Boys and girls come out to play, the moon does shine as bright as gay...'
Sang little four-year old James lustily, swinging his male partner around the makeshift stage in the school hall. Hardly a glittering West End debut (I can't even remember the name of the play that we were performing), but nevertheless a curiously apt beginning to my musical theatre career.
I have loved both men and musical theatre for most of my life. I remember changing for PE around the age of six and recognising that I was more interested in James A. than Sarah P. (our primary school's equivalent to Posh and Becks). I remember the visiting theatre groups from Harlow Playhouse that brought Charlotte's Web and The Snowman into our tiny school hall. And I remember that every year, my wonderful primary school would teach us a musical using the BBC Radio 4 educational programmes Music Workshop and Music Makers. I was never the greatest performer but I loved the singing and the acting more than anything.
My first real contact with established musicals came many years later through the fortnightly Musicals Collection by Orbis Publishing, a monthly magazine which presented a brief synopsis of a musical alongside an analysis of its songs and biographies of its composers and stars - and of course, a recording of highlights from the show in question. Daddy Lovelock dutifully subscribed to the magazine and I built up the complete collection of 75 musicals ranging from The Phantom of the Opera (starring Joey from the ITV sitcom Bread) to Kiss Me Kate (starring opera stars Thomas Allen and Diana Montague alongside Joey from Bread) to a hilariously camp remake of the silent film Metropolis (starring Brian Blessed, Joey from Bread and a very bemused-sounding Judy Kuhn). The collection itself was quite eclectic, including most of the classic musicals beloved by my local operatic companies (Oklahoma, Me and My Girl, Guys and Dolls) alongside less well-known shows that quickly became favourites: Snoopy The Musical, The Baker’s Wife and Goodbye Mr Chips. My personal copy of TheMusicals Collection has long since been subsumed by full length original cast albums on CD and on iTunes - looking back, it was probably a mistake for Daddy Lovelock to put his faith in cassette tapes - but this collection still forms my basic repertoire of musical theatre. I suspect that I am one of a very select number of people whose consistent overplaying wore out a cassette tape of Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man (starring Sicknote from London’s Burning - I imagine Joey from Bread was busy that day).
The publication of The Musicals Collection between 1991 and 1995 coincided with my early to mid-teens and I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that I was growing up gay in an all-boys school on the border between Hertfordshire and Essex. The hostility of the pupils towards homosexuality was matched by the flippant attitude of the male teachers towards homophobic bullying and my seven years at secondary school were largely a miserable experience. I was lucky enough that there were a few wonderful female teachers at the school that looked out for me and challenged some of the worst bullying (I will never forget my Spanish teacher, Miss De Siun, challenging the use of the word 'faggot' in her classroom) but I still suffered constant verbal and occasional physical abuse throughout my time there. Looking back, the same attitude towards homosexuality was prevalent in all my dealings with the authorities as a teenager - the female doctor that asked me intrusive sexual questions, the vicar that told me that it was ok to have homosexual feelings but not to act on them and the council worker that treated my homosexuality like a disease that needed to be cured. I spent many hours in my room escaping into the fantasy world of the musical with Joey from Bread, but in reality, even musical theatre was letting me down in terms of my queer identity. As a teenager, I felt entirely alone in my sexuality and The Musicals Collection contained just one unambiguously queer character across all 75 musicals - Frank 'n' Furter from The Rocky Horror Show. I understand now how some older gay men identify a queer sensibility in musicals but the lack of explicit representation in the musicals canonised by The Musicals Collection did little to help my feelings of isolation at the time. It did not even occur to me that some of the writers, creatives and actors that produced the recordings might share my sexuality, which seemed to be reviled and ignored by most of the circles that I inhabited.
I came out as gay at the age of 21 after three years studying music at the University of Birmingham. By this time my head had been temporarily turned by opera - ironically, while Rent was running at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1998, I was watching the Welsh National Opera production of La Boheme at the Birmingham Hippodrome. It was not until I moved closer to London in 2006 that I saw my first gay character in musical theatre - Michael in Billy Elliot The Musical. This was the first show that I became fanatical about, seeing the show over a hundred times within the space of 18 months. I was particularly obsessed by the moment where Michael is left alone on the stage at the end of the musical, which connected with my own early experiences of falling in love (mostly with unobtainable straight men). This obsession is not something that I am entirely comfortable with (my therapist noted at time that I had accidentally fallen in love with a musical instead of a man), but I think this highlights the importance of queer representation on stage - and for me, the first time that I saw part of my queer lived experience reflected in a musical.
The sub-title of my book comes from Avenue Q, another musical that had a lasting impact on me during my first years in London. I recently saw a touring version of Avenue Q with some of my students, and there are clearly some elements of the show that have dated horribly - particularly the stereotypical racial parodies in 'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist' and 'The More You Ruv Someone'. The musical's frankness about sex and sexuality can still shock the audience though (watching two puppets having sex in a mindboggling variety of different positions with one's students is definitely an experience!), and the tragi-comic 'Fantasies Come True' remains one of my favourite depictions of uniquely queer experience in musical theatre.
'Fantasies Come True' is unusual in that it is a duet between two halves of two different couples - Kate Monster and Rod. The difference between the two characters is clear - Kate's heterosexual relationship with Princeton is destined to be successful, while Rod's homosexual desire for his straight roommate Nicky is doomed. Things are easier now with the advent of dating apps, but in the early 2000s I can remember walking into pubs and bars with my straight friends and knowing that I had less than a 10% chance that any man I met would be attracted to my gender, let alone me. The moment that Rod realises that he has been dreaming that Nicky is in love with him is quite similar to Michael's moment at the end of Billy Elliot - a very queer sort of unrequited love that has to be revoked if it ever becomes visible to the other person.
In answer to the title of the blog post, the reason that I am writing this book is to shed light on similar moments of queer recognition where musical theatre is able to connect with its queer audiences through an explicit representation of LGBTQ+ characters. Over the past five years in particular, there have been an array of musicals that feature gay characters and tell their stories. I am grateful for all of these shows, but also painfully aware that musical theatre has often failed to look outside of the white, middle-class gay male experience of 'queerness'. Therefore this project aims to connect with creatives, performers and audience members from across different ethnicities, sexualities, genders and social classes to highlight some of the as-yet-untold queer stories - and to draw attention to some lesser-known shows that represent the full spectrum of the LGBTQ* experience.
I am looking forward to sharing some of the musicals that I am researching on this blog, and drawing together different experiences of queerness in all of its shapes and colours in the book itself. I hope that the blog will keep my friends, colleagues, students and potential readers as excited as I am about the project. Please get in touch if you would like to contribute to my research - chatting with other people is one of my favourite things!