Why Fun Home Cannot and Will Not Solve Broadway’s So-Called “Lesbian Problem”

A few weeks ago, I was browsing idly on Facebook (read: procrastinating on Greek homework) when I stumbled upon a rather confident headline: “Fun Home Could Fix Broadway’s Lesbian Problem.” The blog post, which appeared on OnStage but as far as I can tell has since been deleted, aptly noted the lack of queer women onstage and then seemed to suggest that the lack of representation could be neatly solved with one piece. I don’t doubt Fun Home’s wonderfulness (full disclosure: I have tickets but haven’t seen it yet), but that’s definitely a big burden for one show to carry. And yet, “Broadway’s Lesbian Problem,” in addition to being the hopeful title of my future autobiography, is a strange, rarely-spoken-of reality, one that parallels, I think, a larger cultural conundrum.

It’s been a good season for queer women. And I And Silence, about two young queer women in prison and afterwards, opened to positive reviews some time ago, while Bright Half Life, which charts a lesbian couple’s relationship through the years, just finished its run. Fun Home, the Pulitzer-nominated musical based on the unbelievably amazing graphic memoir of the same name by Alison Bechdel (if you haven’t read it by now, run don’t walk to Atticus), will open mid-April on The Broad Way. By many counts, 2014-2015 was one of the best years queer women have had in theatre in a long time.

Yet this season is both typical and atypical. Certainly the sheer amount of pieces about queer women is remarkable. But that two out of the three stay Off-Broadway, are intense dramas, and deal primarily with a queer relationship rather than individuals isn’t exactly groundbreaking. (At this point, the trope of queer folks appearing in media only as cute couples is, well, a trope.) Fun Home stands out in all of these regards: it’s a musical, it’s moving to Broadway, and it’s about a lesbian, singular, as well as her closeted gay father. But Fun Home, despite its desperate marketing efforts to bill the show as just another family story, is already being categorized as “cerebral” and “fascinating,” far from universal. It’s not a tourist show – it’s for New Yorkers. Think the difference between Mamma Mia! and an obscure Sondheim revival: both valid in their own way, but pulling very different crowds, with one drawing in families and the other, self-proclaimed “theatre people.”

Want to look back beyond this season? Well, if we just narrow to Broadway musicals, admittedly my “area of expertise,” things get pretty dismal. There’s last season’s If/Then, which was generally regarded as “disappointing,” that throws in two cute cookie-cutter queer couples in the background to dispense advice to the straight protagonist. I do not remember these characters’ names. There’s Rent, in which bisexual Maureen is unable to stop cheating on her lovers (hmmm…) and lesbian Joanne is no-nonsense and uninteresting – the comic relief couple, they sing one song about their fractious relationship and fade. (Fun fact: one of the big love ballads, “Without You,” used to belong to them, but was then given to the play’s central – and straight – couple.) Oh, wait – there’s also a stereotypical lesbian-feminist in Legally Blonde, who says things like “phallocentric war machine.” (And she goes to Harvard – even worse.)  Perhaps our only saving grace is the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, which centers on a queer woman of color, but even it is so often sanitized, with the “queer” part being pushed behind the moniker of “intense friendship.”

Just in case you think the problem is some kind of overwhelming heterosexuality on the Great White Way, here’s a short preview of some musicals which feature queer men:

  • Avenue Q

  • Bare (off-Broadway)

  • The Boy from Oz

  • Cabaret

  • A Chorus Line

  • Falsettos (off-Broadway)

  • If/Then

  • Kinky Boots (Note: To anyone who only knows the piece vaguely, know that the musical goes out of its way to establish that the central character is a gay drag queen, not a trans woman. Drag queens are weirdly ubiquitous on Broadway and the implications aren’t amazing – but that’s another issue.)

  • La Cage Aux Folles (Same.)

  • Kiss of the Spider Woman

  • Legally Blonde

  • Rent

  • Spring Awakening

  • Victor/Victoria

(Plus Company, depending on who you ask. That’s rather contentious though.)

Some observations: Out of all the musicals I cited before featuring queer women, all of them besides The Color Purple also feature queer men. Alright. Many of them (A Chorus Line, Avenue Q, The Boy from Oz, Cabaret, Kinky Boots, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Victor/Victoria…) feature single gay men. That is, gay men are allowed to operate onstage outside of relationships – they’re interesting enough on their own. And much like before, the vast majority of these characters are white and cis. Shocking, I know.

Making lists like these may feel excessive, but I think they’re important. Not all of these portrayals of gay men are amazing, but at least they’re there, and at least there are enough of them that audiences see a whole spectrum of ways to be a queer man. What I would have given for a ballad between two women like the ones in Bare or the “Word of Your Body” reprise between two boys in Spring Awakening. Instead, I had a playlist with one song: “Take Me Or Leave Me.” A person can only sing “Women, what is it about them? Can’t live with them or without them!” so many times. And I can’t belt that high anyway.

These lists are important, too, because they represent a much larger problem: deceptive visibility, or visibility that really isn’t visibility at all. The LGBT acronym is useful and important – it indicates a sense of community, it’s unifying – but it also allows media to hide behind the moniker of “LGBT representation” when what we’re really seeing is white young gay cis male representation. One needs only to turn on the TV set to any new sitcom, read another Huffington Post article describing marriage equality as the be-all-end-all, or check out the latest spread on Neil Patrick Harris’s adorable family to get the gist. Similarly, Broadway and the theatre community at large pride themselves on their support of LGBT individuals, yet only a handful of those folks actually make it before an audience. What looks like representation for everyone is in reality representation for very few. But because that very few is represented, we wash our hands of the issue and say “case closed.”

There’s a lyric in one of Fun Home’s most memorable numbers, “Ring of Keys,” that says, “Someone just came through the door, like no one I ever saw before.” Replace “through the door” with “onto the stage” and you have a rough approximation of what seeing photos from Fun Home itself feels like for me. The woman at Fun Home’s center is like no one I’ve ever seen on Broadway: an independent queer woman not singing backup to straight characters or goofily misandristic or half of a cutesy couple, but grappling with complicated familial issues and her own maturity. I have no doubt that the musical will be phenomenal. Its source material is nothing short of remarkable, and the music is breathtaking – I highly recommend “Changing My Major” to anyone and everyone. (Finally! A song for queer women with notes I can actually hit!) The reviews of the off-Broadway production as well as the buzz surrounding its opening have all the makings of a hit. I hope it will run for a long, long time.

Still: Fun Home cannot and will not “solve Broadway’s lesbian problem,” and we should not imply that it can. It’s only one story. It tells about one experience, one way to be queer. The characters in Fun Home are also white and cis – plus, Alison Bechdel is a lesbian, so bi women are out for this round. Certainly Fun Home should not have to include every variation on what it means to be a queer woman in order to be considered crucial. But it should not be the only story that gets a lucky spot in Times Square, it should not be the only way seen to be a queer woman on Broadway. We should not congratulate ourselves for, for once, getting it right, for once, and then walk away, mission accomplished.

In her iconic TED Talk, Chimanda Ngozi Adichie warns of “the danger of the single story.” Having one well-developed piece of musical theatre, one single story, is simply not enough. Until the whole spectrum of individuals in the LGBT community can see themselves onstage, can be visible, “Broadway’s [anyone-but-cis-young-gay-white-men] problem” is a long way from solved.