From God of Vengeance to The Inheritance , A Look At 12 Gay Plays That Rocked Broadway

Last updated November 15th, 2019 by Josh Ferri
From God of Vengeance to The Inheritance , A Look At 12 Gay…

Photo by Matthew Murphy, Joan Marcus, & Martha Swope/NYPL

Matthew Lopez’s four-time Olivier Award-winning drama The Inheritance is one of those important plays that comes along once in a generation. Inspired by E.M. Foster’s Howards’ End and told over two-parts, the epic drama explores a group of gay male friends in present day New York—gay men, mostly in their 30s, living through the Trump administration; young men who hadn’t lived through the plague that wiped away a generation and the older ones who survived it. There's no missing this cultural touchstone that is The Inheritance.

The Inheritance Broadway Cast 2019
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Inheritance Broadway West End Cast
Photo by Marc Brenner

One major theme in The Inheritance is the passing on of gay culture from one generation to the next. As this new Broadway play immediately takes its place in the canon of gay theatre, let’s look back on 12 seminal plays about gay men and their friendships/relationships that have come before and paved the way.

God of Vengeance, The Captive, & The Children’s Hour

The Captive
Photo by NYPL

There’s no way to tell the history of gay plays without first talking about a trio of early plays that featured lesbian relationships. Sholem Asch’s God of Vengence first premiered in 1907 and came to Broadway in 1923. Paula Vogel’s Tony-nominated play Indecent tells the story of show, which prominently and boldly featured a lesbian love story. For their part, the cast was arrested for obscenity. In 1926, Edouard Bourdet’s play The Captive, about a May/December lesbian relationship, also caused a big scandal in NYC. It was raided by the police mid-performance, the cast arrested, and the play shut down after 160 performances. Lillian Hellman’s 1934 three-act drama The Children’s Hour centered around a rumor that the two headmistresses at a boarding school were in a lesbian relationship, and the dark truth behind the rumor. It was greeted with critical acclaim, though still considered so shocking certain Pulitzer Prize voters morally refused to see the original production.

Tea And Sympathy

Gay Tea & Sympathy
Photo by NYPL

Robert Anderson’s three-act play Tea and Sympathy premiered on Broadway in 1953. The plot was about a seemingly gay young teen at a boys’ private school and an older woman (who may be married to a gay man herself) that attempted to seduce young Tom Lee in order to help prove his heterosexuality. Directed by Elia Kazan, the original production starred Deborah Kerr and John Kerr. John won a Tony Award for his performance as Tom Lee and he was replaced by a young Anthony Perkins, who won a Theatre World Award for his performance as Tom Lee.

The Boys in the Band

Matthew Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play The Boys In the Band is back in the zeitgeist thanks to a star-studded 2018 Broadway revival and Ryan Murphy’s upcoming Netflix adaptation. The play about a group of gay male New Yorkers coming together to celebrate a birthday first premiered off-Broadway in 1968, and the incredible original cast reunited for the 1970 film adaptation. Some now find the drunken, nasty infighting of The Boys In the Band to be a bit dated, but, honestly, the searing reads in this play are absolutely iconic and the relationship dynamics remain layered and fascinating.


Richard Gere Bent Gay Play Broadway
Photo by NYPL

Martin Sherman opened Bent, his play about what it was like to be gay in Nazi Germany, in 1979 at Broadway’s New Apollo Theatre. The original production starred Richard Gere as Max, a homosexual man doing the unspeakable to survive in a concentration camp. Ian McKellen starred as Max in the West End production and Clive Owen played Max in the 1997 film. Bent has never been revived on Broadway.

Torch Song Trilogy

Written and starring Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song Trilogy looked at the romantic and personal relationships of Arnold Beckoff, a gay Jewish drag queen hoping to find love and a family in New York City. The show first premiered off-Broadway at La MaMa and then transferred to Broadway in 1982. It was a breakout moment for Harvey Fierstein, who won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Actor and Best Play. The original production co-starred Estelle Getty (pre-Golden Girls fame) as Arnold’s tough mother. It was adapted into a film starring Harvey, and was recently revived on Broadway in 2018 with Michael Urie starring as Arnold. Harvey would go on to write many more important queer works for the theatre like Safe Sex, La Cage aux Folles, Kinky Boots, Casa Valentina, and Gently Down the Stream.

The Normal Heart

Normal Heart Public
Photo by Martha Swope/NYPL

Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical drama The Normal Heart is absolutely devastating and an incredibly important part of gay history. It focused on the early years of the AIDs crisis in New York and the activists on the front lines who gave up everything to understand and fight the virus. Larry first premiered the play in 1985 at The Public Theater, where it ran for nearly 300 performances. It was revived at The Public in 2004 and finally premiered on Broadway in a Tony Award-winning 2011 production. Ryan Murphy adapted the play for HBO in 2014. It also inspired David Drake’s OBIE Award-winning solo play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, an important piece of gay theatre in its own right.

