Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Stonewall – the famous Greenwich Village pub riot in New York that sparked the birth of the modern gay liberation movement.
We’ve come a long way in that half century – forwards as well as back. The same Tory party that 30 years ago under Margaret Thatcher enacted Section 28 – forbidding local authorities from promoting “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” – finally legalised gay marriage in 2013.
And the scourge of HIV/Aids, which decimated an entire generation of gay men in the 1980s and 1990s, has now largely been contained by antiviral drugs.
Theatre has been at the forefront of providing us with a live commentary as these events have unfolded, sometimes presciently ahead of the curve of their actual acceptance. The first-ever Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s 1967 play The Boys in the Band earlier this summer brought a cast of out-and-proud actors (including Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto) and creatives to a play that had first introduced mainstream audiences to a group of gay Manhattan friends and made their relationships tangible and surprisingly universal.
When Mark Gatiss starred in a London revival two years ago at the Park Theatre, he told The Stage: “I’ve wanted to play this part since I saw the film when I was 12 or 13. It’s an important play – it’s fascinating to see where we were, where we have to go, and between that, where we think things have or have not changed.”
Changing times and meanings also inform a new production of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which opened on Broadway last week. By happenstance, it is back in the same theatre where the original Broadway run occurred in 1982: the Helen Hayes Theater. As I stated in my review for The Stage: “Nothing has changed and yet everything has: since Torch Song’s first appearance the gay community has been deeply affected by the legacy and losses of HIV/Aids, but we also have gay marriage and adoption in the US and much of Europe, which this play so presciently and powerfully anticipates.”
‘We won’t be marginalised or forced to apologise for our existence anymore’
Fierstein quickly became a beloved figure on Broadway – he was the Tony-winning star of the original Torch Song (a role inherited by Michael Urie), and won an acting Tony for originating the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray 20 years later. In between, he wrote the book for the musical La Cage Aux Folles, another groundbreaker in terms of putting a credible gay relationship centre stage of a family Broadway musical. But, most significantly and even subversively, it challenged what family means, showing a long-settled gay couple who run a drag nightclub forging their own family by together bringing up the son one of them had in a former heterosexual relationship.
The mainstreaming of gay culture is vibrantly on offer in another Fierstein-adapted musical, Kinky Boots, in which an ailing Northampton shoe factory avoids closure by manufacturing heavy-duty boots for drag queens, currently reaching the end of its run at the West End’s Adelphi and on a national UK tour.
The West End also has Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – in which a gay teenager is determined to go to his high school prom in drag – that has just celebrated its first anniversary.
But gay life isn’t all drag (though Fierstein has championed it in pretty much all of his work). There’s also a bigger story to tell and it’s one that two epic modern masterpieces have done in complementary ways. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance may have been written a quarter of a century apart, but both deal with the impact and legacy of Aids.
Even if it is now a mostly treatable disease, theatre is still losing major gay talent to it: the playwright Kevin Elyot (who wrote the hauntingly beautiful My Night With Reg) died in 2014, and the Broadway composer Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) died last year, aged only 41.
Angels in America, stirringly revived last year at London’s National Theatre, powerfully articulated the struggle for collective acceptance: as one character says: “What Aids shows us is the limits of tolerance, that’s it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fan you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred.”
And The Inheritance shows us something else: the vacuum created in our history by the generation we have lost. But in its shame-free portrayal of a group of gay New Yorkers struggling to make sense of their lives in Trump’s America, it also offers a defiant and defining reckoning: that we won’t be marginalised or forced to apologise for our existence anymore.
Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton