18, 2003 by
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
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!
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
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.
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.