Are Lesbians The Black Sheep Of Broadway?

With shows like "Fun Home" and "Indecent" breaking through, it would seem lesbian audiences might finally be seeing themselves on the main stage.

Using Fun Home and Indecent as evidence—both are Tony Award-winning shows that have earned high praise in the last two years—it would seem lesbian-themed productions might finally be deemed worthy of the Great White Way. In 2017, there might be more room for LGBT themes on the main stage that is so recognized around the world for being the best in both classic and modern theater, and what tourists eagerly purchase tickets for when they visit New York City.

But these two musicals are hardly the only ones written, directed, and focusing on lesbian characters and storylines in Broadway history. Indecent itself is based on the 1923 American production of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, which had a major lesbian plot and ultimately helped to spark the creation of the Wales Padlock Law, a law that, when passed in 1927, prohibited plays from “obscene subject matter,” including “sex perversion and sex degeneracy.” Another lesbian-themed play, The Captive, was among the affected, closing its run after 160 performances. Yet Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, arguably the most famous stage play about lesbianism, was first staged in 1934. But its punishment of the alleged lesbian teachers at the center was seen as righteous and deserved, therefore skirting the kinds of “indecency” lawmakers had been concerned about.

The Padlock Law (which was named after the literal padlock that would be put on the offending theater’s doors) wasn’t found unconstitutional until 1967, which means there were 40 years of stage plays that, had they any queer themes at all, were shrouded in secrecy and subtext. It wasn’t until 1968 that Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band was the first to be explicitly gay, providing hope that LGBT-themes and characters could finally find a home in front of mainstream audiences, which undoubtedly included queers as well.

As women’s liberation emerged in the late ’60s and early ’70s, feminist-focused and experimental theater proved to be an outsider option to few productions that moved to Broadway, and that was where lesbian and gay themes were able to thrive. In the 1980s, playwrights like Fun Home scribe Lisa Kron, Holly Hughes, and Carmelita Tropicana put on fringe shows at the WOW Cafe, the home for women creators and performers to host the kinds of queer and women-focused work that would otherwise never receive support from more mainstream theaters, much less Broadway. It was very much by and for the community it represented.

Outside of these spaces, it was more difficult for lesbian-themed productions to get any kind of support, and the rare few that made it to Broadway or the more reputable off-Broadway theaters were noticeably tragic stories akin to The Children’s Hour, where gay women were disciplined harshly for their Sapphic actions, never celebrated nor normalized.

“The No. 1 thing that determines whether a play gets produced is its point of view,” says playwright and professor Sarah Schulman, who noted that The Children’s Hour “represented the point of view of the tragic homosexual.” “So the ideology that a show represents has a lot to do with its power,” she continued. “It’s not about how well it’s written or how badly it’s written or how funny it is—it’s not about any of that. It’s about what values it represents. And the people who run the theaters want to see a value system that they’re comfortable with.”

The success of Fun Home (based on the graphic memoir by out lesbian Alison Bechdel) and Indecent could indicate both a hopefulness and a hard truth for lesbian theatergoers. With Fun Home gone, after spending a year and a half at Circle in the Square, and Indecent exiting after a much shorter run in August, it’s hard to say if they are merely ripples or signals of a sea change for the kinds of queer-inclusive shows audiences can expect in the near future. Despite the fact that women made up 67% of Broadway audiences during the 2015–2016 season, women are still rarely the focus of most shows. And considering that an unknown percentage of this group are lesbian or queer-identified, it would seem that Broadway is not serving its largest audience—and that gay women are still not accounted for as a viable one.

In 1998, Diana Son sold out every single performance of her play Stop Kiss at the Public Theater before even one review had been published. The play followed two women who fall for one another but end up being subject to a brutal hate crime after kissing for the first time. Yet Son, who is now a television writer for shows like American Crime and 13 Reasons Why, says she recalls the Public’s marketing team telling her that lesbians simply do not show up, even when those shows are based on their lives.

“I can remember there being this discussion of how gay men are identifiable as community that will show up to the theater to support plays that reflect their experience,” Son said, “but I know at that time, the lesbian community was not looked at in the same way—that there wasn’t a track record for these kinds of shows bringing in the lesbian audience. I think even then the lesbian audience or the lesbian ticket buyers were not really identifiable as a group to be marketed to. This is old, but let’s look at the current landscape now—is it that different?”

