The theatre has often been a safe space for LGBT+ performers and audiences alike and can serve to educate others on the issues faced by marginalised communities and humanise a group who have historically been persecuted. Lauren Philpott from our friends at the Musical Theatre Appreciation Society discusses how Musical Theatre can both educate their audiences and empower people within the LGBTQ+ community...
To anyone who doesn’t know a lot about the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community theatre can be a great teaching mechanism. There are many shows that draw insight into the lives of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ+) community, but do these shows actually empower people to feel good about their sexuality?
Musicals are a great way of educating people about lesser known topics and bringing people together, so it can go to great lengths in empowering people of any race, religion, sexuality or background. There are so many well known musicals that feature protagonists or supporting characters who are LGBTQ+, either fully or in part; for example KINKY BOOTS, PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, RENT and BARE to name a few. All of these shows feature strong LGBTQ+ protagonists which can inspire people within the LGBTQ+ community to feel good about their sexuality, giving them a role model and sometimes instilling the courage to truly express themselves. These shows also combat some of the most important problems faceing the LGBTQ+ community and a common theme appears to be acceptance.
My knowledge on this topic is somewhat limited and I feel my eyes have been opened during my research, however I apologise in advance if some of the issues I cover here are not quite what others perceive – any comments are very welcome as I feel it is important that we can truly understand the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community.
My initial inspiration for this post came after seeing a tweet by Matt Henry (who until recently played the leading lady Lola in KINKY BOOTS). “To the brave parent who wrote in to thank myself & cast for opening your eyes & accepting your sons sexuality I applaud you #changingminds”.
The key theme for KINKY BOOTS is that of acceptance – Lola teaches us that we need to embrace who we are and love ourselves, whether we are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or straight. Throughout the story of KINKY BOOTS we see Lola experience many of the struggles faced by the LGBTQ+ community, such as ridicule from Don and some other factory workers, self doubt and the struggle to ‘fit in’. This is seen in particular when she comes to work as Simon in men’s clothing, losing all self confidence in an attempt to blend in. She learns to overcome these problems in true style, teaching the audience valuable lessons in acceptance and love in a flurry of true fabulousness – ‘just be who you want to be!’.
Another common theme throughout the musicals mentioned above is the worry of ‘coming out’ to one’s parents, friends or family. In KINKY BOOTS we hear about Simon’s difficulty in getting his father to accept that he is a drag queen, and becoming ostracised by him because of this. Unfortunately, this is a common problem faced by those in the LGBTQ+ community and is reflected in many other musicals, such as BARE, PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT and even AVENUE Q.
BARE tells the story of Peter, a teenage boy in a Catholic school who finds himself in love with his friend and secret lover Jason. Without giving too much away (I’ll try not to include any spoilers) Peter and Jason struggle within a society that will disapprove of their relationship, and so they are forced to hide it, however Peter finally builds up the courage to tell his mother. PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT shows this issue in relation to drag Queen Mitzi Mitosis (AKA Tick) and his worries about coming out to his son. AVENUE Q briefly addresses this topic through the character Rod who denies his sexuality for a long time, eventually accepting it and finding the man for him.
While lots of people are able to accept those in the LGBTQ+ community, unfortunately some do not. Not all musicals approach these topics in the light hearted way that KINKY BOOTS does, instead showing the darker side of this, aiming to educate their audiences about the more nitty gritty issues faced by those in the LGBTQ+ community. BARE is an important show regarding this and reminds us that sometimes there isn’t always a happy ending. It highlights the ridicule and abuse sometimes faced by the LBGTQ+ community and the attempts to escape from them. These happen all too often and can go to great lengths in giving the audience an insight into the struggles people in the LGBTQ+ community have to face.
Even though these musicals often depict the hard times faced by those who are LGBTQ+, overall the resounding messages are those of love and acceptance. A great example of this is Michael in BILLY ELLIOT – even though a young Michael doesn’t ever seem to struggle with his sexuality, merely asking ‘what the hell’s wrong with expressing yourself, being who you want to be?’ Michael’s naive lack of shame is what is needed all around!
Musicals are full of inspirational characters, and to me no-one is more inspirational than RENT's Angel. She, like Lola, teaches love and compassion, bringing her friendship group together with abundant love and generosity. Her relationship with Collins is truly one that can be looked up to as it is so full of love and passion – a truly inspirational relationship, and a character who can really be looked up to.
With Pride celebrations filling the country with joy every summer, what better way to celebrate LGBT+ stories than with a musical that teaches you to embrace your own (and other people’s) sexuality? After all, KINKY BOOTS teaches us to ‘just be who you want to be’, ‘accept someone for who they are’ and that ‘you change the world when you change your mind.’ We can’t hear that enough!