Change doesn’t happen overnight – and the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is no exception. Over the years, Broadway has acted as both a haven for the community and as an incubator to present new viewpoints to a wider audience. Broadway Spin put together a brief timeline of some of the most pivotal LGBTQ+-focused stories to ever grace the Great White Way… so far, at least.
Conceived by Hal Prince and starring Joel Grey, much of the story is anchored by the character known as the Master of Ceremonies (Grey) — and how he is depicted has evolved with the times. In the original production, he was left in the closet – and Grey himself came out as a gay man a full five decades later. By Bob Fosse’s 1972 version, the Emcee had become bi-curious. When the musical returned to Broadway in 1987, he was officially bisexual. And ever since Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall took the reins in the 1998 revival, he’s been a gay man gearing up the courage to openly express himself.
1968: The Boys in the Band
If this title sounds familiar, it’s probably due to the star-studded Broadway revival last year. The play, which got its start off-Broadway, revolves around a group of gay men who gather for a birthday party in New York City. At the time, it was a groundbreaking, honest portrayal of gay life – arguably one of the first ever to hit the stage. In fact, the original production has been cited as a catalyst to the 1969 Stonewall riots and the gay rights movement in general.
1983: La Cage aux Folles
This atypical musical features an aging, gay couple who are forced to hide their sexual orientation in order to meet the fiancée of one of their sons. George Hearn, one of the original leads, admitted he’d struggled with whether to take the role at all. “It’s funny, but I never thought twice about playing a cold-blooded murderer like Sweeney Todd,” he revealed. “But this gave me pause.” In 1984, the show took home six Tony Awards, including Best Score, Best Book, Best Direction, and Best Musical. That alone marked an important milestone for LGBTQ+ stories.
1985: The Normal Heart
The early 1980s marked the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which spurred some of the most eloquent and heartbreaking stories to hit Broadway as focus shifted from relationships to a major health crisis. Written by Larry Kramer, the off-Broadway production of The Normal Heart was hailed as both outspoken and on-point, and was subsequently revived in Los Angeles, London, and New York before making a Broadway debut in 2011.
1991: Angels in America
Tony Kushner’s dense, metaphorical, two-part play that examines AIDS and homosexuality in the 1980s. It reached Broadway in 1993 and won not only the Tony Award for the Best Play, but also a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. However, not everyone was pleased. In 1996, a production of Angels in America in Charlotte, North Carolina almost didn’t happen when conservative activists opposed the show’s frontal nudity. An order from a judge merely three hours before the curtain time gave the show clearance to go on as planned.
In 1996 an off-Broadway musical based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Boheme moved to Broadway proper and became an immediate hit. The show was Rent. It went on to win the Tony for Best Musical, the Pulitzer Prize, and run for 12 years straight. As a refresh, Rent follows a group of 20-somethings struggling with homelessness, poverty, and AIDS. What made this show different than many of its predecessors who tackled the same topic, however, was the show’s emphasis on celebrating people living with, not dying from, the disease.
2006: Spring Awakening
Based on a (banned) play from 1891, Spring Awakening looks at LGBTQ+ issues through the wider lens of teenage self-discovery. Yes, there is an element of oppressive parents in the background, but the focus is on young people figuring out who they really are – regardless of gender or orientation. The original 2006 production won eight Tony Awards and earned a Grammy for composers Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater, but arguably the most impactful version was Deaf West’s 2015 revival, which portrayed some characters as deaf and incorporated American Sign Language to the production.
2012: Kinky Boots
Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein teamed up to create the feel-good musical that follows a failing shoe factory-owner who teams up with a black drag queen named Lola to make a line of high-heeled boots and save the family business. The production won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score, and Lauper became the first female to win solo in that category.
2013: Fun Home
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Fun Home follows Alison’s coming out journey and her father’s discreet homosexuality. Three actresses portray Alison: first as a child, then a student, then a middle-aged woman. While earlier musicals (most notably Rent) included previously established lesbian couples, Fun Home was the first show to feature a single lesbian protagonist in process of finding herself. It made its way to Broadway and won five 2015 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
2018: The Prom
Then it was time to go to The Prom. When a high school PTA tries to block a student from bringing her girlfriend to prom, four Broadway stars decide to shine a spotlight on the issue. The show features an established teenage couple, but one of the girls is not yet open about her sexuality. When the show performed during the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, activist groups protested the same-sex kiss at the end of the song. The Prom is currently nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score.
Tune into The 73rd Annual Tony Awards this Sunday, June 9th at 8:00pm on CBS to see The Prom + others! All of this year’s Tony-nominated shows are in play at Broadway Roulette!
A version of this story first appeared in W42St magazine. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here!