Musicals are gay. So why aren’t more musicals gay?
From George Cukor to Jacques Demy to Rob Marshall, many of cinema’s greatest movie musicals were directed by queer men. But few of those films focused on gay characters — the genre simply offering an opportunity for queer aesthetic amidst heterosexual text.
There are some major exceptions — A Chorus Line, the fantastic and underappreciated Zero Patience — but even as stage musicals have become increasingly gay, the budgets required to make movie musicals have kept them consistently straight. Queer people have remained underrepresented in this genre we sustain — and it’s especially true for queer women.
That’s why today’s release of The Prom on Netflix is so exciting. The Prom premiered on Broadway a mere four years ago and it’s already been turned into a major star-studded movie! That’s rare even for a straight musical! So to celebrate here is an exhaustive look at the representation of queer women in the history of movie musicals.
A History of Queer Women in Movie Musicals
1953 — Calamity Jane (dir. David Butler)
This Doris Day starring-musical is absolutely gayer than you’d ever imagine from a major Hollywood musical made in 1953. There’s subtext and then there’s… whatever is going on here. Jane fully checks out a woman’s ass, she moves in with a woman she clearly loves, and she feels butch even when she’s made femme. But while that’s all fun and good, the movie is also as racist as the least self-aware westerns of the time and manages to throw in some random transphobia. Certainly a product of its time and point of view, but any discussion of queer women in movie musicals would be incomplete without starting here.
1972 — Cabaret (dir. Bob Fosse)
Every iteration of Cabaret is super gay because Berlin in the early 30s was super gay. The most recent Broadway revivals have certainly upped the queer energy, but even the masterful film adaptation is inherently queer. There isn’t much in the film about queer women — unless you read bisexual energy into Sally Bowles which, hey, fair — but there is one number that’s explicit. “Two Ladies” finds Joel Grey’s Emcee playfully describing his throuple with, you guessed it, two ladies. Sure, he’s the focal point of the number, but who knows what’s happening under the sheet?
1975 — The Rocky Horror Picture Show (dir. Jim Sharman)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is usually discussed in the context of Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s trans identity, but the fun thing about trans people is we can be queer too! And, oh boy, is Frank-N-Furter queer. Frank has a questionable rendezvous with Janet, he chases her around multiple times, and there’s also mention that Frank used to be with Columbia. Not to mention Columbia and Magenta being all over each other during “Touch Me” or the whole cast making out during “Rose Tint My World.” This is a queer movie in every configuring sense and it, frankly, deserves more acknowledgment as a work of queer woman cinema. Frank may be a sweet transvestite but our language has changed and I think it’s safe to say Susan Sarandon and Tim Curry fucking is gay gay gay.
2002 — 8 Women (dir. François Ozon)
Was it really almost three whole decades? There must be something I’m unaware of to fill the gap. (We love a comments section!) But as far as I know this French murder mystery farce was the next queer woman musical. The influence of queer icon Jacques Demy is felt in François Ozon’s film that’s like musical Clue but entirely women and French. And when I say French, I mean French. This movie feels gay and then it gets explicitly gay and then it gets explicitly gayer. By the end it’s unclear if anyone is straight! Special shoutout to Firmine Richard who is given a sad gay ballad and Catherine Deneuve whose commitment to playing gay despite suing Deneuve Magazine is ever surprising.
2002 — Chicago (dir. Rob Marshall)
A film that certainly inspired more gay feelings than it is actually gay, this Best Picture winner is still worth noting for Queen Latifah’s coded lesbian Matron Mama Morton. I mean, she strokes her feathers while saying, “I love them all and all of them love me” — not exactly subtle! The movie does manage to remove some of the subtext by creating a fantasy sequence where she’s singing to male audience members, but we know what’s really going on. Also she calls Roxie pretty and strokes her hair before saying “I’ll take care of you” and putting a firm grip on the back of her neck. Look, this abusive quid pro quo isn’t something to romanticize, but in 2002 I did not understand the nuances of that!! I just had gay feelings!!
