Our Love Is Here To Stay II
"How Long Has This Been Going On?"
Even though there is no known documentation of a visible homosexual presence in variety or minstrelsy, it is reasonable to suggest that a closeted element existed in these forms of musical theatre. Gays have survived in the military, professional sports and mainstream churches, so their predecessors could certainly have contended with the indignities of heavy makeup, lousy acoustics and rowdy audiences. (Hmmm . . . sounds like a night in any contemporary dance club . . .)
"The Overture Is About To Start"
As we explain at length elsewhere on this site, musicals as we know them evolved as part of a gradual, international process. Skipping the early origins of musical theatre in ancient Greece, the modern musical theatre had itsbeginnings when Jacques Offenbach (in Paris) and Johann Strauss (in Vienna) sent operetta waltzing and can-canning its way across Europe. At the same time, America stumbled upon a slipshod but lively musical theatre of its own. The Black Crook (1866) had little plot, lousy songs and lots of spectacle. There had been many American musicals before this show, but The Black Crook was the first one to earn millions at the box office. It spawned a host of stage spectacles with fantasy themes, known as extravaganzas. American audiences made these early musicals a thriving part of what was then referred to as "the show business." (However, it proved impossible to export extravaganzas -- audiences outside the U.S. had no interest in them.)
The year after The Black Crook took New York by storm, Germany's Karl Ulrichs became the first person in modern times to publicly announce an attraction to his own sex (a tendency he called "urning"). A few months later in 1867, German-Hungarian sexologist Karl Maria Kertbeny introduced the word "homosexuality" in an anonymously published pamphlet. Some readers were scandalized, but others saw this as the first ray of light in the intellectual darkness
Gilbert & Sullivan
Bunthorne was a biting spoof of the sexually ambiguous aesthetes (Oscar Wilde, etc.) who simultaneously delighted and scandalized Victorian society. This humorous fop appeared on stage in a tight dark velvet suit, with outrageous long hair and a lily clutched in his limp-wristed hand. His mincing walk, flailing wrists and simpering expression were instantly recognizable as those of a stereotypical homosexual. To placate Victorian sensibilities, G&S made a point of having Bunthorne pursue women, even though he's more feminine than any of his official amorous targets. In the carefully worded patter song "Am I Alone And Unobserved," Bunthorne confesses his aesthetic pretensions are a "sham" designed to win public admiration --
However, when Bunthorne is ultimately spurned by the women who once worshipped him, he clings to the only dependable things in his life -- his affectations and a limp lily. Straight or gay, Bunthorne is the most outrageous male character the mainstream musical stage would see until a full century later in La Cage aux Folles (Herman 1983). According to The Alyson Almanac (New York: Alyson Publications, 1990), Sullivan "made no secret of his homosexuality," but I must note that in my decades of research, I have not found any evidence to back this extraordinary claim.
Gay men of a certain class were a visible presence in London's Victorian-era audiences. We have documentation of a recognizable claque of musical theatre queens at one of Gilbert and Sullivan's gala opening nights. A critic in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News described the following scene in "the pit" (which Americans call orchestra seats) at the 1884 London premiere of Princess Ida
Gays and Broadway
In the groundbreaking Gay New York (New York: Basic Books, 1994), George Chauncey documents the long-neglected story of New York City's homosexual community before World War II. He confirms that there was a visible homosexual presence in late 19th Century New York City, but hangouts were frequently suppressed due to public outrage. Mainstream society could accept the existence of prostitution, grinding poverty and blatant political corruption, but it refused to tolerate "deviant" lifestyles. Outside of a few scattered bohemian enclaves like Greenwich Village, homosexuals were forced to remain invisible. That situation would soon change.