Gays on Broadway

Image of Gays on Broadway
Release Date: 
June 1, 2023
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

“filled with passion for his subject, fascinating if sometimes eccentric insights, and delicious backstage gossip.”

In addition to his novels, Ethan Mordden has written over 20 books on American theater and the American musical. His decade-by-decade multi-volume series on the Broadway musical is required reading for anyone interested in the genre. Mordden’s lack of citation of documentation can be frustrating to academic readers, but his work artfully highlights the combination of text (book, score, lyrics) and performance that make the American musical so special to its audiences. Mordden is gifted at describing a musical as a performed work. He loves the stars as much as he loves the songs. He gives the reader the sense that he actually saw all the shows he describes.

Mordden’s books present the American musical through the eyes of a gay spectator. He may not have been as focused on gay spectatorship as D.A. Miller, but his emphasis on the queerness of the musical has always been there. In his new volume, Mordden focuses on the history of American gay theatre. The title, Gays on Broadway, is something of a misnomer. In fact, the cover photo is of the original Off-Broadway cast of Mart Crowley’s 1968 hit, The Boys in the Band, which did not have a Broadway production until 2018. Many of the plays and musicals Mordden discusses in this volume were produced Off- or Off-Off Broadway.

Mordden offers a decade-by-decade history of gay theatre since 1900, beginning with the celebrated drag artists who defied the conventional heteronormativity of early 20th century theater. He discusses the rare dramatic depictions of lesbians and gay men in the 1920s and the fierce legal resistance to those plays that culminated in the Wales Padlock Act, designed to frighten producers and theater owners who might consider staging depictions of homosexuality.

Mordden touches on the works that are considered landmarks of gay theater history, but he often zeroes in on personalities that particularly fascinate him. Much of his discussion of gay theater in the 1930s focuses on actress-producer-director Eva Le Gallienne, who produced great versions of classics and modern European plays at her Civic Playhouse. There is nothing particularly queer about Le Gallienne’s work, but she was one celebrated queer theater artist who did not hide in a convenient heterosexual marriage. Lyricist John LaTouche is a major focus in his discussion of the 1950s. In fact, LaTouche, forgotten by all but the cognoscenti, gets almost as much attention as central figures like Tennessee Williams. Mordden is always passionately subjective about his likes and dislikes. Eccentric actress Tallulah Bankhead is another figure who is discussed at length in Mordden’s chronicle—one of the “Big Characters” he admires. 

He is not the first writer to see in the plays of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Edward Albee, a rapt fascination with what used to be called in gay parlance “trade”—the attractive but dangerous heterosexual male who could be sexually available. Williams’s Stanley Kowalski is the prime example of this kind of erotic focus, but his type can also be found in other Williams plays, as well as in Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba and Picnic and in Albee’s early one-act plays. As they must at the time, the plays present these men through the eyes of women, but, like the models in the beefcake magazines bought furtively by gay men gay men in the pre-Stonewall era, these often-shirtless male characters were the objects of homoerotic desire.

The 1960s was the real beginning of openly gay theater, first in small Off-Off Broadway venues like the Caffe Cino in the West Village, then eventually moving to Off-Broadway. Mordden offers a quick summary of some key works, then focuses on Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, which Mordden calls “the most influential play in gay history.” “It freed everything up,” he claims, but the same kind of celebration of gay argot, camp, and queer anger, other-directed and self-directed, can be found in earlier works like Robert Patrick’s The Haunted Host. The difference is that Crowley’s play got a commercial producer and moved uptown. The Boys in the Band would not exist without Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Crowley’s play was developed at Edward Albee’s theater workshop, even though Albee hated it. Nonetheless, The Boys in the Band ran for a thousand performances and was made into a movie, thus becoming, for better or for worse, the most widely available picture of contemporary gay life.

From the 1960s on, there is a canon of American gay theatre that appears on and off-Broadway. Mordden offers brief summaries of key works by Terrence McNally, Tony Kushner, William M. Hoffman, and other lesser-known figures. He is right to praise Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance, one of the best gay plays written in our century.

Mordden devotes much of his final chapter to the work of Edward Albee, a gay playwright who was outspoken in his dislike of gay drama. Mordden singles Albee out because he was the most influential playwright on later gay authors. What makes Albee plays gay is not so much the content “as much as his style, his tone, his jokes, his unmissable gay persona.” Mordden’s discussion of Albee’s work is typical of his analyses throughout this and other volumes, filled with passion for his subject, fascinating if sometimes eccentric insights, and delicious backstage gossip.

There are more scholarly, comprehensive works on the history of American gay drama, but none are as enjoyable as Mordden’s book. It is highly subjective, sometimes oddball in its focus, but it is like spending a few hours in the company of a highly knowledgeable gay aficionado. At a time when theater studies has become more about anthropology than art, it is refreshing to read a book by someone who loves plays.