In the realm of theatre, particularly within Broadway, representation matters. Often, the stage serves as a direct reflection of society, capturing and manifesting the evolving world within a two-hour performance. This form of representation does more than just entertain; it validates identities, gives voice to the silent, and provides a platform for perspectives that might otherwise be marginalized. Although Broadway has been historically dominated by binary gender portrayals, the landscape is changing as non-binary artists steadily redefine the industry's age-old norms.
Non-binary is a term used to describe a gender identity that does not fit within the conventional binary of male or female. People who identify as non-binary might view themselves as both, neither, or fluctuate between the male and female genders. They may also adopt alternative terms, such as genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, bigender, etc. Non-binary individuals may choose to express their gender identity in a variety of ways and might use various pronouns like they/them, ze/hir, or a mix of she/her or he/him and they/them.
The concept of non-binary performers isn't entirely new in theatre history. As far back as ancient Greece, the performing arts incorporated gender-fluid elements. All characters in ancient Greek theatre, regardless of their gender, were performed by male actors, often leading to gender-swapping roles. Fast forward to the Renaissance period, and the same practice was observed, with young men or boys often playing the female roles.
Drag performance, likely the most visible form of gender-bending performance, has a rich history extending from Victorian Music Halls to today’s RuPaul's Drag Race era. The tradition of drag queens and kings performing in the theatre blurs the binary gender norm lines. In more recent times, non-binary performers have made headway by taking up space as themselves, refusing to conform to binary limitations. This signals progression toward an inclusive theatre environment that appreciates and champions the fluidity and complexity of gender identities.
Alex Newell, recognized for their powerful vocal talents, showcases the importance of non-binary representation in the theatre industry. Newell, who identifies as gender nonconforming and uses all pronouns, first appeared on Broadway as Asaka in the revival of Once on This Island. But their recent role in the live reading of a new musical, Shucked, proves Newell's versatility. Through the role of Lulu, they portray a character who, although cisgender herself, defies gender norms with her show-stopping number ‘Independently Owned.’
As an artist who identifies as gender fluid and non-binary, J. Harrison Ghee's triumph on Broadway is a testament to the growing acceptance and appreciation of non-binary performers. Their starring role in the musical adaptation of Some Like It Hot places them as a pioneering non-binary figure in the Broadway community, further solidifying the presence and influence of non-binary individuals within the industry. In the original movie, the character Daphne, played by Jack Lemmon, was a cross-dressing role, a man disguised as a woman for comedic effect and plot advancement. Rather than sticking to the script, Broadway made a progressive change and introduced Daphne as a non-binary character. This switch is more than merely a character development. It reflects a broader theatre industry shift toward acknowledging non-binary and gender-fluid identities.
It's the hope of every actor to imbue their characters with a piece of themselves, and for non-binary performer Justin David Sullivan, their role as May in & Juliet offered precisely that opportunity. The creators behind & Juliet understood the potential pitfalls and tropes often associated with queer characters in theatre. They were determined to avoid configuring May as the 'queer best friend' or turning them into a figure of derision. Their approach was thoughtful and sensitive, valuing queer authenticity and emphasizing accurate representation. They allowed Sullivan the freedom to bring their unique experience and perspective as a non-binary individual into the character of May. The decisions around costume, character interactions, and dialogues were collaborative, ensuring that May's depiction celebrated their queerness rather than exploiting it for humor or novelty.
Non-binary representation on Broadway isn’t limited to actors on center stage; it is just as powerful behind the curtain in the roles of creators shaping and writing the narratives. Toby Marlow, a composer, writer, and co-creator of the hit Broadway musical SIX, stands tall as a significant non-binary talent working behind the scenes. Marlow's SIX, which retells the lives of Henry VIII's six wives in the form of a pop concert, has received critical acclaim since its debut, scoring many awards and gaining international success with performances in London's West End and Broadway. Importantly, this musical has displayed a commitment to non-binary representation and inclusivity within its cast members throughout its run.
These pioneering non-binary artists are not only redefining their respective genres but are also propelling Broadway toward a future that breaks the binary consistently and captivatingly. Here are even more non-binary trailblazers you should be on the lookout for:
Mars Rucker, a magnanimous non-binary talent, has been making waves on Broadway with their roles in two groundbreaking shows, A Strange Loop (2022-2023) and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (2019-2022). Off-Broadway, J. Riley Jr. has been a revelation in Suffs (2022), a musical centering on the women's suffrage movement in the United States. Meanwhile, the world of dance has also seen non-binary representation with Kolton Krouse's entry in the recent revival of Bob Fosse’s Dancin' (2023).
The influence and importance of non-binary artists in the creation and production process cannot be overstated. They possess a unique ability to take on a diverse range of roles, transcending traditional gender boundaries in their narratives and character development. This can be seen in recent productions, such as 1776 (2022-2023).
This revival, directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, accomplished what seemed impossible years ago. It showcased a cast composed entirely of female, non-binary, and trans performers. This groundbreaking reinterpretation of a classic American historical story demonstrated how non-binary artists could enhance and diversify the theatre experience, challenging biases and breaking gender norms.
By amplifying non-binary voices, both on and behind the stage, Broadway is redefining what it means to tell a story. It's informing its audience that every perspective matters and that art, in its purest form, is inclusive, accepting, and encompassing.
Broadway, a beacon for creative imagination and stage performances, is beginning to reflect the world's diverse realities by increasingly recognizing and showcasing non-binary artists. These artists, including writers, musicians, actors, and dancers, not only bring unique and compelling talents to the table, but they're also initiating a broader conversation about gender identities characterized by acceptance, inclusion, and freedom of expression.
These non-binary voices are shaking up the industry, transforming the traditional scope of Broadway and redefining its future. They unveil narratives that go beyond the binary, embracing a gray area of gender that's been long ignored, making Broadway a platform that does more than entertain. It educates, revolutionizes, and propels societal change through its storytelling.
But we need to bear in mind that we're still at the advent of this transformative journey. While we celebrate the current non-binary representation within this realm, we must also acknowledge that there's a long road ahead. The industry is yet to fully dismantle gendered norms, still navigating the complexities of integrating non-binary performing arts into mainstream culture.
With every step taken, however, Broadway continues to inspire, challenge, and mirror society in its most authentic form. There is no doubt that with continued hard work, innovation, and a commitment to diversity and inclusion, Broadway will pave the path for a more encompassing, empathetic, and authentic representation of gender in the performing arts.