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Musical Theater and Gay Culture

by John M. Clum

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-21058-2
Publisher: St. Martin's

Why do gay men so love musical theater? Clum purports to answer this question but instead offers only petty commentary and obvious observations to support queer readings of his Broadway passions. It’s lights down, curtains up, and the diva’s dead. Clum (Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama, 1994, not reviewed) presents himself as an academic Auntie Mame guiding the reader through the delights of queer Broadway. Peering into the sex lives of Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and Lorenz Hart, dissecting the ambivalences of Stephen Sondheim, attacking the social conservatism of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Clum trots out musical after musical to delineate its queer edge, yet no momentum develops from this strategy. Although Broadway divas from Ethel Merman to Carol Channing, from Bernadette Peters to Betty Buckley, are lauded and lionized, they are never analyzed. The question that remains, then, after finishing his tour of the fleshpots, is exactly the one we began with: Why do gay men so love musical theater? Unwrapping the semantic layering of the diva would have been a valuable beginning to such a project, but Clum praises her many incarnations rather than probing deeply into her significance. Unfortunately, Clum so revels in celebrating the obvious queer sensibility of these musicals that he often fails to take into account more profound levels of meaning and cultural significance, as when his necrophilic male gaze savors in the King of Siam’s beautiful dead body, shunting aside the postcolonialist horrors of the plot in favor of the giddy pleasures of a shirtless Yul Brynner. Rather than producing the Broadway musical equivalent of Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat, which analyzed the nexus of queer culture and opera, Clum has failed to make any contribution to analyses of the Broadway musical or queer culture, except to bask in their collective fabulousness. (12 b&w illus.)