Book Review – The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway MusicalThe Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hoffman offers a close reading of some of the quintessential American musicals including Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, and The Music Man, to examine how each conceptualizes and engages definitions of race. At this point, you might go, “Huh? Okay, Show Boat and West Side, sure, but what’s The Music Man got to do with race? Marian the Librarian never talks about racial prejudice! Harold Hill could be any ethnicity! An interracial couple could play Zaneeta and Tommy and it wouldn’t make one difference to the script!”

Except that we all know, don’t we, given the time period, the Midwest location, and how the characters act and react to one another, that they are white.

Which is precisely Hoffman’s point — that the American musical has, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, been the province of white folks. This in turn shapes the way white people think of ourselves, and because race remains a hidden subtext when only white characters on are stage, allows us to believe our experiences generalize to the rest of humanity. Though Hoffman doesn’t make this point, I will: this makes it harder to understand people of other races, and in particular to accept that structural racism exists — because we don’t experience it, it’s hard to believe that anyone does.

Hoffman also offers broader analysis of some historical Broadway trends: all-black casts in traditionally all-white shows (Hello, Dolly!, Guys and Dolls) in the ’60s and ’70s, shows written for multicultural casts (A Chorus Line) in the ’80s, revisals — revivals with revised libretto — (Annie Get Your Gun, Flower Drum Song), and the (inevitable?) return of all-white musicals with shows that look back to the “Golden Age” (42nd Street). In some cases, Hoffman’s conclusions are surprising, as in his analysis of color-blind casting trends and the revision of older musicals to make them more palatable to modern tastes, but always thoughtful. Occasionally, I wished the author included more information to back up his point, though generally the chapters feel thorough without being tedious.

It’d be easy to cite what’s left out, such as British and other musicals that don’t originate in the U.S. I’d have loved a close reading of Miss Saigon and/or Les Miserables, or at least more mention than the off-handed dismissal of the mega-musical. Hoffman is admittedly a cranky aficionado of the Golden-Age style of musical, and it’s clear that with this book, he is focusing on the shows he loves, not simply on shows that made an artistic or market impact. Given that, I respect him more: it takes courage to critique the works that mean most to you, to see their flaws and potential danger to real-world justice.

In challenging the idea that a piece of theater only has something to say about race when minority characters appear, Hoffman offers a theoretical tool to analyze not only theater, but other forms of entertainment and art, like TV and comics, where discussions of inclusivity and fair representation run hot. Granted, musical theater is a bit niche, despite the author’s passionate argument for the relevance of musicals to the average American. I appreciate his defense but only partially accept it and I’m one of the many who love musicals; given options, I’ll probably listen to show tunes before any other kind of album. But I am just not sure I can buy into the argument that, because the songs are so detachable from the rest of the script and become known to more people than ever see the full show, that their impact on definitions of whiteness is similarly vast. I’m not sure that a song divorced from the full musical’s context can maintain that kind of ideological weight. But perhaps that’s my own desire to keep the musicals I love safe, in both meanings of the word: safe from criticism, and safe for all and any to consume, without consequence. No work of art or entertainment really is.

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