From ancient Greek tragedies to the Japanese Noh and Kabuki styles that developed in the 14th and 17th centuries to the English Renaissance traditions we know best from Shakespeare (see: Twelfth Night, a man playing a woman playing a man), gender-swapping has been integral to the history of theatre. Way back when, the reason why was simple: women were excluded from performing. But today, contemporary plays may use gender-bending roles as a tool to explore larger societal themes and questions of LGBTQ identity, or for classic comedic effect.
Actor and playwright Charles Busch, who has often been called a
gender illusionist, once explained in an interview that his inspiration for writing and playing gender-bent roles comes from simply asking himself,
Wouldn’t it be fun to be… and working from there to create roles like Angela Arden, the title character in Die, Mommie, Die! With Celebration Theatre’s production of Die, Mommie, Die! onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre May 10–20, 2018 as part of Block Party, we’ve gathered a collection of iconic gender-bending roles and the artists who defined them.
Peter and Wendy—Maude Adams as Peter Pan
Though many people today associate Peter Pan most closely with his animated depiction from the 1953 Disney movie, the portrayal that propelled the character into American popularity was Maude Adams’. She played the forever-young flyboy in the 1905 US premiere of the play, a casting decision that had to do with a producer’s whims and British labor laws. Although the production faced some initial hurdles—with Adams requiring an emergency appendectomy soon after being cast for the role and a lackluster opening in Washington, D.C.—both Adams and the show garnered praise and recognition on Broadway. Her costume, which she co-designed, even inspired an aptly named fashion trend in later decades.
The Rocky Horror Show—Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter
The cult-classic play/film/interactive experience (see: toast throwing) is considered a rite of passage for many teenagers, in no small part on account of the incomparable lead transvestite mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter. The man-behind-the-tights and progenitor of the role—who starred in the World and American premieres of the play, as well as the 1975 film—was Tim Curry. Curry, who had only one full-time stage credit before being cast, had an active role in developing the part, and even based the amalgamated accent of Frter partially off his mother. In an NPR interview, Curry told the story of how he once made an appearance at a screening but was kicked out of the movie theatre as the staff thought he was imposter.
Hairspray—Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad
While Divine and John Travolta may have to fight it out for the title of ultimate film portrayal of Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad, the theatrical mantle unequivocally belongs to Harvey Fierstein, who portrayed Edna in the 2003 Broadway premiere. Fierstein—an award-winning theatrical powerhouse known for both his writing and his drag and gender-bending performances—described the role of Edna as both a physical and mental undertaking. From developing Edna’s physicality to perfecting her persona and arc, Fierstein said Edna had
claimed large chunks of [his] lifeduring the original Broadway run, which earned him the Tony Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch—John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig, Miriam Shor as Yitzhak
Many shows are content with having one star gender bender within a larger cast, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch doubles that standard as part of its powerful exploration of gender and identity, with powerful rock and roll to match. John Cameron Mitchell both wrote the book and starred as Hedwig, a transgender East German singer, in the 1998 Off-Broadway premiere. Miriam Shor played opposite Mitchell as Yitzhak, a former drag queen who has been forced to abandon his passion. Both Mitchell and Shor also starred in the 2001 film adaptation, which did not garner strong financial success, but paved the way for multiple international productions and an eventual Tony-winning Broadway run over 10 years later.
BONUS! Mrs. Doubtfire—Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire
It would be forgivable for someone who hasn’t seen Mrs. Doubtfire to be shown a picture of the titular character in full costume and assume they were looking at an actual elderly Scottish woman. Such was the quality of both the special effects and acting chops of Robin Williams, who brought his unmatched improvisational skills to task while covered by four and a half man-hours worth of make-up. Williams said the full effect was so convincing that not even his own son recognized him in costume. Astute readers may be thinking
Hey, Mrs. Doubtfire was never made into a theatrical production!True, but rumors have swirled about a possible stage adaptation of the movie, though most recent word is that the piece may be indefinitely in creative limbo. We can dream, can’t we?