Schulman, who has written four plays and is also the author of Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, said that in her experience, the lesbian audience is conversely highly interested in attending shows that reflect their own lives.

“I’ve had plays that sold out their entire run before any reviews were published because lesbians were coming to see it,” she said. “I had people come to the theater, to Playwrights Horizons, who had never been there before and didn’t know they had to buy tickets in advance. … The presale for anything lesbian is very high. If it’s a writer that a lesbian audience trusts, you can sell out your run, even without reviews.”

However, she noted, it’s often not enough for a Broadway audience. (The smallest Broadway theater, the Helen Hayes Theater, has a capacity of 597. The largest venue, the Gershwin, holds 1,933.)

“The problem is for most people, there’s a high ick factor,” Schulman said, “and certainly for people in the business, they’re not interested in women.”

There seems to be a massive disconnect in what consumers are looking for and what is being provided, but Solomon argues that specifically for Broadway, tourists are looking not for specific themes but for spectacle.

“A lot of Broadway depends on ticket sales to tourists, especially international tourists, and so that means shows that have a lot of spectacle, that are easy to follow, even if you don’t know English very well, and/or if you don’t know American cultural references very well,” Solomon said. “So if you’re appealing to tourists from wherever—anywhere within the U.S. or beyond—that has a big influence on what producers are willing to put millions of dollars behind to put a show on to Broadway.”

So while shows with gay themes and characters can and have been successful on Broadway, it all goes back to Schulman’s hypothesis, which is that the points of view must be more palatable for a wider audience. Using the 1993 AIDS-focused story Angels in America as an example, she said that the play “argued that gay people abandon each other and there’s no political movement, and it’s the Reaganite Mormon who overcomes her prejudices to rescue the poor abandoned gay man.”

“And that was a message the dominant culture was very happy to receive at that time,” Schulman said of the 1991 Tony Kushner play. “If the story had been that much more accurate to the reality, where it was straight society and families that were abandoning gay people and the queer community that was joining together, it would not have gotten that level of approval.”

So, she says, “what a lesbian show says about lesbians is very important to whether or not it gets produced.”

Off-Broadway, shows like Stop Kiss might have been successful enough to sell out, but they are still seen as anomalies in a way that keeps them from growing further.

“Before you to get to Broadway, you’re dealing with subscription audiences and those audiences are largely white, gay male and Jewish, and bourgeois,” Schulman said. “And so most plays are aimed at them. When you have play that deviates from that, you suddenly have this whole other audience. … Because everyone wants to see themselves on stage, so whenever they get thrown a crumb, those audiences show up. And lesbians are the same. But because basically, people are just trying to fill their subscriber seats, they’re not motivated to actually serve the public. And so they retread the same demographic audience over and over again. That’s why most plays are so boring.”
 

Son says she was stunned to see that Stop Kiss couldn’t find a home on Broadway despite other shows from the same time getting moved up to the main stage.

“I was sure that there were more people out there in the world that wanted to see the play so I was really discouraged that these other plays went on to have an infinite longer life span,” Son said. “I look at all of those plays and even though some of those were written by gay and lesbian playwrights—David Marshall Grant with Snakebit and Margaret Edson’s Wit—what is it that made these plays so clearly able to have a longer life than mine? And I did decide for myself that because the primary relationship was between two women. … I’m not even sure it’s because it’s two women that fall in love. I just think that if you look at what’s being produced right now—not even right now, but in the last 20 years—how many plays have as a subject matter has a relationship between two women? Whether it’s mother/daughter, two friends, whatever—I don’t think it’s common.”

Misogyny seems to be as much of an issue as lesbophobia in theater, which is something Indecent writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel has been addressing in the media. The New York Times recently ran a story, “When Women Won’t Accept Theatrical Manspreading,” writing she is “declining to exit Broadway with decorous gratitude, insisting instead on talking, in the news media and on Twitter, about what she sees as a system stacked against women.” (Strangely, this piece was written by a woman.)

“I knew what the odds were,” Vogel told the Boston Globe. “I knew that [productions of plays by] women and people of color are usually done on much smaller budgets [that limit] advertising budgets.… We have to say the truth.’”

And while Broadway is not the only mark of success for most playwrights, for creators who want their work to be seen and even possibly win Tonys, it certainly seems there must be a major male character involved with their production, which is true for both Fun Home and Indecent. They’re also both family-driven plays with multiple access points for audiences so that the lesbian POV is not the only one provided.