2005 — Rent (dir. Chris Columbus)
Rent is the most prominent queer woman stage show to get a film adaptation and while we can argue about the quality of this adaptation — and Rent itself — that alone is worth celebrating. Rent means so much to so many gays and it’s easy to see why. I mean, Joanne and Maureen! MAUREEN. Idina Menzel reprises her role from the original Broadway cast and what a joy, because of her voice and because of the way she looks in tight leather pants and a tank. “Take Me or Leave Me” is so fun especially when Tracie Thoms is standing on the stairs in her suit all gay and Idina starts crawling towards her. What a moment! What a musical! What a movie! Sort of.
2005 — The Producers (dir. Susan Stroman)
It’s unfortunate the same year that brought us objectively the biggest queer women musical also had this. Maybe this tongue-in-cheek number wouldn’t annoy me so much if this list wasn’t filled with femmes and subtext. But since it is I’m going to be a humorless lesbian and say “Keep It Gay” feels cringey fifteen years later especially the characterization of the butch lighting designer.
2007 — Love Songs (dir. Christophe Honoré)
This is another film that feels like part of Jacques Demy’s lineage — maybe it’s impossible to be a queer French filmmaker making a musical and not be inspired by him. But while 8 Women leaned into the farce, this movie leans into the romantic melodrama. Unfortunately, what begins as a très français throuple story turns tragic and the only remaining gay content is male. But first there’s a good song about being a couple’s third and having to manage their relationship problems!
2007 — Across the Universe (dir. Julie Taymor)
One fun thing about being gay is being obsessed with something as a kid and then growing up and meeting other gay people and realizing they too were obsessed with that same thing. One of those things for me is absolutely Julie Taymor’s Beatles jukebox musical Across the Universe. I remember my dad was thrilled that I was suddenly very into The Beatles but a bit confused why I was most into them when sung by Evan Rachel Wood. This whole movie pulsates with queer energy, and Prudence played by T.V. Carpio is explicitly a lesbian! She pines over a cheerleader in “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and is literally coaxed out of the closet in “Dear Prudence.” She eventually ends up out and proud and dating a contortionist, so a very gay happy ending indeed.
2013 — Frozen (dir. Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck)
Queers have been projecting our feelings onto Disney movies for decades, but the social media response to Frozen showed just how starved we are for some actual representation. “Let It Go” is a phenomenal coming out anthem — even if unintentional — and the reunion of ice queen Elsa (Idina Menzel again!) and her heterosexual sister felt like an allegory for many of us who had to find common ground with straight relatives. Alas, the #GiveElsaaGirlfriend campaign failed and the sequel just brought more subtext, this time in the form of love songs to Elsa’s mother. Okay fine, I guess that is pretty gay.
2014 — Girltrash: All Night Long (dir. Alexandra Kondracke)
I’m sorry, but when I think of queer women musicals, I still think of this wonderful guilty pleasure. Based on Angela Robinson’s web series Girl Trash, All Night Long (which Robinson disowned) is special for its ensemble cast of queer women favorites and the queer women crew who made it. No, it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s silly and the songs are catchy and I get “Fantasy Crush” stuck in my head at least once a month.
2017 — Anna and the Apocalypse (dir. John McPhail)
If you haven’t had enough lesbian Christmas movie discourse this year, how about a lesbian Christmas movie musical? Okay FINE only one of the characters is a lesbian, but she’s played by openly queer actor Sarah Swire! This is a zombie movie musical filled with charm and heart and even a little emotional devastation. It has a very poppy teen vibe and it charmed me completely and I think it might charm you!
2017 — Good Manners (dir. Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra)
Some films on this list are musicals, but only a little lesbian — this is lesbian, but only a little musical. There’s just no way to define this masterpiece by genre. It’s a werewolf horror movie fairy tale that’s part romance and part mother/son tale and it’s about queer motherhood and about race and class in Brazil and that’s a lot for one movie and yet it all works? Oh yeah and there are some musical numbers. To reveal when the first one comes would be to spoil one of the film’s many twists, but it uses music the way some old Disney movies used music — just a few numbers in the emotional moments that most require breaking out into song.
