20 Landmark Shows in
June marks the official start of Pride Month! This year Silhouette Stages is celebrating pride by highlighting 20 landmark shows that have contributed to LGBTQ+ theatre's rich history.
In the first half of the 20th century, you could be arrested for staging a gay play. Theatres could be packed and shows sold out, but that wouldn’t stop them from being shut down for "obscene" content.
Thankfully, that's no longer the case. Attitudes have changed, and queer themes aren't viewed as vulgar in the eyes of the law - but we're still playing catch up. LGBTQ+ theatre has for a long time been a predominantly cis, white, male game. That hasn’t necessarily been the case on the fringes, but those plays haven’t interested mainstream theatres in the same way, so this list of 20 shows that have shaped queer theatre history is by no means exhaustive.
We’re missing narratives from people of color, trans, non-binary, bisexual and more, not to mention those that aren't centered around America and the UK. They exist, but now it’s up to Broadway and other larger theatres to bring these plays to the forefront.
1927 - The Drag by Mae West
The Drag follows Rolly, a gay man who marries a woman to hide his sexuality, and the consequences of this. As an avid and unrelenting supporter of gay rights throughout her life, Mae West made waves with The Drag in 1927, which she wrote under pen name Jane Mast. Familiar with controversy following her previous play Sex, The Drag caused the most outrage for her depiction of homosexuality and cross-dressing. With a cast of exclusively gay actors from a Greenwich Village club, the play was a huge financial success, but was widely panned by critics and shut down due to obscenity laws and never made it to Broadway as planned. At the same time, a police raid on Sex saw West tried, found guilty and sentenced to ten days in jail with a $500 fine.
1968 - The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley
This groundbreaking play premiered off-Broadway at Theatre Four on April 14, 1968 – more than a year before the Stonewall Uprising – and ran for 1,001 performances. Subsequently made into a feature film with the original cast, The Boys in the Band was scathing and unapologetic in its frank portrayal of gay men in New York. The attitudes of the play are pre-Pride in every way; the characters seem resigned to live in a world that refuses to accept them. In the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, Crowley said, "The self-deprecating humor was born out of a low self-esteem, from a sense of what the times told you about yourself.” The play’s honesty and brashness made it a game-changer; after The Boys in the Band, theatre would never be the same.
1975 - The Ritz by Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally managed to be both a traditionalist and a pioneer with this uproarious 1975 Broadway hit; he set his traditional door-slamming farce in a gay bathhouse. When Gaetano Proclo, a hapless, middle-aged, overweight, very married man takes it on the lam from his mafioso brother-in-law, Carmine Vespucci, he ducks into “The Ritz,” the last place anyone would look for him. In the bathhouse, he encounters towel-clad chubby chasers, go-go boys, bumbling detectives, and Googie Gomez, an over-the-top would-be Bette Midler looking for her big break. Post-Stonewall but pre-AIDS, The Ritz celebrated the free spirit of early “Gay Lib” with joy and high-speed hilarity.
1978 - Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein
In 1978, gay “clone culture” was on the rise; many gay Americans tried to assimilate by appearing more “straight,” and Americans became more familiar with images of butch gay men. (The Village People’s 1978 hit “Macho Man” celebrated the phenomenon.) “At the height of the post-Stonewall clone era,” wrote playwright Charles Busch in a 2002 article for The Advocate, “Harvey [Fierstein] challenged both gay and straight audiences to champion an effeminate gay man's longings for love and family.” Fierstein’s comedy opened off-Broadway at La Mama ETC in February and would transfer to Broadway four years later, in 1982.
Radically honest, hilariously contemporary, and deeply moving, Torch Song Trilogy is constructed of three one-act plays exploring the life of Arnold Beckoff, a torch song-singing Jewish drag queen in New York City. In his uniquely appealing voice, Arnold tells of his struggles through love, loss, the challenge of child-rearing and the fight for acceptance.
1979 - Bent by Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman’s harrowing play shines a light on the persecution of gay men during the Holocaust. Max (played by Ian McKellen in the original run at the Royal Court) is a gay man in Berlin in the 1930s, taken to Dachau with his boyfriend Rudy after the Night of Long Knives. He pretends to be Jewish, believing his chances of survival would be higher with a yellow star rather than pink triangle. After Rudy is brutally beaten to death, Max falls in love with an openly gay man in the camp. Bent remains one of the best known gay plays in theatre history and continues to inspire revivals. McKellen also appeared in the film adaptation starring Clive Owen in 1997.
