The Best Queer Characters in Musical Theatre

Awards season is now well underway with all of our favourite actors, artists and performers receiving nominations for the most prestigious awards across all artistic genres. One of the most eagerly anticipated awards show is the Tony Awards, which gives praise to the achievements in live Broadway theatre. Musical theatre has always been an art form which homosexual culture has kept close to its heart; every tap dance, every belty ballad and every jazz hand acting as an escape to anyone with worries or doubts. With this list, we shall assemble the most iconic queer characters to feature in this gloriously camp and ground-breaking genre.

ALISON BECHDEL IN FUN HOME

Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s heart-warming adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, subtitled A Family Tragicomic, depicts Bechdel’s coming of age and how she came to terms with her sexuality at a young age. The musical beautifully confronts the struggles that many young adults face as they start to discover their sexuality and then try to open up to their loved ones about their new found experiences. Over an emotionally packed musical soundtrack the audience watch Alison Bechdel grow from an 8 year-old trying to connect with her father, to a 19 year-old college student and finally to the 43 year-old Alison who narrates the show.

Noted as being Broadway’s first lesbian protagonist, Kron and Tesori’s character rightfully earns her spot on our list as she brings a tender subject for children and adolescents into the spotlight. Bechdel shows audiences that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or whatever sexuality you might identify as does not matter when you have a family who will love you no matter what. Not only that, the character of Small Alison is played incredibly by child actress Sydney Lucas. At last year’s Tony Awards, Lucas performed a number from the show which shows Small Alison developing an unexplained connection with an “old school butch” delivery woman in a performance that could put even the most esteemed A-list performers to shame.

BERNADETTE BASSENGER AND FELICIA JOLLYGOODFELLOW IN PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Originally a 1994 cult classic film, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a drag lover’s Mecca: full to the brim with outrageous wigs, go-go boots and plenty of eye candy for the audience, it was difficult to choose just one character in this musical, so we’ll give you two instead! Stephan Elliot and Allan Scott’s vibrant and glamorous musical tells the story of two drag queens and a transgender woman that travel across the Australian desert to perform a drag show at Alice Springs. Bernadette Bassenger and Felicia Jollygoodfellow, currently being played by Simon Green and Adam Bailey across the UK, are two incredibly comedic characters which the show just would not be the same without.

With the introverted, classy nature of transgender Bernadette and the crude and fabulous personality of drag queen Felicia, the duo are often the centre of many a hilarious feud. However, these characters illustrate the strength of the LGBT community as, despite their differences, they show that they are family and are always there for each other in difficult times. After being mocked and physically attacked for her drag persona, Felicia finds comfort in the caring words of Bernadette. With a cover of the Pat Benatar single We Belong, Priscilla highlights that friendship goes beyond the sequins and the make-up for the drag community and that they all share the same struggles within society, struggles that can only be overcome through solidarity.

TOM COLLINS AND ANGEL SCHUNARD IN RENT

Jonathon Larson’s Tony award winning musical Rent, first performed 20 years ago this year just after the passing of Larson himself, was the first musical to shed light on the threat of HIV/AIDS and show this in a modern and commercial way. Later adapted into a motion picture featuring Idina Menzel and Adam Pascal, the show depicts the lives of Bohemians in New York City who have to battle with drugs, sexuality, living beneath the shadow of AIDS, and being able to pay their rent.

The musical features many relationships and love triangles but, at the heart of the show, lies the touching partnership of anarchist Tom Collins and his love interest, transgender Angel Schunard, who has a love for street percussion. In a show darkened with drug abuse and poverty, Collins and Angel are the audience’s warmth and comfort as they convey the way love transcends gender, wealth and the stigma attached to AIDS sufferers. While the characters may not have riches or expensive material goods, Collins and Angel realise that requited love has no price and that it is all they need to keep each other safe. Now, I won’t spoil what happens in the show, but we are all aware that even the strongest of relationships can end badly in the realm of theatre, but I will leave you with Collins and Angel’s gentle duet that could bring a tear to anyone’s eye.

HEDWIG IN HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock musical with a book written by John Cameron Mitchell and music and lyrics written by composer Stephen Trask. The show appeals heavily to the underground performance scene as it depicts the musical act of genderqueer musician Hedwig in Germany which displays distinct parallels to Bowie’s glam rock era. Previous actors who have added this role to their repertoire are one fifth of the How I Met Your Mother ensemble Neil Patrick Harris, Glee star Darren Criss and Taye Diggs.