“I remember thinking at the time that the reviews when [Fun Home] opened written by men pretty much describe it as the story of the father—the father in the closet and his tragic inability to be true to himself as a gay man,” Solomon said. “And you know, lesbians, women, others of us are more inclined to see it as Alison’s story. I think you can also enter that show from the point of view of the wife, who, in less sympathetic and less skillful hands than Lisa Kron’s and [composer] Jeanine Tesori’s, might have been this long suffering Arthur Miller-play kind of wife. ….Young Alison—Child Alison—is another. Who among us, in some ways, haven’t felt alienated and out of sorts as a child or adolescent? So whether you’re queer or not—there’s just all these points of entry into that show and it’s very emotionally welcoming. … If you’re coming to see Fun Home and you don’t necessarily think you’re going to identify characters that are unlike you, there’s somebody’s that gonna give you a way in.”

“[Indecent] is a story about a male playwright,” Son echoed. “It’s very much his story. It’s about a man’s play and what happens to the play; the journey of the play. … People will go see plays about men and men, and men and women. But I don’t think that there’s that same appetite for plays about two women, whether it’s a romantic relationship or not.”
 

Outside of these two musicals, lesbian characters are often either smaller parts of a large ensemble (Rent, If/Then, The Color Purple, Falsettos) or heavily clouded in subtext (Wicked), even in the post-Wales Padlock era. Oftentimes, the most successful Sapphic-themed shows fall into the latter category, and have out actresses at the center, performing their roles in a more queer-centric capacity. Schulman says that Cherry Jones’ Tony Award-winning turn in The Heiress is an example.

“You can play it that she’s gone crazed; you can play it that she’s become vengeful,” Schulman said of the show’s leading character, Catherine Sloper, “but Cherry played it in this very lesbian way where it was absolutely the logical conclusion. And I don’t think a straight woman could have played it that way. So it was very powerful to people and people were very moved by it but only a few people would have seen it as lesbian performance.”

Similarly, Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive was something only seen as lesbian viewed through a queer lens.

“The thing about that play is if you can see that the character’s a lesbian, you can watch the whole thing and see it as a lesbian play,” she said. “But if you cannot see that she’s a lesbian, you can watch the whole thing and not know that. It’s like written on two levels. So people who can’t handle a lesbian protagonist don’t get one. It is explicit if you’re me.”
 

But with lesbians wanting to see themselves explicitly represented in theater as much as they want to in television, film, and in other forms of media and pop culture, it would seem that the successes of Fun Home and Indecent could truly serve as inspiration, at the very least.

“I think if you’re a young lesbian playwright and you have the opportunity to see work by Lisa Kron or even to listen to the [Fun Home] cast album, that can inspire you in a different kind of way,” Solomon said. “You can be inspired by listening to the cast album of Fiddler on the Roof or Oklahoma, but another kind of possibility is awakened or ignored for you when you listen to the cast album of Fun Home in your den in Chicago, which is where I grew up. I think these shows, apart from their own intrinsic profound and immense intrinsic value, also awaken or spark the imaginations of future theater artists, the kinds of stories it’s possible to tell on the American stage.”
 

Schulman, though, says it’s almost impossible to get those kinds of shows—”sophisticated lesbian plays about adults where they are the universal authoritative figure”—to be greenlit by the gatekeepers.

“They don’t let those plays happen,” Schulman said. “They don’t let them get produced—they just don’t. The people who run the theaters won’t allow that to occur.”

And unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of an optimism around Broadway’s lesbian future.

“It’s a very, very brutal system because it’s trying to protect a set of values that’s corrupt,” Schulman said, “and that’s why the theater is, unfortunately, the most conservative art form. It serves a tiny demographic and it has no interest in expanding.”

Solomon has a little brighter view of things, but mostly for the kinds of works showing off-off-Broadway.

“There’s quite a lot of queer inclusion in all kinds of theaters. There’s been increasing explosion of that in the last couple decades,” she said. “If you only look to Broadway—Broadway’s a very thin slice of what happens in the American theater, and when it comes to non-musical plays, it’s an even thinner slice.”

But, she’s careful to say, “There were more lesbians on Broadway probably in the ’20s and ’30s than there have been in the 2000s.” And so our current landscape, which offers only two on Broadway at a time, might not necessarily be the hopeful omen we are looking for.

Fun Home is now on tour. Indecent is at the Cort Theater through August 6.

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.
@trishbendix