1980 - Last Summer at Bluefish Cove by Jane Chambers
As the first mainstream lesbian piece of theatre in America, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980) is a seminal work that has yet to have the same impact on this side of the pond. Bluefish Cove is a “gay woman’s haven” where a group of seven lesbians are spending their annual holiday. A straight woman, Eva, wanders into the colony after leaving an unhappy marriage, initially completely oblivious that she is surrounded by lesbians. She wises up by the end though. Given that many of the more famous plays about lesbians prior to this were written by men, Jane Chambers's work stands out by the simple fact that she is a woman telling her own story. However, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove deserves more credit than to just be praised because of representation. It's a wonderful piece of theatre in its own right.
1983 - La Cage aux Folles by Harvey Fierstein
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Based on the play by Jean Poiret
A traditional book musical with a gloriously old-fashioned score, La Cage was nonetheless groundbreaking when it opened on Broadway on August 21, 1983. Based on the hit French film, the hilarious musical comedy presents a family headed by two gay men. Jerry Herman’s lovely “Song on the Sand,” sung by Georges to Albin, marked a theatre milestone: for the first time in history, a man stood on a Broadway stage and sang a heartfelt love song to another man. The show also introduced a powerful and enduring gay anthem; “I Am What I Am,” which celebrates gay identity, became the soundtrack for generations of LGBTQ+ protests, marches and celebrations. La Cage aux Folles won the 1984 Tony Award for Best Musical
1991 - Angels In America by Tony Kushner
The exploration of AIDS in 1980s America in an epic undertaking, and Angels in America is a suitably epic play. Split into two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, Tony Kushner’s script tackles life and death, heaven and hell, and love and loss, on the backdrop of a conservative society. When Angels in America premiered at the National Theatre, only the first half had been completed, but a revival the following year showed both parts back to back, including early stage performances by relative unknowns Daniel Craig and Jason Isaacs. Isaacs said he didn’t know if anything in his career could match up to his experience of this play. Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane both won Tony Awards for their parts in the 2018 revival, with Garfield dedicating his win to “the LGBTQ people who have died for their right to love”.
1992 – Falsettos by William Finn & James Lapine
Music & Lyrics by William Finn
William Finn and James Lapine's Falsettos first premiered on Broadway in 1992, and consists of two separate musicals, March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990).
The musical revolves around the life of a charming, intelligent, neurotic gay man named Marvin, his wife, lover, about-to-be-Bar-Mitzvahed son, their psychiatrist, and the lesbians next door. It's a hilarious and achingly poignant look at the infinite possibilities that make up a modern family... and a beautiful reminder that love can tell a million stories.
1993 – RENT by Johnathan Larson
Everyone who knows musicals knows Rent, and how it broke boundaries in many ways since its premiere in 1993. The rock musical is loosely based on Puccini's 1896 opera La Bohème. It tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in Lower Manhattan's East Village in the thriving days of bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.
1998 - Hedwig and the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell/ Music & Lyrics by Stephen Trask
Hedwig has carved itself a place as a cult favorite among theatre fans since its off-Broadway debut in 1998. The musical tells the story of outrageous transgender singer Hedwig and their rock-n-roll band, the Angry Inch, a name inspired by Hedwig's own botched sex change operation. The production is performed by Hedwig as a rock gig/stand-up comedy routine, backed by his band. The role was originally played by John Cameron Mitchell, and was even further popularized by Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Darren Criss, and Taye Diggs, when it arrived on Broadway in 2014.
2000 - Bare: A Pop Opera by Jon Hartmere & Damon Intrabartolo Music by Damon Intrabartolo/ lyrics by Jon Hartmere
Bare: A Pop Opera is a coming-of-age rock musical. The story focuses on a group of high school students, mainly a love story between two teen boys, and their struggles with sexuality, acceptance, drug use, and societal pressures at their private Catholic boarding school. The musical debuted at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles, running from October 14, 2000 to February 25, 2001. The New York production of Bare at the American Theatre of Actors Off-Broadway, ran from April 19 to May 27, 2004.
