The Problematic History of Lesbians in Musical Theater

Right now on one of London's premier stages, eight times every week, two lesbian lovers share a passionate love song. They kiss in the show's moving finale and cement their status as the stars of the show by sharing the final curtain call. Most importantly, their romance is the emotional centerpiece of a musical comedy. Finally! After 81 years — since the first lesbian-themed play, The Captive, opened on Broadway in 1926 — a lesbian relationship is at long last taking center stage.

The featured romance between prisoner Nikki Wade (Caroline Head) and Wing Governor Helen Stewart (Laura Rogers) in Bad Girls: The Musical illustrates what's possible, but also highlights how invisible lesbians have been on Broadway and in West End musicals. Despite some recent progress, the history of lesbians in musical theater (unlike that of gay men) is sparse and inconsistent.

Along with Bad Girls: The Musical, two popular musicals currently playing on Broadway, Rent (Broadway: 1996, West End: 1998) and The Color Purple (Broadway: 2005), have included positive portrayals of lesbians, although both reveal problems as well.

The Color Purple's love affair between Celie (created by Tony-winner LaChanze and currently played by American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino) and Shug (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes) is familiar to fans of the Alice Walker novel and the Steven Spielberg film. The musical version, though flawed, is a watershed: The lesbian relationship is much more emotionally and sexually explicit than the film, and more importantly, The Color Purple is the only Broadway or West End musical ever to depict a lesbian relationship between two women of color.

In the musical, Shug awakens Celie's fighting spirit and sexual desire. She helps Celie free herself from her abusive, loveless marriage and reunite with her long-lost sister. When Celie and Shug get together at the end of Act I, they kiss — still a rarity on Broadway for same-sex characters — and sing a powerful and romantic love duet:

Will you be my light in the storm?

Will I see a new world in your eyes?

With you my whole spirit rise.

However, the show as a whole relegates the lesbian relationship to the background, emotionally speaking. The muted chemistry between the original two actresses is partially to blame, along with the show's focus on Celie's relationship with her sister. Even worse, Shug abandons Celie when they've reached middle age so that Shug can pursue one last relationship with a man. While true to the source material, this conclusion is a bitter pill to swallow for lesbians yearning to see a positive representation of their relationships on stage.