Gays on Broadway. What is a gay sensibility?

To author Ethan Mordden, Edward Albee is the “Great American Gay Playwright” —  emphasis on gay — even though few of his plays have any gay characters in them at all nor any obvious “gay material,” and Albee himself said “I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.”

Mordden sees it differently. “It’s not the sociological content of Albee’s plays that’s gay as much as his style as a writer, his tone, his jokes, his unmissable gay persona,” Mordden writes in “Gays on Broadway“(Oxford University Press, 239 pages), a book he describes — not completely accurately – as a “chronological review of both the plays and the people that brought the world of homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, metrosexuals, and the sexually fluid to the American stage.”  Its nine chapters start with the 1910s and 1920s and progress decade by decade to “the present,” ending with Edward Albee, who died in 2016 at the age of 88.

The fifteen pages on Albee are as good an illustration as any of a main weakness of “Gays on Broadway,” but also of a main strength. The book’s argument for the importance of Albee’s gay persona is insufficiently developed to be persuasive, but that doesn’t distract from the fascinating portrait of Albee, which includes a worthwhile discussion of some of Albee’s plays.

“Gays on Broadway” is at its best when it lingers on individual figures in twentieth century American theater; many of them are still famous, but the most intriguing of them are now obscure.

According to Mordden, Mae West borrowed her comic character from a gay drag queen named Bert Savoy, who would say “You must come over” as his catchphrase in his Broadway shows starting in 1917, “pronounced with a louche lilt of delight, hand on hip and eyes afire with mischief: ‘You mussst come over.’” Ira Gershwin adopted the phrase for a song “You Must Come Over Blues” in a hit 1925 musical, and Miss West adapted it into “Come up and see me sometime.” Her  1927 play “The Drag” showcased gay men sympathetically, and even included an appeal for gay acceptance, with a doctor telling a judge who wants to herd all gay people onto a desert island, “Why? What have they done? …A man is what he was born to be.” – a sentiment not widely shared at the time; “The Drag” was shut down before making it to Broadway; police raided “Sex” another play by West, who was sentenced to ten days in jail. 

The book offers a vivid portrait of Eva Le Gallienne, born at the end of the 19th century and living until the last decade of the twentieth, who  was “the very last of the great actor/managers” and “the ultimate lesbian bitch, because she was a born leader.” (one of the few lesbians in the book, although Mordden tells us that his use of the term “gays” encompasses both men and women.l 

There is an extensive discussion of John La Touche, a lyricist and librettist who died from a heart attack at age 41,  having collaborated on an impressive and varied body of work: the song “Ballad of Americans,” made famous by Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra; the musical “Cabin in the Sky,” best known now for the 1943 movie with an all-star Black cast (Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, et al.); “The Golden Apple,” a cult favorite Broadway musical adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; “The Vamp,” about silent-era Hollywood; Leonard Bernstein’s Candide; The Ballad of Baby Doe, an opera based on the tragic true story of the silver mine baron Horace Tabor and his love for his second wife “Baby” Elizabeth Doe. 

Much of the time, though, “Gays on Broadway” has a rushed quality to it, as if Mordden had been given a quick deadline, and a limited number of pages, to get in as much as possible, taking time to catch a breath only with the most important people and plays. (Mercifully, there is a good index, which might help to avoid the potential sensory overload of reading from cover to cover.) Chapter 8, for example, entitled “The 1990s and 2000s: They’re Taking Over,” spends the first seven of its 21 pages on an edifying discussion of Terrence McNally’s career, with a focus on five of his plays. But it then divvies up the next eleven pages with a quick run-through (devoting anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a couple of sentences to just a mention) of  “Nick & Nora,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Rent,” and “Spring Awakening” (grouped together as illustrations of shows that “didn’t take close-up shots of gay culture,” but reflected the attitude that “life is more interesting when gays are around”);  then  “Tommy,” the two versions of “The Wild Party”; two illustrations of  how “musicals were becoming very comfortable with gay emancipation,” “Naked Boys Singing” (which he calls a “contentless revue”), and the better “When Pigs Fly,” (“which for one thing had costumes”); “Avenue Q,” “Johnny Guitar,” “The Color Purple,” “Yank,” “The Twilight of the Golds,” “The Little Dog Laughed,” as well as the AIDS plays “Jeffrey,” “As Is,” and “The Normal Heart. The chapter then concludes with three insightful pages on Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which includes this assessment of the relationship between closeted gay Mormon character Joe Pitt and his wife Harper:

