Sam Harrison: Musicals helped me embrace my sexuality, but we need more happy gay stories
As a young gay boy, Hollywood musicals seduced me in the way others got lost in Lego. What started out as the intoxication of bold colours, broad comedy and astonishing dancing developed into an aching understanding of what was causing it all – love.
Musical theatre can be pretty camp. It can also be devastating, awesome, tragic, political, subtle – pretty much anything it likes. It is an art form so often created by gay people, and much of it is adored, consumed, repeated and parodied by gay people. Some calendars are marked by Eliza Doolittle Day followed by the arrival of June, June, Joan.
And yet gay people don’t feature an awful lot in musicals. When we do, we don’t have a particularly good time of it. Typically the very thing that defines many of us as gay – the sexual, or at least romantic, part – disappears in favour of cartoon fabulousness. Otherwise we are sexually active, but almost always become ill because of it. We don’t often get to love each other and be happy about it.
Sympathetic depictions of queer lives are important and should be celebrated, especially given the shocking police statistics that homophobia has doubled and transphobia has trebled since 2014.
Despite major retailers showing their solidarity by selling gay sandwiches and rainbow chocolate bars, we are reminded almost daily that Pride is something to be marched for, not just paraded. Something to demand, not just celebrate.
Of course theatre is where the harsh reality of suffering, trauma and prejudice needs to be given a platform. And of course conflict is inherent in drama. But I worry that we have come to a situation where the conflict for gay characters is almost exclusively rooted in the fact they are gay: in their own lack of acceptance or a lack of acceptance by others, or about a fatal disease because of the way they have sex. Are we in danger of solely perpetuating tragic narratives of our difference?
Wonderfully affirmative stories can be found in Spring Awakening, Bernadette and Bob in Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Fun Home. But these affirmative stories are – respectively – fleeting, shy and surrounded by tragedy.
Kinky Boots and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie are triumphant celebrations of community and pride, but I don’t think we’ve had two gay people in a major musical stand and sing that they love each other and then not die since Song on the Sand in La Cage aux Folles in 1983.
I realise not everyone’s sense of their gay identity is focused on a search for a partner, or even romance at all. But it interests me that the near universal praise of Marianne Elliott’s Company almost always led to a euphoric description of Jamie and Paul’s relationship and wedding. A rapturous gulp of air that these were two characters who happened to be gay and were having cold feet just like anyone else. And they were in a musical…
So I set myself the challenge of writing a show about a young gay man where the love story didn’t end in tragedy. He faces challenges, doubts and fears; but he also meets joy, passion and romance. While we continue to march, I hope it shines a light on one of the things we must always march for – love.
Love Is Only Love headlines The Other Palace Pride Festival 1-6 July 8pm, Tues and Sat 3:30pm
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