Is Broadway dimming the lights on queer and trans characters?

· Updated on June 18, 2024

Just a year or two ago, Broadway was platforming enough trans stories — or trans-adjacent stories — to constitute something of a moment, if a problematic one. 

But when surveying queer and trans representation, this Broadway season falls noticeably short — out of the 36 shows that opened, only about a quarter had a queer character, a marked decrease from last season. This decrease, though, is not unique to Broadway; GLAAD also noted a decline in the number of queer characters in television over the previous year. 

So what, exactly, is going on? Is Broadway feeling like its representation gamble hasn’t paid off?

The vast majority of the season’s shows — from Back to the Future to Water for Elephants — are obsessed with and structured almost entirely around straight people and problems of heterosexual coupling. The Notebook feels particularly emblematic of the season: a splashy stage adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling book and subsequent film whose entire premise delivers yet another supposedly universal boy-meets-girl love story.

Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez embrace in a scene from "The Notebook."
Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez in “The Notebook.” Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

 But other details make this season’s lack of representation especially worrisome for queer and trans theatergoers. Unlike recent seasons, this year, there were no explicitly trans and/or nonbinary characters on Broadway. (The closest we got is How to Dance in Ohio, based on the 2015 HBO documentary, where one character uses they/them pronouns and another uses any pronouns, with no deeper discussion of either character’s gender.) These omissions feel like a potential backlash to several recent productions, notably Jagged Little Pill and Some Like it Hot, that had some major missteps: nonbinary erasure, transphobic gender politics, and man-in-a-dress humor. Sadly, instead of doing the work, doing it right, and including trans people, it seems producers and writers are avoiding trans characters altogether.

The handful of shows with queer characters on Broadway this season include the Britney Spears jukebox musical Once Upon a One More Time, Gutenberg!, Suffs, and revivals of Monty Python’s Spamalot and Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club. In many of these, including the Huey Lewis musical The Heart of Rock and Roll, either the queer character is minor, or their sexuality does not significantly impact the plot. 

Three other productions featured queerness in significant ways, each providing unique examinations of gender and sexuality but are not long for Broadway.

Illinoise, which closes on August 10, uses dance and Sufjan Stevens’s songs to portray the complex feelings of shame and loss that many queer people experience. Mother Play, which stars Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons, and Celia Kenan-Bolger, and explores the dysfunctional family dynamics of two queer children coming out while dealing with their emotionally abusive, homophobic mother, is also a limited run.

Lempicka, the story of famed artist Tamara de Lempicka, centers queer women and holds space for their love story (and sex life), and even explores polyamory. The production sadly shuttered after 41 performances, and its closure could have dangerous after-effects, with producers drawing the conclusion that queer stories, especially those about queer women, are not viable for Broadway right now.

The only notable trans or nonbinary character currently on Broadway is May in & Juliet, played by Justin David Sullivan, a performance they declined for Tony award consideration due to the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League’s binary categories. While several trans and nonbinary actors have recently been on Broadway stages, including Alex Newell in Shucked and Hennessey Winkler in Sweeney Todd, neither were playing trans characters, and both musicals have since closed.

It’s time to rethink the Broadway business model

The cast of "How to Dance in Ohio."
The cast of “How to Dance in Ohio.” Photo by Curtis Brown.

So why are there fewer queer characters and stories this season? Why are there no trans and/or nonbinary characters? Why have creative teams purposefully made their productions so straight, often ignoring, erasing, or eliminating whatever queerness was in a text to make it heteronormative? Do producers see queerness as less universal, more isolating and niche, more political, or less profitable for Broadway (as well as tours and eventual commercial licensing)? 

One explanation feels fairly obvious: Broadway is a for-profit business model. The ‘23-24 season grossed over $1.5 billion and felt ruthlessly commercial. In addition to a litany of musicals adapting popular works and utilizing pre-existing music catalogs, it featured a large list of notable film and TV actors, including Sarah Paulson, Elle Fanning, Rachel McAdams, Steve Carrell, Jeremy Strong, and Daniel Radcliffe. Combined, it seems like well-known IP, celebrities, and profit margins mattered more this season than queer representation — and while that’s perhaps not entirely shocking (as Cabaret tells us, “money makes the world go round”), it doesn’t portend good things for the future of queerness on stage, including the next generation of theatermakers.

