Lesbian Representation on Broadway
Lesbian Representation on Broadway

Lesbian Representation on Broadway: A History

During the intermission of The Captive’s February 9 performance, New York City cops stormed into Broadway’s Empire Theatre to arrest its cast for “obscenity” and “indecency.” The year was 1927, and as the city (and country) navigated social conservatism and Prohibition, Broadway struggled with censorship.

Éduard Bourdet’s The Captive, along with Mae West’s SEX and William Francis Dugan’s The Virgin Man, were all the target of a censorship campaign that led to the February 9 arrests of the casts, and spurred the Wales Padlock Act, a state law that banned plays “depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy or sex perversion.” The Captive’s specific offense? Telling the story of a lesbian.

It wasn’t the first time a play with a lesbian character had been the casualty of a conservative censorship campaign. Just a few years earlier, in 1923, the cast and crew of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance were indicted for “an indecent, immoral, and impure theatrical performance,” which came in the form of two lesbian characters kissing onstage.

Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson in Indecent. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson in Indecent. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The stigmatized scandal was chronicled by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel in her 2017 Tony-nominated play Indecent. In recounting the historical facts of the production, Vogel also added her own fictional elements to the characters’ backgrounds, including making Rifkele and Manke, the actresses who played lesbians in God of Vengeance, lesbians in real life.

“I wanted us all to recognize how amazing and beautiful female desire is in worlds in which the agency was given to men,” Vogel told The Interval in 2017. “We’ve changed the characters … so that it’s not a passive younger woman with an older, more aggressive, experienced woman, but rather that the younger woman is acting on her desires. And that’s a fairly significant shift. How did these women become the agents of their desire rather than get passively caught in the desire?”

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, Vogel giving Rifkele and Manke their own sexual agency as lesbian women felt revolutionary to see on Broadway, even in 2017. After the Wales Padlock Act was abolished in 1967, which ushered in a new era of LGBTQ theater, gay, cisgendered male characters (and creators) were given the biggest spotlight. The representation of lesbian characters on Broadway would return at a much slower pace and was at the mercy of pens held by those who did not have the lived experience. Even slower was the representation for lesbian creatives offstage — Indecent marked the Broadway debut of Vogel, who identifies as a lesbian and had been working consistently as an award-winning playwright for decades.

The lack of lesbian representation offstage has led to lesbian characters being relegated to one-dimensional and stereotypical jokes in Broadway shows.

Take, for instance, Hairspray, the 2003 Tony Award–winning musical that examines racial discrimination and fatphobia in 1960s Baltimore. Campy in its tone, the musical does offer plenty of laughs, but its depiction of the stereotypical lesbian gym teacher adds to the dangerous stereotype of lesbian women (and the entire LGBTQ community) preying on young people with the line “All right, girls, who wants to take a shower? Extra credit!”

Slowly but surely, lesbian characters moved into supporting-character territory, giving lesbian characters their own voice via song even though they weren’t written by lesbian women, like Grand Hotel’s “How Do I Tell Her?,” If/Then’s “Love While You Can,” and The Wild Party — on Broadway and Off-Broadway, with Michael LaChiusa’s “Like Sally” and Andrew Lippa’s “Old-Fashioned Love Story.

When The Color Purple premiered on Broadway in 2005, lesbian characters took center stage, as lead character Celie explored a romantic relationship with Shug Avery, pulling directly from the text of its source material, Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of the same name. It was the first lesbian relationship between two Black women on Broadway, making it a monumental moment for lesbian representation.

Falsettos was one of the first musicals to prominently feature lesbian characters back in the 1980s. Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia are often referred to as “the lesbians next door,” as they are the neighbors of the central gay couple, Marvin and Whizzer. While they are supporting characters, the couple are tightly woven into the story’s plot and represent the oft-ignored lesbian women of the 1980s who were on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis. It was also a novelty to see two lesbian women not suffer from tragedy, but make it through the story happy, alive, and in love.

Rent’s Maureen and Joanne are often the first bisexual and lesbian characters who come to mind from the musical-theater canon. Though they are supporting characters in a larger ensemble musical, their duet “Take Me or Leave Me” has become one of musical-theater’s go-to sing-along songs for lesbian representation. The Pulitzer Prize–winning musical was considered groundbreaking for its unflinchingly honest look into 1990s New York City, the AIDS crisis, and the marginalized identities who lived on the outskirts of society.

It premiered Off-Broadway in 1996, which has always been the place where artists can have more freedom to address more taboo topics. But as the musical grew in popularity, its transfer to Broadway and win for the Best Musical Tony Award seemed to open up new possibilities for what could be talked about on the Main Stem.

Still, there were clear lesphobic and misogynistic remnants lingering in the political and cultural landscape that created a barrier to breaking into Broadway. Like Diana Son’s Stop Kiss, which follows Sara and Callie, two women who share a kiss that prompts a violent attack. The 1998 play was a hit Off-Broadway at The Public Theater, extended three times, but it wasn’t able to find the support to make a Broadway transfer.

