The idea for the Forbidden Love cabaret came to me last year, with the milestone of 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. Although I had always included gay numbers in my shows, I hadn’t previously set out to create an evening charting the history of gay visibility through song. Of course, it would be impossible to cover the thousands of artists who have lived and loved differently, and this was always going to be a very personal trawl through the songbooks of history.
I began my journey by revisiting the male impersonators from the Victorian music hall, about whom I co-wrote a piece with Neil Bartlett a few years ago. The most famous of these performers, Vesta Tilley, spent her whole career dressed as a man on stage, singing numbers like ‘I’m the Idol of the Girls’, yet did everything she could publicly to distance herself from what she called the ‘mannish woman’, becoming a Lady when she married Conservative MP Lord de Frece, and retiring to Monaco with her diamond collection. Despite her rather disappointing stance on same-sex desire, I wanted to include one of her songs to pay homage to the legions of young women who idolised her, wrote love letters and proposed marriage. Their feelings for her remained largely unnamed, and uncommented upon – a fact that seems extraordinary now, but was bang in line with the lack of attention paid to female desire at that time. Other male impersonators embraced their role more completely than Tilley – Ella Wesner, one of the pioneers, celebrated her ‘mannishness’ when she sang as early as 1888 that ‘All those who’ve never made love to a girl, well they don’t know the fun they have missed.’ She lived cross-dressed off stage as well as on, had several girlfriends, and made a final request to be buried in her suit when she died.
Skipping forwards to the 1920s and 30s, mainland Europe enjoyed something of a golden era when it came to representations of same-sex desire. Berlin’s Weimar cabaret scene introduced the first openly gay anthem, with Spoliansky and Schiffer’s Lavender Song: ‘We’re not afraid to be queer and different, if that means hell, then hell, we’ll take the chance’. The same writing team also penned ‘The Special Girlfriend’, a song about a girl who dumps her boyfriend for another woman – interestingly, that song was originally sung by a young Marlene Dietrich. And out lesbian Claire Waldoff wore a man’s suit and a monocle when she took to the stage to sing about the lovely Hannelore’s cute and boyish features. Hopping over to France, and the sexual melting pot of early 1930s Paris, lesbian cabaret star Suzy Solidor was making her fortune singing erotic songs about her desire for women, including lyrics as obvious as ‘with my tongue I stroke and tease, until I bring her to her knees’. What a stark contrast this continental frankness was to the attitudes in Britain and America at the same time, where Cole Porter was living a double life, married but pouring out his hidden passion for men in love letters, and Noel Coward’s lyrics alluding to homosexuality were being banned by the censor – I’ve managed to unearth some of them for inclusion in the show.
Another victim of her times, albeit more surprisingly, given the decade, was Dusty Springfield, in what was supposed to be the swinging 60s. Although by 1963 she was earning the equivalent of £25,000 per week, she was unravelling, unable to cope with her double life as an outwardly heterosexual star who secretly loved women. More surprising, perhaps, is that even stars like Janis Ian, today such an advocate for LGBTQ rights, didn’t feel safe to come out until 1993, despite having enjoyed fame from the 1970s.
It would be impossible to look at same sex desire in times of repression without covering the backwards-facing 1980s, when, two decades after the legalisation of homosexuality, Clause 28 and AIDS made gay people the victims of prejudice once again. To represent this time, I’ve chosen Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours, which was taken up as an anthem of strength and hope in gay nightclubs the world over, and a number from the American song cycle, Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, by Janet Hood and Bill Russell, which was inspired by the AIDS memorial quilt.
When I started making this programme, it was very much as a document to the past – an acknowledgement of how far we’ve come in our attitudes to difference. However, with incidents of homophobia on the rise globally, the power of song acts as a timely reminder that progress in thought is not linear, but rather it ebbs and flows with the times in which we find ourselves. I look forward to sharing some of these incredible songs and stories with a 21st century, enlightened audience!
Forbidden Love is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 28th February and 1st March, and at Hebden Bridge Town Hall Cafebar, 2nd March. Tickets £10/£8 on the door