2013 - Fun Home adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori (from Alison Bechdel's memoir)
Despite the early instances of lesbian relationships on stage, particularly in off-Broadway America in the form of Eduoard Bourdet’s The Captive and Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, there have been few female-centric plays to break the mainstream queer canon of performance. None have done so in the way that Fun Home has, nominated for 12 Tony Awards and winning five. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel autobiography, it follows her life, exploration of her own sexuality and discovery of her father’s. Fun Home is a groundbreaking piece of theatre for its upheaval of the musical theatre form, and the very fact of its lesbian protagonist. It is by no means as controversial as many plays with central male gay themes, but has to work doubly hard because of this lack of other lesbian storylines on the stage, something that is in dire need of changing and that Fun Home itself could catalyze.
2015 – Indecent by Paula Vogel
Inspired by a true story, Indecent recounts the controversy surrounding the play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, which documented antisemitism and a relationship between two women, and was a success in Yiddish productions across Europe. After it came to Broadway in 1923, it was raided and shut down as obscene. Vogel said a kiss between two women was used “as a pretext for closing a Jewish play.” It moved to Broadway in 2017. The New York Times called it “superbly realized and remarkably powerful” and critics hailed it as one of the best plays of 2017. Created by Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman and set at a time when waves of immigrants were changing the face of America, this play with music took a riveting look at an explosive moment in theatrical history and received a Tony nomination for best play in 2017.
2016 - Southern Comfort by Julianne Wick Davis & Dan Collins
For decades, while Broadway frequently presented cross-dressing characters for comic purposes, actual transgender people remained virtually invisible in musical theatre. That changed when Southern Comfort introduced a nuanced, compassionate portrait of a family of transgender friends. After its World Premiere Production at Barrington Stage Company in Barrington, MA in Summer 2013, this bluegrass musical opened off-Broadway at The Public Theater on March 13, 2016.
2016 - 5 Guys Chillin' by Peter Darney
It may not have had a wide mainstream reach or be as well known as many of the others, but the message and impact of 5 Guys Chillin' means it needs to be recognized. Peter Darney constructed his script from 50 hours of interviews with men he had “met” on Grindr. They talked to him about chemsex - taking drugs to enhance sex, generally between men who sleep with men - and their experiences. The things they describe - racism, rape, overdose, HIV - are made all the more impactful by the fact that the words are verbatim. Prior to this, chemsex wasn’t widely discussed and has since been classified as a national health crisis.
2017 - Eve by Jo Clifford
If you think there is little in the way of female stories, there are even fewer trans stories. With around 80 plays under her belt, Jo Clifford is at the front of this particular parade. Eve tells the story of a child raised as a boy, who always knew they were in the wrong skin. As an adult, the child grew into one of 2017’s most Outstanding Women in Scotland. Written together with Chris Goode, Clifford tells her own story at a time when trans rights are under fire from people on all ends of the political spectrum.
(Illustration by Ryan Casey for Broadway.com)
2018 - The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez
Selling out its world premiere at the Young Vic in London and gaining five star reviews in its West End transfer, The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez, hot on the heels of the Angels in America revival, asks what it is like for the next generation of young gay men in New York, growing up and living in the shadow of the AIDS crisis. Under the spell of E M Forster, Howards End is an inspiration for this piece of work. While Lopez’s play holds its own with charisma and intelligence, it also demonstrates the influence of the building blocks laid by the countless plays that came before, not least Angels of America.
2018 - The Prom by Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin
The Prom is probably what most think of when they think of a modern LGBTQ+ musical. The Broadway musical made history when it displayed the first LGBTQ+ kiss on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2018.
The musical centers around a lesbian couple, Emma Nolan and Alyssa Greene, who are banned from going to their high school prom together. A group of Broadway stars come into town to help the girls out and shake things up along the way. Itwent on to be adapted for the big screen, in a Netflix film starring the likes of Meryl Streep, James Corden, Ariana DeBose, and Andrew Rannells.
2022 – A Strange Loop by Michael R Jackson
This Pulitzer Prize winning Big, Black, and Queer Musical first produced off-Broadway in 2019, then staged in Washington, D.C. in 2021, and premiered on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre in April 2022. The show follows Usher, a Black queer man writing a musical about a Black queer man writing a musical. The title refers to a cognitive science term coined by Douglas Hofstadter, as well as a song by Liz Phair. it was praised for its emotional honesty and meta themes within both the writing and the musical compositions. It was also praised for the performances that the cast gave, calling them “physically exhaustive.” The show won Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical at the 75th Tony Awards.