Off-Broadway and downtown theaters have long been the welcoming sites of more lesbian-focused works, like Five Lesbian Brothers at the WOW Café in the 1980s. The theater company focused on lesbian narratives, created in collaboration with the theater company’s five founding members: Lisa Kron, Moe Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, and Peg Healey.

Kron would go on to be one of the few out lesbian women to write a lesbian protagonist for Broadway. She, with composer Jeanine Tesori, adapted Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic into a stage musical that premiered at The Public Theater in 2013. The story followed Bechdel’s discovery of her sexuality and her relationship with her closeted gay father.

“Nothing takes you inside the soul of a human being like a musical does,” Kron told Slate before Fun Home’s Broadway previews began. “Are people willing to go there with people who are always on the outskirts, particularly of this form?”

Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, and Emily Skeggs in Fun Home. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, and Emily Skeggs in Fun Home. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Fun Home went on to gain 12 Tony Award nominations in 2015, winning five, including Best Musical. Kron herself won two Tony Awards for her work on it — Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical. If anyone had doubt that a lesbian character could lead a musical, Fun Home proved them wrong. It was a far cry from the company of The Captive getting arrested 90 years prior and became a turning point for lesbian representation on Broadway.

For Roberta Colindrez, who originated the role of Joan in Fun Home, the musical had a major impact not only on her artistry but in her real life as well.

“I wasn’t really out to my parents,” remembers Colindrez. “They were my dates for opening night. My dad and I had our own ‘Telephone Wire’ song moment on the train a week after.” 

Her own experience is how she knew first-hand why Fun Home resonated with so many audience members. Even with the story’s specificity of lesbian identity, it tapped into larger, universal themes.

“It was really powerful. So much of our culture is trying to put ourselves into these tiny lanes of who we are and what our identity is. This show was like, ‘Yeah, she’s gay, he’s gay, but this show is for anyone with parents or anyone with children.’ It was smart and progressive.”

Colindrez has reunited with Bechdel for another next page-to-stage — or, rather, page-to-audio — adaptation.

Carrie Brownstein and Roberta Colindrez speak onstage at Audible Presents "Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For - One Night Stand" at Minetta Lane Theatre. Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Audible.
Carrie Brownstein and Roberta Colindrez speak onstage at Audible Presents Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For – One Night Stand at Minetta Lane Theatre. Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Audible.

Bechdel’s award-winning comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For was adapted into an episodic podcast for Audible, voiced by an all-star cast including Jane Lynch, Carrie Brownstein, Roxane Gay, Jenn Colella, and Colindrez. Following “the lives and loves of one tight-knit dyke community,” the content is more overt compared to Fun Home, unapologetically sharing the joys and concerns of lesbians in 1987. To celebrate the podcast release, members of the cast took to the Minetta Lane stage for a one-night-only performance, a powerful reminder of how much growth has happened in the last decade since Fun Home premiered.

Like the 2018 musical Head Over Heels, which featured two lesbian characters central to the story. Set to the musical catalog of The Go-Go’s, the jukebox musical was an adaptation of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, following the royal family of King Basilius, his wife, Gynecia, and their two daughters, Philoclea and Pamela. Princess Pamela and her handmaiden Mopsa fall in love, and excitingly come out to accepting parents — a rarity seen in the media.

Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen in The Prom. Photo by Deen van Meer.
Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen in The Prom. Photo by Deen van Meer.

The Prom, though written by a team of men, blazed trails for lesbian representation when it opened on Broadway in November 2018. Based on several real-life stories, like the 2010 incident involving Mississippi student Constance McMillen, the Tony-nominated musical follows Emma, an Indiana teenager who is banned from bringing her girlfriend to prom. Though the story provides plenty of emotional turmoil, the finale ends with a triumphant kiss between Emma and her girlfriend, Alyssa. The musical also made history at the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade when the finale kiss was re-created on national television, marking the first LGBTQ kiss in the parade’s history. The musical went on to reach an even wider audience when it was adapted in 2020 for Netflix by Emmy Award winner Ryan Murphy.

Despite the expansion of representation, there are still hurdles to overcome. Earlier in 2023, 100 years after God of Vengeance’s Broadway production, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida, canceled their planned production of Vogel’s Indecent. The principal cited it was due to “mature content,” but students pointed out the connection to the state’s recently passed “Don’t Say Gay” bill. As the students rallied support from the theater community, Vogel herself reached out directly to the school’s administration, volunteering to attend performances and participate in postshow discussions about the play’s themes.

Vogel also offered up encouraging words to the students, ones that seem to resonate in thinking about the past, present, and future of lesbian representation in theater as a whole:

“I send my support to you and all the artists. Hate and intolerance are indecent; never love. Thanks for your courage. This will not end here.”