, the curtain rose on “La Cage Aux Folles,” which put a conspicuously gay middle-aged couple front and center, featuring a hit tune, “I Am What I Am.” The show’s highly successful four-year run garnered six Tony Awards.  

Broadway Cares

By 1987, actors’ equity created Equity Fights AIDS to raise funds for theater companies nationwide to join in the effort to support initiatives around AIDS. The following year, Broadway Cares, another nonprofit organization, was founded and the two organizations eventually merged in 1992.  

Reaching out to support the LGBTQ community is what matters these days. Replacing Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of “Hamilton,” Javier Muñoz is a cancer survivor who has lived with HIV since 2002 and is openly gay. Of the exceptional support he received from Broadway Cares-The Actors’ Fund, Muñoz said, “I felt like every hand was on me. All the resources that the actors’ fund helped me build me back, I’ll never forget that.”

-- Laurie Jo Miller Farr

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