A new breed of plays and musicals this season is presenting gay characters in love stories, replacing the direct political messages of 1980s and ‘90s shows like “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America” with more personal appeals for social progress.These productions about gay life make little or no mention of H.I.V. or AIDS and keep direct activism at arm’s length, with militant crusading portrayed with ambivalence more than ardor. The politics of these shows — there are seven of them opening in New York in the next several weeks — are subtler, more nuanced: they place the everyday concerns of Americans in a gay context, thereby pressing the case that gay love and gay marriage, gay parenthood and gay adoption are no different from their straight variations.
While persecution remains a reality for most of these gay characters, just as it does in many movies and television shows featuring gay love stories, the widening acceptance of AIDS as a pandemic rather than a gay disease — and the broadening debate on gay marriage and gay soldiers — have led, and have to some extent freed, writers and producers to use a wider lens to explore a broader landscape.
Joe Zellnik, who with his brother, David, created the new Off Broadway musical “Yank!,” about a bittersweet love affair between two men serving in the Army in World War II, said that they deliberately avoided agitprop and were instead trying to advance a message about equality through a gentler portrayal of men “who happened to be gay, fighting in the good war.”
“We weren’t trying to write an overtly political musical about gays in the military, because we came to see that ‘Yank!’ becomes more subversive the more you hew to the old classic Rodgers and Hammerstein models of love stories — just between two men — than having our characters up on soapboxes,” Joe Zellnik said.
In the new Broadway play “Next Fall,” in which sharp religious differences test a gay couple’s romantic bond, it is ultimately a traffic accident — not AIDS — that lands one of the men in critical condition.
“I think we have a better chance of attracting straight and gay audience members with universal emotions, like love and loyalty, that touch the lives of these gay men and show how we are all equal, rather than do it through polarizing arguments,” said Richard Willis, one of the lead producers of “Next Fall,” which began previews on Tuesday.
Television shows like “Will & Grace” and movies like “Milk,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “In and Out” have shown gay love and friendships as natural parts of life since the mid-1990s, when cultural depictions of the AIDS crisis for gay men began to ebb. Some of these movies ended in heartbreak or death for the gay characters, of course — part of a long thematic tradition of portraying explicitly or possibly gay characters as suffering hatred, illness, suicide and death.
Such tragic plot points were especially common in the theater of the 20th century, fromLillian Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour” (1934) andTennessee Williams’s “Suddenly Last Summer” (1958) through “The Laramie Project” (2000). In the 1980s and early ’90s, however, the stories of gay men in plays like “As Is,” “The Normal Heart,” “Jeffrey” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” often rendered loving or lonely characters against a backdrop of activism and ideological criticism of the seeming indifference of government and society to fighting AIDS or treating gay Americans as equal citizens.
The new shows this season, meanwhile, are at their heart about remarkably unremarkable love stories — romantic or platonic — among gay people. In some ways the shift from explicit political statements to subtler storytelling reflects the debate in gay political circles about whether to continue fighting at the ballot box and in the courts for gay rights immediately or instead to take a longer view that involves building alliances and giving time for more Americans to come around on issues like gay marriage.