The character of Hedwig goes against everything the typical heteronormative musical theatre character is; she is rebellious, brash and refuses to conform to society’s traditional ideas of gender and sexuality. The musical uses the Berlin Wall as a metaphor for Hedwig’s identity, balancing on the edge of man and woman, and the audience are invited to “try and tear her down.” After a botched sex change – explaining the “angry inch” of the show’s title – Hedwig tries to find herself by picking up a guitar and putting on a blonde bombshell wig that would put even the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga to shame. Mitchell uses his androgynous character to underscore that it’s alright to fight against the mainstream or to shove a middle finger up at the status quo in order to be at peace with who you are.

ROD IN AVENUE Q

Yes, a puppet has made its way into our list. No, you are not imagining things. Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez found themselves with three Tony awards with their musical Avenue Q. Notorious for its fusion of adult themes such as pornography, one night stands and the hunt for purpose in society with Sesame Street-esque puppets, and the show became a monolithic success both on Broadway and off.

Another theme which the musical explores while satirising kid’s entertainment shows is that of sexuality. The anal-retentive and self-conscious Rod often has his sexuality questioned by the other puppets on Avenue Q, especially his goofy roommate Nicky. Together, the two act as a parodied parallel of the classic duo Bert and Ernie. One particular number in the show If You Were Gay delivers, despite its comedic value, the heartfelt message that being gay is okay and that your most reliable friends will stick by you no matter what. Rod proves that coming to terms with your sexual desires doesn’t need to be all doom and gloom and that, as the final song of the musical shows, the difficult times in our lives are only “for now.”

If you aren’t familiar with the music of Avenue Q (my first question is WHY?!) then you should definitely check out this live performance of If You Were Gay, featuring original Broadway cast members John Tartaglia and Rick Lyon:

HANSCHEN RILOW AND ERNST ROBEL IN SPRING AWAKENING

8 Tony Awards, 4 Drama Desk Awards and even a Grammy Award are just some of the accolades given to Duncan Sheik’s haunting musical adaptation of Spring Awakening. A highly controversial play back in its debut in 1906, Sheik turned this brutal and simultaneously beautiful play and transformed it into the rock musical which ignited the careers of Glee superstars Jonathon Groff and Lea Michelle.

The musical has garnered a lot of attention due to the way it handles the themes of sex, suicide, homosexuality and teenage pregnancy against the backdrop of nineteenth century Germany. The next addition to our list is yet another couple; schoolboys Hanshen Rilow, the arrogant and coquettish flirt, and Ernst Robel, the shy and vulnerable teen. While the two act as polar opposites to each other, they are the breath of fresh air towards the end of the show as they express their attraction towards one another amongst the tumult of the other character’s struggles. What earns them their place on our list is their ability to provide comfort for the audience with their dangerous yet poetic love against the cold-hearted nature of the musical’s dark themes.

The show has recently seen a Broadway revival, earning it a Tony nomination in that category, performed by the Deaf West Theatre and featuring a cast of hearing and non-hearing actors in a ground-breaking production. While the show closed its doors only a few days ago, you can check out their performance on Good Day LA here:

LOLA/SIMON IN KINKY BOOTS

The only show on our list which is currently undergoing a run in the London’s West End, the musical adaptation of the 2005 film Kinky Boots features music and lyrics written by 80’s pop starlet Cyndi Lauper. Receiving rave reviews from the Adelphi Theatre, Kinky Boots focuses on the life of Charlie Price who teams up drag queen Lola (who goes by the name of Simon outside of his drag persona) in order to save the shoe factory Charlie recently inherits from bankruptcy.

While the show has been praised on its “feel good” factor, the character of Lola presents the audience with an all too real struggle within the LGBT community. Raised by his father, Simon is trained to become a boxer but is quickly cast aside once he arrived at a boxing match in full drag. Lola laments that “the best part of me, is what he wouldn’t see,” an experience that can be shared by an alarming amount of homosexual teenagers. Lauper’s musical faces the audience with this harsh reality but is also able to inspire a generation of adolescents who, like Lola, can remain strong-willed and be able to love themselves even in spite of disapproving parents. Lola, in staying true to herself, finds her place within society and functions as a role model to the audiences of Kinky Boots.

The multiple Tony Award winning show maintains its spot in London’s West End until the 28th of May. If you want to learn more about this glamorous and glitzy production, make sure to check out Hiskind’s interview with two of the stars of the show, Killian Donnelly and Matt Henry.

Words – Mark Smith