2017 — Hello, Again (dir. Tom Gustafson)
Based on Michael John LaChiusa’s 1994 Off Broadway show, this series of musical vignettes about love and sex misses more than it hits. But in one number Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton are lovers and that alone is worth watching! It’s a shame the movie as a whole isn’t stronger — if it was it would be way more popular because, again I repeat, AUDRA MCDONALD AND MARTHA PLIMPTON ARE LOVERS.
2017 — Holy Camp! (dir. Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo)
I want to be thorough and sell you on this wonderful Spanish musical, but I also just want you to watch it for yourself so you can experience the same surprise and delight I did. This is really one of the standouts on this list in terms of levels of queerness, quality of musical numbers, and pure exuberant spirit. It’s sacrilege that ends up feeling transcendent. It’s everything I could ever want from a queer musical! And it’s on Netflix!
2019 — Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (dir. Shelly Chopra Dhar)
This is the first Bollywood film to feature a lesbian romance and that is an exciting and noteworthy step towards progress. However, this film is most definitely just a step. For one, it’s not about the lesbians, but about a struggling playwright who decides to help them. The movie very explicitly is for a straight audience to teach them basic gay acceptance and it’s possibly effective in that context, but it’s not the big gay Bollywood movie we’ll hopefully have someday.
2020 — The Prom (dir. Ryan Murphy)
And that brings us to today! The release of The Prom! Here we have a huge star studded Broadway adaptation not just with two queer women in the ensemble cast but two queer women at its center. Sure, the adults — both straight and gay male — are major characters, but the hopeful and out Emma and her closeted but aching love Alyssa are the unruly heart of the film. And they’re played by Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose, two incredibly talented queer actors! Whether you love his work or hate it, Ryan Murphy is a queer artist committed to telling queer stories. He saw a Broadway show about a gay kid living in Indiana and remembered when he was a gay kid living in Indiana and wanted to bring the story to other gay kids living in Indiana and all over. It is not new for a gay man to have power in Hollywood, but it is new for a gay man to be so out and to use that power so openly in putting queer people on screen. This is a corny celebration of musicals, a corny celebration of being gay, and I’m happy to join it in celebration. If you’ve read this far it should be obvious I too am corny and gay.
2021 and beyond — The Future!
So what’s next? Well, next year brings the delayed and much anticipated arrival of the In the Heights movie and while the stage show isn’t gay there are rumors this will be. (Okay, fine, rumors, is what I call me reading into a single shot in the trailer of Steph Beatriz and Daphne Rubin-Vega making gay looks at each other! IMAGINE!) There’s also finally an adaptation of lesbian masterpiece Fun Home in the works from stage director Sam Gold. (I’m not sure about the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal but I’ll keep an open mind!) Frozen songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez are working on an adaptation of The Prince and the Dressmaker, a transfeminine lesbian fairy tale that feels ripped straight from my wildest dreams. And finally director Blitz Bazawule and writer Marcus Gardley are working on an adaptation of The Color Purple musical and while the stage show only does slightly better than the movie in portraying the novel’s queerness hopefully this adaption will amend that.
Then there are stage shows that aren’t currently being adapted but could be! The more shows like The Prom that get made and do well on stage the more possibilities there are for musical films. Maybe we’ll get movies of jukebox musicals Head Over Heels or Jagged Little Pill. (Actually, turning Head Over Heels into a movie with Peppermint is a dream of mine…) Or maybe someone will rescue one of my very favorite musicals from obscurity and give Miss You Like Hell the audience it deserves!
And, finally, it’s worth noting that some of the best entries on this list came from independent filmmakers who weren’t afraid of the musical genre despite their limited resources. This is certain to continue as more and more queer creators are given opportunities — or create opportunities — even on a small scale. Just nine days from now Ashlei Hardenburg-Cartagena’s short film A Single Evening (pictured above) will be available to stream. This movie about a bisexual Latina’s romantic woes and the personified dating apps that haunt her was one of the best shorts I saw at Newfest this year. It has all the creativity and heart of the best musicals and you should make sure to watch it when it’s released. Imagine what Hardenburg-Cartagena will do with the genre in the years to come! Imagine what so many other queer creators will do with the genre in the years to come! The movie musical may have excluded queer women for most of the 20th century. But we’re included now — we’re including ourselves now — and, to quote The Prom, it’s time to dance!