M. Butterfly

David Henry Hwang won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play for his queer thriller about a French diplomat who fell in love with a Peking opera singer he believed to be a woman, when in reality, his partner of 20 years was a man and a spy. The original production starred John Lithgow as Gallimard (the diplomat) and BD Wong as Song Liling. For his performance, BD Wong won every major theatre award in New York, including the Tony Award. M. Butterfly was turned into a film and revived on Broadway in 2017 with Clive Owen and Jin Ha.


Jeffrey Play
Photo by NYPL

Paul Rudnick’s OBIE and OCC-winning breakout comedy Jeffrey first premiered at off-Broadway’s WPA Theatre in 1992 and then transferred in 1993 to off-Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre. John Michael Higgins starred in the title role, a gay actor/waiter who swore off sex in New York in order to stay “safe” but who ultimately ends up falling in love with a HIV-positive man. The cast also included Tony winner Harriet Harris, Tom Hewitt, Bryan Batt, & Edward Hibbert. Though it’s never been revived in New York, Jeffrey lives on as a popular 1995 film adaptation starring Steven Weber as the title character.

Angels in America

Of course, the easiest play to compare The Inheritance to is Tony Kushner’s two-part epic that combines love, death, politics, religion, coming out, the AIDs epidemic, and lasting friendship. Before winning the Pulitzer Prize, Tony, and Drama Desk Awards, Angels began its life in 1991 at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco. By 1993, the play debuted on Broadway with Stephen Spinella starring as Prior Walter (winning two Tony Awards for his performance). Angels was famously adapted into a 2003 HBO miniseries, which won an Emmy Award for every competitive category it was nominated for. The play was then revived off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre in 2010 and on Broadway in a Tony and Olivier Award-winning 2018 production from the National Theatre.

Love! Valour! Compassion!

Love Valour Compassion
Photo by Joan Marcus

Terrence McNally’s drama Love! Valour! Compassion! began its life off-Broadway at MTC in 1994 before transferring to Broadway and winning the 1995 Tony Award for Best Play. Set in a country house Upstate, the play centered around eight gay friends and lovers who spend three holidays there over the course of a summer. The original production starred Nathan Lane, John Glover (in a Tony-winning role), Justin Kirk, John Benjamin Hickey (of The Inheritance), Stephen Bogardus, Randy Becker and Stephen Spinella. Many of the original cast reunited for the 1997 film. The play has never been revived on Broadway. Of course, Terrence McNally would make a career of giving us vital and varied looks at gay life and our relationships through his works The Ritz, Mothers and Sons, Corpus Christi, Fire and Air, A Man of No Importance, The Full Monty and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Take Me Out

Take Me Out Broadway
Photo by Joan Marcus

In 2002, Richard Greenberg caused quite a stir around town with his play about mix-raced professional baseball player who decides to come out the closet, Take Me Out (the play’s famous nude scene helped with the stir part). The drama premiered at The Public in 2002 before transferring to Broadway, where it won the 2003 Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League, and Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Daniel Sunjata starred as the baseball player, Darren Lemming, and Denis O’Hara won a Tony Award for his performance as his money manager, Mason Marzac. In March 2020, Take Me Out will receive its first Broadway revival at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

Wig Out!

Wig Out- nathan Lee Graham

After Paris Is Burning but well before Pose there was Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!. This dramedy about gay ballroom and house culture is the only play on this list that offered a look at the gay black experience, and the relationships within the family these gay and trans people have created for themselves. Directed by Tina Landau, the play premiered off-Broadway in 2008 at the Vineyard Theatre. Wig Out! won the GLAAD Award for Outstanding New York Theater piece and received several Drama League and Lortel Award nominations, including one for Nathan Lee Graham, whose electrifying performance as the house mother was unforgettable. That same year, the play transferred to London’s Royal Court Theatre and Tarell won the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. He would, of course, go on to write the Oscar-winning gay film Moonlight and Broadway’s Tony-nominated Best Play Choir Boy.

Other notable works include Mae West’s 1927 play The Drag, Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste of Honey, Lanford Wilson’s 1978 play Fifth of July, Ira Levin’s 1978 play Death Trap, Tom Stoppard’s 1997 play The Invention of Love, Diana Son’s 1998 play Stop Kiss, David Hare’s 1998 play The Judas Kiss, Geoffrey Nauffts’ 2009 play Next Fall, Douglas Carter Beane’s plays The Little Dog Laughed and The Nance, Joshua Harmon’s 2015 play Significant Other, Adam Bock’s 2016 play A Life, Donja R. Love’s 2018 play Sugar in Our Wounds.

Gay Broadway Off Broaway Plays
Photo by Joan Marcus, Carol Rosegg, Paul Klonik, Micah Daniel

Don't miss your chance to experience The Inheritance, playing at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre.