For the last several decades, LGBTQ characters and their stories have become integral parts of the musical theatre canon. We take a look at five songs that were “firsts” in LGBTQ storytelling onstage.
“Ring of Keys” from Fun Home
(Music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Lisa Kron)
Why it makes the list: Written for the character of Small Alison, “Ring of Keys” has often been misidentified as a love song; however its authors state that it is a song of identification. Through a mixture of recognition, curiosity, and wonder, “Ring of Keys” musicalizes the moment a pre-teen Alison sees a “butch” lesbian for the first time. Kron initially resisted writing it in fear that the description of a butch woman in song would veer toward unintended comedy—yet another dehumanizing trope. Instead, Tesori and Kron braved uncharted dramatic territory for young LGBTQ characters as Alison grapples to express what she is feeling. In a staggering moment of emotional purity, “Ring of Keys” transcends sexuality and captures what seemingly cannot be expressed. “Your swagger and your bearing, and the just right clothes you’re wearing...” she sings. “And your keys, oh, your ring of keys... I know you.”
“I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles
(Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman)
Why it makes the list: In 1983, this unapologetic anthem of defiance and self-acceptance, which Herman carefully constructed as a classic Broadway showstopper that builds and builds into an ecstatic finish to the show’s first act, allowed a gay character to define life on his own terms. This tidal wave of a song swept across audiences in an era when LGBTQ Americans were still without equal rights, and the U.S. government largely ignored the AIDS crisis that had just begun to devastate the gay community—including many members of the La Cage cast. While many LGBTQ people continued to live in fear of losing their homes, their jobs, and their families, “I Am What I Am” emboldened them to be brave and open up their closet. “I Am What I Am” (and La Cage itself) is a musical theatre silver bullet; laying bare the shared humanity of LGBTQ people and the discrimination they faced, but beautifully wrapped as a familiar, hummable, and entertaining piece of theatre.
“Unlikely Lovers” from Falsettos
(Music and lyrics by William Finn)
Why it makes the list: Written for the 1990 one-act musical Falsettoland, which continued the story of William Finn and James Lapine’s 1981 work March of the Falsettos (both of which were ultimately married into the single musical Falsettos), “Unlikely Lovers” found music and harmony in the heartbreak of an all-too-familiar and unfathomable reality for the gay community at the time: the helplessness of an AIDS hospital room. The depth of Marvin and Whizzer’s relationship is peeled away in Finn’s conversational and playful lyrics, which deepen into a harmonically rich song of solidarity as they sing, “Let’s be scared together. Let’s pretend that nothing is awful. There’s nothing to fear. Just stay right here. I love you.”
“What About Love?” from The Color Purple
(Music and lyrics by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, and Allee Willis)
Why it makes the list: The musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an African American woman’s lifelong journey toward emotional and spiritual liberation delivered a landmark onstage moment that was largely glossed over in the 1985 film—the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug. While Shug’s sexuality is more fluid (she moves in and out of Celie’s life with other men). It is the initial mystery of Shug’s body that awakens Celie’s own sexuality, and the intimate bond the women share brings a deep love into Celie’s life, one that anchors her independence. “What About Love?” is a long overdue benchmark in lesbian storytelling onstage, particularly for women of color.
“You Could Never Shame Me” from Kiss of the Spider Woman
(Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb)
Why it makes the list: The musical adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel about a gay window dresser and a political revolutionary forced to share a cramped cell in an Argentine prison arrived on Broadway in 1992. While a large part of Spider Woman hinges on Molina’s pull toward the mysterious titular figure (originated by Chita Rivera), book writer Terrence McNally wrote an unexpected scene in which Molina experiences morphine hallucinations while in the infirmary. His mother appears, and as she begins to care for him, Molina confesses, “There are no girls, Mama. I have brought you such shame.” Whether real or imagined by Molina, “You Could Never Shame Me” is Broadway’s first song of acceptance sung by a parent to their gay child, and it mostly goes unrecognized. She sings to him, “I know that you’re different. I don’t really care. I would never change a hair... Some other mamas have children whose secrets hurt them so, but you have no secrets, I already know. And you could never shame me. Let me say out loud: I've a son, a loving son, who makes me proud.”