When I told my friend I was going to see the musical of But I’m A Cheerleader, she said, ‘Wait, is that the one with the lesbian and the conversion therapy boot camp?’ Yes, yes it is.
Based on the 1999 cult classic film of the same name, I managed to catch the show at the tail end of its run at the Turbine Theatre. I don’t see many musicals (though I have seen Heathers and will soon see Legally Blonde), so I’m not exactly a musical critic. But I have a few thoughts.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know it’s very stylised—and that lends itself for adaptation to the stage. Everyone is in orange and browns until the lead, Megan, is sent to ‘True Directions.’ After that, it’s all pink and blue. Because of course it is.
There, it’s all about conformity, control and 1950s gender roles.
What the critics said
When the film was released, some critics found it heavy-handed and one-sided. But the fans (including many from the LGBTQ+ community) found it much-needed comic relief on a subject that has been deeply traumatic for many.
Whilst But I’m A Cheerleader is undoubtedly biased, I don’t think it’s fair to call it LGBTQ+ propaganda, The ‘conversion’ methods and control tactics echoed a lot of truth. Even as a comedy, there are moments where I felt uncomfortable. But I didn’t feel like the musical was an attack on a group of people; it felt like an attack on attitudes and practices.
And I guess that matters to me as a Christian viewer. I am under no illusions as to the damage caused to LGBTQ+ people in the name of Christianity. If you want a fictional example, try watching The Miseducation of Cameron Post. For a real-life one, try Vicky Beeching’s memoir, Undivided. I get that Christianity doesn’t have a free pass when it comes to satire and criticism of the harms of conversion therapy. But when I sit down and want to be entertained, I don’t want to hear cheap shots at the Bible. And with But I’m A Cheerleader, I didn’t.
I also appreciated how the musical’s only mention of Jesus was Megan saying that he befriended outcasts and prostitutes. Yes, yes he did. And the line landed with sincerity (at least, I think it did).
What worked and what didn’t
The show has its flaws, though I think MickeyJoTheatre mainly covered them in his review: small cast and doubling of characters, the inherent age problem with how Jared’s character is used, and the way-happy ending that veered more into pantomime. But he still gave it four stars.
The performances were strong and the songs made me want to buy the sheet music (sadly, it’s not available yet). There were two moments that particularly stood out for me.
The first was when Dolph (played by Aaron Teoh) gets evicted from the camp. He sings this song about how love is like wrestling. I was sceptical at its start but then he moves on to sing about how he’s done wrestling with himself. Oh gosh, it had me. Especially this line:
Funny to finally make the connection
Thank you for showing me my true direction.
Yeah, I was in tears. And to me, it carried more power given that Teoh is a Malaysian immigrant. In case you missed it, Malaysia initially banned the live-action Beauty and the Beast because of its single gay moment. (Which was so quick I missed it the first time round!) The film has since been released there but only with a P13 rating.
The second stand-out scene for me was the sex scene between Megan and Graham (also a lesbian). It evoked an authentic atmosphere of affection, without trying to show or do too much. Graham had prepared a special surprise for Megan and followed through with sweetness and vulnerability. Honestly, the scene conveyed a wonderful feeling of nervousness, exploration and excitement. It felt close to something that two 17-year olds might share together.
I mean, OK – I wouldn’t advise anyone to have sex for the first time whilst huddled in the enclave of an indoctrination center. But from a literary perspective, I understand why it’s necessary for the plot. And it felt like a genuinely sex-positive portrayal. And that was refreshing.
So there you have it. But I’m A Cheerleader was fun, well-written and well-performed. I’d pay to see it again. It’s also very topical. LGB conversion therapy still hasn’t been banned yet in the UK. Even when government’s bill goes through, there’ll be an ‘informed consent’ clause for over-18s, and trans conversion therapy will still be legal.
If you’re LGBTQ+ or an ally and you’re into musicals, look out for this one if it makes another run. And if you’d give it a pass, but want to understand the emotion of what this is all about, considering watching the Dolph’s song ‘Wrestling.’ The YouTube vid isn’t the same as seeing it live, not by a long shot! But at least it’ll give you a flavour.
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