Opportunities for trans and nonbinary talent are few and far between and require navigating a binary system that is slow to change. 

Shane Taylor Pretty (they/he), a trans nonbinary dancer, singer, actor, and activist, has had many fraught audition processes where performers are sorted into “male” and “female” and has taken to social media to share their experience. Pretty tells INTO, “Trans entertainers are being incredibly loud in terms of calling in/calling out certain institutions, but we aren’t being listened to.”

@shanetaylorpretty Very real talk, lets learn and grow #nonbinary #musicaltheatretiktok #transdancer #theythem ♬ original sound – Shane Taylor Pretty

Trans masculine playwright, actor and producer Cesario Tirado-Ortiz (they/he/it) agrees, noting a disparity among the few and far between opportunities. “Even when trans roles are put on stage, they very rarely are for transmascs/men,” Tirado-Ortiz tells INTO. “Trans people are extremely and unendingly talented when given the freedom to be who they are, and they deserve vehicle roles to success just as much as cishet actors do. It’s maddening that my friends and I have to shuffle the same $20 around to each other as we cast our peers in our shows that play in tiny black boxes that go nowhere, while Tootsie and Some Like It Hot can tour with ease. We need someone to give us a chance.”

We need someone to give us a chance.

Playwright, actor, and producer Cesario Tirado-Ortiz

While discussions about representation primarily focus on what is happening onstage, they also reveal crucial industry disparities, especially regarding casting and inclusion. “The conversation of representation is very focused on the general population’s consumption of media but seldom ventures into discussing what it means to be a theatermaker of an under-represented identity, and the financial barriers that come with scarcity of opportunity,” Dom Martello (they/them/she), a nonbinary trans playwright, actor, dramaturg, and gender consultant, tells INTO. For many queer and trans young people trying to break into the theater industry, roadblocks abound, and jobs are few and far between. 

“It’s really difficult to feel valued because before we’ve gotten a chance to try, overtly queer and visibly trans talent/stories aren’t seen as commercially viable by most producing organizations,” says Martello, “especially as the identities in those stories become more complex and intersectional.”

Gen Z is ready for a Broadway reboot

Philippe Arroyo and Justin David Sullivan in And Juliet
Philippe Arroyo and Justin David Sullivan in “& Juliet,” one of the few remaining Broadway shows with queer representation. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Even with the emphasis on profit, producers and other stakeholders are ignoring the facts: Broadway audiences are getting younger and queerer.

Last year’s Broadway League demographic report indicated the average age of a Broadway audience member was the youngest in 20 seasons. Gen Z — nearly 30% of whom identify as LGBTQ+ — is the future of Broadway audiences. Though news reports often center on the anti-queer and anti-trans fervor flaring across the country, most audiences prefer or are tolerant of queer and trans characters. 

GLAAD’s Accelerating Acceptance Report demonstrates that a majority (73%) of non-LGBTQ+ Americans are comfortable seeing queer and trans people represented in various forms of media. The data is amplified for Gen Z. According to the WPP’s Beyond the Rainbow Survey, among 18-24-year-olds, 93% of LGBTQ+ people and 85% of non-LGBTQ+ people report actively seeking out queer media. 

Even more tellingly, just 38% of those who seek out queer content are satisfied with the way LGBTQ+ people are represented, and two-thirds of LGBTQ+ people want to see more queer representation. Therefore, Broadway has no good reason to turn its back on LGBTQ+ narratives or audiences.  

“Storytelling is one of the most humanizing art forms,” Dana Aliya Levinson (she/they), GLAAD’s Associate Director of Transgender Representation, tells INTO. “Despite rising familiarity with LGBTQ+ people in our society, gaps in understanding are still filled through media representations. This includes on Broadway, an art form that garners over 10 million audience members every year, many of whom are tourists that take these stories back with them to their hometowns. In this era of increasing backlash toward LGBTQ+ acceptance, the presence of these stories as well as investment in them by producers is more important than ever.”

Broadway flexing its bulging biceps doesn’t count as representation

A promotional photo of the cast of Broadway's "The Outsiders."
The cast of “The Outsiders.” Photo by Miller Mobley.

Behind Broadway’s current queer identity crisis is a distinction that theatermakers and theatergoers sometimes struggle with: the crucial differences between representation and visibility. 

One of the gayest things on stage this season was the barrage of bare-chested actors. In The Outsiders, Jason Schmidt (Sodapop Curtis) is randomly shirtless for a song; in The Heart of Rock and Roll, Corey Cott’s costumes rarely include sleeves, and the writers devised an entire sauna scene in a sauna so he can be stripped down to just a towel.  Lempicka, Water for Elephants, and Once Upon a One More Time all feature hunky chorus boys with prominently featured musculature. While this is all nice to look at, queer characters and storylines are preferred to pandering with hot dancers. 

Though there has always been a significant amount of queer visibility on stage due to the large proportion of queer performers, most often, they’re not playing queer characters, so there is not actually queer representation. For real representation, we need LGBTQ+ characters and stories — ideally the characters are played by LGBTQ+ actors, with well-written and nuanced plots free of homophobic or transphobic tropes. While queer writers, directors, and designers populate playbills, for the most part, they don’t seem to be creating art on Broadway that showcases queer stories. Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club illustrates this distinction.

Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee in the Broadway revival of "Cabaret"
Eddie Redmayne and the company of “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club.” Photo by Marc Brenner.

In this production, queerness is everywhere and highly visible without being represented. The semi-immersive production, directed by Rebecca Frecknall and featuring Tom Scutt’s theater, scenic, and costume design, portrays the Kit Kat Club as a queer bar and utilizes a highly-queer aesthetic, with the ensemble of Kit Kat dancers clad in gender-bending clothes and cosmetics evoking Weimar era drag. Things take a turn when Frecknall’s direction transforms the ensemble into Nazis and the Emcee (Eddie Redmayne) into a Hitler stand-in, implying that the Kit Kat Club is a Nazi-sympathizing establishment and that Sally (Gayle Rankin) returning to it is akin to appeasement.

This Cabaret appropriates queerness without actually saying anything about queerness in the period, nor the persecution of queer people under Hitler’s reign — a stark difference from the 1998 revival, which included a reveal of the Emcee (Alan Cumming) in a concentration camp prisoner’s uniform with a pink triangle on it.

Too gay to play?

Noah J. Ricketts and Samantha Pauly in "The Great Gatsby."
Noah J. Ricketts and Samantha Pauly in “The Great Gatsby.” Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

Another alarming trend this Broadway season is the straight-ification of source material: when a piece erases queerness, refuses to explore queer potential, or in the case of an adaptation, actively makes something straighter than the original. 

The 1967 coming-of-age novel The Outsiders is often considered to be dripping with homoerotic tension, especially between Ponyboy and Johnny (though novelist S. E. Hinton controversially rejected the theory). The 1983 film version had no trouble playing up this aspect. The new musical, though, keeps things on the straight and narrow between the two. Sadly, it’s as queer-coded yet silent about queerness as the original.

Hell’s Kitchen, Alicia Keys’ semi-autobiographical jukebox musical, is another perpetrator of straight-ification. The musical takes place in and around Manhattan Plaza, the affordable housing complex where Keys grew up in the mid-90s. The majority of residents work in the performing arts — an industry disproportionately affected by the AIDS crisis. Manhattan Plaza was at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis as tenants rallied to create grassroots social services and community support. While the musical references the building’s activities (Ali, played by Maleah Joi Moon, mentions several elevator stops and what’s overheard on each floor), queer representation is absent, and there are no clearly identified LGBTQ+ characters in the musical. Hell’s Kitchen, therefore, erases the very queer history of the building it takes place in.

