Saturday, 31 October 2015

the great mystery of musical theatre

Last Saturday I went to see Xanadu at the Southwark Playhouse. For a theatre audience, the high proportion of men was striking. And, although I did not do a survey, and am no expert, I'd venture to say that it was clear that a significant majority of those men were gay.

Why are musical theatre and opera so popular among gay men? This is a genuine question, but not one to which you often see any serious answers given. It's a cliche, certainly, but one that is borne out in my own theatregoing experience, from opera, through G&S, to musicals.

I think it may be true to a lesser extent about theatregoing in general, which does relate to one general view is that the theatrical world has always been more accepting of, and therefore a refuge or haunt of, those with what are nowadays called alternative lifestyles.

People might also say that gay people are proportionally more likely to be artistic or theatrical in general. If this is so, and it may be (though I don't have any statistics to hand), why should it be so? Further, people may say that things like the heightened emotionality and flamboyance (or some other traits) of musical theatre reflects the gay male character - or shall we say a certain gay male character type. Again, that may or may not be so; but on the one hand, I'm not sure all musical theatre is emotional and flamboyant (or whatever), and on the other, why should emotionality and flamboyance (or whatever) be any more characteristic of a gay man than a heterosexual man?

It's a question which exercises me in particular because, of course, I like quite a lot of things which are thought to be typical of what gay men like - in particular theatre, musical or otherwise. I certainly don't feel that I'm in touch with 'my gay side' in liking these things; to me they're just things that to me any ordinary, right-thinking person would, could, should like; there's nothing distinctively 'gay' about them.

It would clearly be implausible to suggest that there's any genetic predisposition to a love of musical theatre among gay men. Perhaps if I'd finished that sentence 'in the gay community' that might have suggested one avenue of possibility, more along the nurture than nature lines - that a certain type of gay man likes it because that's the kind of thing a certain kind of gay man's community likes, and is drawn into because that's what his friends like and that's what he's expected to like (and indeed one would grow to love it more the more one was exposed to it, even if one didn't like it much to start with). (Would a Christian equivalent be awful Christian music?) A self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating cycle, perhaps with its roots in that original 'accepting theatrical world' hypothesis and having extended on from that. It's not a wholly satisfactory hypothesis, but will have to stand as a partial explanation for now.

It's something which I continue to find perplexing, and will continue to reflect on.

[Later: coincidentally, the day after I wrote this I listened to the Kermode/Mayo film review podcast, hosted on this occasion by Bhaskar/King, and they were reviewing Do I Sound Gay?, a documentary on a similar theme: as Wikipedia puts it, it 'explores the existence and accuracy of stereotypes about the speech patterns of gay men, and the ways in which one's degree of conformity to the stereotype can contribute to internalized homophobia'. So, unsurprisingly, I'm not the only person who thinks about these things.]