musicals and the gay gene


by Gabriel Rotello

The Advocate - March 18, 2003

Arguments about whether there's a "gay gene" have roiled scholars for years. But as Oscar night approaches, I'm going out on a limb to declare that while we may never stop arguing about that, we can be sure of one thing: There's a Broadway musical gene, and gay men have it. Solid proof is on movie screens all over America.

Chicago, the most sizzling movie musical since Cabaret, is single-handedly reviving what was until recently considered a moribund art form. And no surprise to me, it was created in almost every sense by gays: namely, its writer, producers, and brilliant director. Pure coincidence? Puhl-e-e-eze. Chicago is just the latest bit of scientific evidence that while the homosexual hypothalamus may not necessarily determine sexual orientation, it sure knows how to tap its toes.

It's funny about gay men and musicals. Sure, the theater queen stereotype may be a bit overblown. But when you count up the sheer number of Cole Porters and Michael Bennetts, Stephen Sondheims and Noel Cowards, Jerome Robbinses, Jerry Hermans, Leonard Bernsteins, and Tommy Tunes, you have to admit that a velvet mafia has always had Broadway in its pocket.

And what's true onstage is just as true out there in the audience. Starting in junior high, boys blessed with the Broadway gene reflexively shun the gridiron to embrace Gypsy. And what happens? They're almost automatically pegged as gays-in-training. (I know--I was one.)

As we grow older, the gene manifests itself in strange and eerie ways. For decades phrases like "friend of Dorothy" were pillars of the secret code of the closet. Today's repository of this genetic lore isn't so much the Broadway stage as the big city piano bar--as gay an institution as the leather bar. There you'll find theater queens, driven by an impulse Freud never addressed, sitting around singing obscure songs from shows that closed out of town--and somehow knowing every word!

So Foucaultians can whistle against the wind. Homosexuality and hoofing go together like ... well, like song and dance.

Need more proof? Consider this. For the past couple of decades the musical was considered a dying art form. Rock overthrew Broadway show tunes as America's most popular music, and audiences supposedly didn't buy actors spontaneously bursting into song. Maybe. But it's just as possible that musicals declined because the vital gay link had been damaged.

AIDS swept away many of Broadway's leading gay lights, like Michael Bennett--people we needed to keep the genre going. And gay lib itself may have thrown a wrench into the genetic works. After all, an intense biological attraction to Ethel Merman and clever lyrics used to create the kind of bond for gays that sports do for many straights. Once we were liberated, our genes went all wooky, confused by a culture that produced disco, the gym, and the circuit. Cut off from what we knew best, gay men were cast adrift.

But biology is destiny, and the sudden success of a movie musical put together by a top gay team has profound clinical implications. The fact that writer Bill Condon, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and director Rob Marshall were able to cook up such a stunning reinvention validates musical essentialism and refutes any constructionist blather that they just "happen" to be gay.

After all, Chicago's gay creators report that they didn't fall in love with musicals because of gay culture or gay oppression, and they certainly weren't "recruited." They "always knew" they loved musicals. Rob Marshall reports that he "knew" when he was 4; Craig Zadan when he was 8. Sound familiar?

This, people, is the mysterious gay musical gene at work. Its fruits are now up on the screen to razzle-dazzle the clueless masses.

So on Oscar night I'll tip my hat to other gay-related films, like The Hours. But I'll be rooting for Chicago. Not just for what it is but what it represents. As Tevye says in Fiddler: Tradition! In this case, a major gay biological tradition, battered and bruised but still all-singing, all-dancing, and all-dreaming, despite changing tastes and the circuit and all that jazz.