The cast of Broadway's "Hell's Kitchen."
The cast of “Hell’s Kitchen.” Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Among its large cast and various historical sub-plots, Suffs highlights the sapphic relationship between women’s rights activists Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Collela) and Mollie Hay (Jaygee Macapugay), and the pair sing a song where they wish they could get married. However, between the musical’s Off-Broadway premiere at The Public Theater and its Broadway opening, the show made several changes, including erasing the queerness of the lead character, Alice Paul (played by the writer/composer, Shaina Taub). 

In the Off-Broadway version, Paul romanticly longs for her friend and fellow suffragist, Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz), and in the final scene (set in the 1970s) is explicitly called queer by a young feminist. Broadway revisions eliminated both moments but added a scene where Alice talks about a man she’s attracted to and considers marrying. 

However, the clearest example of straight-ification this season is The Great Gatsby. For years, scholars and students have opined about Nick Carraway’s queerness, his crush on Jay Gatsby, and his likely chaste relationship with the maybe-also-queer Jordan Baker. Those who read closely have even noted a scene where Nick leaves a party with Mr. McKee and then elliptically jumps to McKee’s apartment where McKee is in bed, in his underwear — leading some to speculate that he and Nick hook up. 

Audiences would never know there was even a hint of queerness in the flashy new Gatsby on Broadway. Kait Kerrigan’s book has not only eliminated any whisper of queerness but has gone out of its way to make Nick (Noah J. Ricketts) explicitly straight by having him hook up with Jordan (Samantha Pauly), who is also now totally straight and the pair even get engaged. The subplot’s departure from the source material does not add anything to the story, and making the characters straight makes them less interesting and less complex.

Off-Broadway: small stages, big ideas

Conrad Ricamora and Cole Escola in "Oh, Mary!"
Conrad Ricamora and Cole Escola in “Oh, Mary!” Photo by Emilio Madrid.

While Broadway, in many ways, became less queer this season, the opposite is true Off-Broadway. Away from the commercial pressures of the Great White Way, Off-Broadway took more risks and committed wholeheartedly to queerness; there was more representation, more nuance, more niche stories, more in-depth explorations, and more complex intersections. Among the standouts were Jes Tom’s one-person show Less Lonely, Snatch Adams & Tainty McCracken Present It’s That Time of the Month co-starring Becca Blackwell, Teeth (featuring a book by A Strange Loop’s Michael R. Jackson) and Orlando, starring Taylor Mac in the title role.  

Without a doubt, though, this season’s runaway Off-Broadway hit was Cole Escola’s Oh, Mary! (which is transferring for a limited run on Broadway this summer). In it, Escola, who is nonbinary, plays an alt-version of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, now a former cabaret star with a penchant for paint thinner. The show is undeniably hilarious, but beneath the more obvious layer of gay, campy topcoat is a subtle, if-you-know-you-know trans subtext. Escola’s Mary (which has some autobiographical influences) and Escola playing Mary does important work to queer Broadway’s transphobic “man in a dress” trope.

Cole Escola
Cole Escola. Photo by Corey Rives/Queerty.

Another sensation of the Off-Broadway scene was Jinkx Monsoon’s limited run as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. When viewed through a trans lens, Audrey’s character takes on new meaning, be it living on Skid Row, staying in an abusive relationship, or the wistful ballad, “Somewhere That’s Green,” which dreams of normative, suburban domestic femininity, safety, love, and family. 

In the face of frustration on the world’s biggest stages, many queer and trans theatermakers like Cole Escola frequently turn to writing, creating, and producing their own work. In addition, many have begun collaborating to strengthen and amplify their presence. Breaking the Binary and National Queer Theater fund, develop, and produce work by and featuring queer and trans artists. As Martello says, “We need to make it for ourselves and make it for each other because that is what will create meaningful, sustainable careers for all of us.” 

Many Broadway decision-makers are driven more by financial than progressive goals. But do the two have to be pitted against each other (after all, & Juliet has recouped its $17 million capitalization), and is it time to outgrow this type of thinking? The queer and trans folks working behind the scenes think so. For their sake and ours, Broadway needs to do better. ♦

Featured image: (clockwise, from top) Cabaret (photo by Marc Brenner), Suffs (photo by Joan Marcus), How to Dance in Ohio (photo by Curtis Brown), and The Great Gatsby (photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman).

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