If your family is anything like mine, the June airing of the TONY Awards is equivalent to that of Christmas morning. It’s an evening when Broadway’s brightest come together in praise of one another and to give audiences a taste of what “The Great White Way” has to offer. From awards to performances, it’s arguably one of the most entertaining award shows that premiers all year. At the same time, it’s American theater’s proclamation of an association with all facets of the human experience. After all, the TONY’s are the only televised award ceremony that can have Victorian era newsboys, a transgender community, and a Marvel superhero in one opening number.
This is only one of the examples as to why stage performers and the theater’s body of work are widely referred to as eclectic. It’s a distinguishing trait that allows the artistic community to combat sexual and psychological stigmatizations in modern day society a lot more freely than other mediums. What is deemed as traditionally normal and acceptable in our everyday lives is a result of social constructs. While living in this confining atmosphere, the theater provides a safe environment for its audience to witness an array of both familiar and foreign emotions that arise throughout life. Around 11.57 million tickets for Broadway shows were sold in 2012 alone. With a statistic of this capacity we can regard this community not only as performers, but also as educators and activists that have united to reclaim diversity among human beings.
With keeping this social dynamic in mind, Kander & Ebb’s musical Cabaret will once again be gracing one of Broadway’s finest stages with the Emcee’s opening rendition of “Willkommen” as it continues to portray this goal of an explicit and honest take on reality. The revival of Berlin’s sexually charged Kit Kat Klub got me thinking about the first time I saw Cabaret. The imagery of Sally Bowles, the show’s female lead, stuck with me long before I truly grasped what her lover Clifford refers to as “the end of the world.”
Sally is simultaneously empowering and self-destructive, as she remains fervent in her ambitions of being a performer, despite her lack of talent that would allow her to leave the Kit Kat Klub. Yet one of the remarkable things about this show is that its writers do not condemn Sally’s alternative lifestyle. This show is a presentation of her character, as far as her experiences might go. From performing in this venue to battling a decision to have an abortion, she is someone that people are there to watch. It allows audiences to surmise their own opinions while reminding them that Sally’s experiences remain tangible to many. Although the film adaptation has its variations, there is a true potency to the scene in which Liza Minnelli (Sally in the film) sends a child’s ball bouncing down the stairs, symbolizing her decision to abort her pregnancy. One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime for a wide range of reasons that only they can fully comprehend. At this point, Sally knows she is not designed to be a mother. As much as she wants to conform to the idea of what society is instructing her to do, especially when it comes to her relationship with bisexual Clifford, she knows she would not survive it if she did.
I’m not saying that such a story line is apparent in all works of theater, but very often productions that discuss subjects that carry a sense of social taboo, and most importantly handle it in an effective manner, find success. Some may argue that an element of this nature may pertain to shock value, but I disagree with this claim. To me, it’s the sense of self-identification we find in these characters and their circumstances. We may see glimpses of ourselves, the ones we love, or even an acquaintance we will never fully come to know, but we leave the theater feeling enlightened and with a sense of understanding.
If I’m going to discuss the theater’s role in liberation from social stigmas, especially ones pertaining to sexuality, then I have to touch on Spring Awakening. Maybe it’s the ghost of my fourteen-year-old self or maybe it’s Jonathan Groff’s tousled curls that still make me weak in the knees, but it has to happen. It’s a time period far removed from the present, yet the electric guitar strings and universal themes easily bridge any gap. Duncan Sheik’s musical could have blown up in his face if not properly executed (Frank Wedekind’s 1906 play of the same name is even more radical). Yet, the audience is left staring at a collection of teenagers in 1891 Germany that each embody an existing demographic; first love, consensual sexual discoveries, sexual abuse and depression, and those who either crack or survive under societal pressures. This is sometimes referred to as “teen angst”, but that generalization makes my skin crawl almost as much as when someone asks me who two-time TONY winner Patti LuPone is.
Over a hundred years later, young adults are still facing the same questions of sexuality as the teenagers in Spring Awakening. Instead of extending their education on the subject matter, the adults in the play turn to ignorance and condemnation, a method that is still embedded in some parts of our society. The character of Melchior, the headstrong ringleader of their class, is adamant in questioning why recognition of intimacy is so scrutinized. “Because it makes us feel something?” he asks, despite knowing that he has no mentor willing to give a realistic answer. The endings of certain character’s plotlines in Spring Awakening are brutal, but they are also necessary in depicting the possibilities of a harsh reality.
While Spring Awakening offers an experience into the excitement and trials of adolescent encounters, a character such as the vivacious, bisexual Maureen in Rent or transgender Lola in Kinky Boots represent people that have survived this period of turmoil. They have fully embraced their self-identity. The arts are widely regarded as having a strong alliance to the LGBTQ community and have continued to evolve in exploring its beauty and struggles. Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, a play in which a female teacher’s sexual preference sparks a ruthless witch hunt, is one of the theater’s most gut wrenching representations of this. In a country where twenty-nine states can fire based on sexuality, the scenarios of Lillian Hellman’s characters in which their careers, relationships, and lives are destroyed, are not unrealistic. Musicals like Kinky Boots and RENT have continued this idea from Hellman’s play as they’ve worked to break down social constructions of gender that can be incredibly isolating.
Those who have experienced aspects of mental illness are no strangers to societal shaming as well. Very often, it is an issue that is purposefully ignored and pushed into silence as it is seen as an abnormality despite how common it might be. With characters like Moritz in Spring Awakening, who battles anxiety over his place in society and his sexual needs, and musicals like Next to Normal, Broadway continues to bring recognition to the existence of a population that very often lacks visibility. In Next to Normal we witness how a mother struggles to come to terms with manic depression and how it burdens her family as they try to cope. It’s heavy stuff. I’m not putting it on the same level as a fun-loving production of My Fair Lady, but it’s necessary and revolutionary, just like RENT’s focusing on the reality of HIV/AIDS was radical at its time in the mid-nineties. The story of a circle of friends, four of whom are HIV positive, grappling to survive in New York City showed the harsh prevalence of AIDS by outwardly putting faces to a disease that, for the past 25 years, was primarily brushed under the rug.
By sitting in an audience we become submerged into the consciousness of the show. We go into the hearts of these characters that are placed before us. We might not always agree with them, but we also might get the chance to see our lives played out on stage. But, with every word they speak, a dialogue is being created for people. In a society where certain stigmas still stand in the way of complete self-expression, these shows help to raise awareness. We are not human unless we can see, feel, and touch a wide spectrum of emotions. Broadway is begging us to listen to this assortment of voices and is offering the opportunity to do so with open arms. For those who take up this chance, well, they might just hear “The Song of Purple Summer.”