“Harper is exactly the sort of woman a by-the-book Mormon would choose as his beard. She won’t, he thinks, harry him when he seems sexually aloof. She will be companionable, uncomplaining, a good sport. However, as Mike Tyson once said, everybody’s got a plan until they’re punched in the mouth, and the Harper-Joe relationship gives us a much richer look at the mésalliance a gay man creates with a straight woman than other plays have presented…”

Mordden, 76, is the prolific author of both gay-related and theater-related books. That he’s knowledgeable about Broadway is evident from his seven separate guides to the history of Broadway musicals from the decade of the 1920s to that of the 1970s ; that he has strong, informed theatrical opinions is well established in such of his books as  On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide.  

But “Gays on Broadway” more closely resembles his  “Pick A Pocket Or Two: A History of British Musical Theatre,” which reads (as I wrote in my 2021 review)  like a survey course by an impatient professor for students who are already majoring in the subject.

In his book on British musicals, though, the subject was concrete.  The subject of “Gays on Broadway” is not as clearly defined.

The title is misleading. Much of “Gays on Broadway” is not about Broadway at all. Mordden’s most lively or in-depth writing is often about Off-Broadway: Charles Ludlum and his Ridiculous Theater Company, for example, and especially “The Boys in the Band”, which Mordden calls “the most influential play in gay history.” A still from the  original 1968 production is the book’s cover photo. (A production of the play did make it to Broadway fifty years later, in 2018, which Mordden mentions, but he focuses on the original.) He also talks about plays Off-Off Broadway, and in England, as well as a few movies; he even throws in the homoeroticism of the 1960s TV series “The Wild, Wild West”

More importantly, Mordden’s criteria for what and who he writes about can feel elusive, arbitrary.  Sometimes he discusses a piece because it was written by a gay playwright — but some of the people whose work he discusses were not gay. (“it’s almost shocking to realize that [Bob] Fosse was not only straight but a relentless hound.”) Sometimes the play under discussion features at least one gay character, even if the character is only peripheral to the story – but some of them have no gay characters at all. There are plays he discusses that he says appeal to gay audiences (such as those that showcase what Mordden calls “Big Ladies” such as Tallulah Bankhead, Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Eartha Kitt), or are somehow (as he labels several)  “gay-adjacent,” or reflect a “gay sensibility.”

Throughout the book, albeit in a scattershot fashion, Mordden attempts to define that sensibility; how it turns a work of art into gay art. At the end of the long portrait of La Touche, for example, Mordden tries to connect the lyricist’s homosexuality to his work: La Touche’s shows “never even glance at gay culture, yet resound with the colorful doings that gays in particular respond to. One could argue that La Touche’s chromosomes enabled his very agile imagination and love of the picturesque.”

Other examples: 

Tennessee Williams “saw life as a battle between the artist and the realist…the latter represents power, realism, certainty. The artist represents beauty, idealism, wonder. But here’s the gay slant: Williams made the comparison physical, erotic, a kind of wrestling match between the top and the bottom. The classic instance gives us Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley says ‘All right, let’s have some rough-house.’ Blanche says ‘I want magic.’..”

Truman Capote’s “House of Flowers” was a play “about gay life without a single gay character” because of its “seductively fleshly nature”

“Gay art is often made of one part vivacity, one part quirkiness, and one part mischievous bravado – qualities we see at fierce work in that ultimate gay theater piece The Boys in the Band.” At least he says “often.”

Jerry Herman created in “the razzmatazz score” for Hello, Dolly “a new kind of gay theater – not in subject matter, but in the sharp show-biz instincts that are arguably part of the gay birthright.” Mordden’s example from the score: “The fidgety uproar in Put On Your Sunday Clothes, as some of the principals look forward to leaving the suburbs to seize the freedom in the city, is arguably a gay anticipation of coming out, of throwing off the cautions of conformity.” At least he says “arguably.”

The most easily embraced of Ethan Mordden’s efforts at the definition of gay sensibility in “Gays on Broadway” are those passages that admit to uncertainty. Like his comments on camp: “everybody recognizes the finished product of camp but nobody agrees on what the ingredients are.”  Or his answer to the question of why so many gay men are enthusiastic about musicals. “Here’s the answer: Nobody knows.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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