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book review: THE GREAT WHITE WAY: RACE AND THE BROADWAY MUSICAL

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THE GREAT WHITE WAY: Race and the Broadway Musical. By Warren Hoffman. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2014.
Warren Hoffman enthusiastically admits his great love for the Broadway musical on page one of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical. But despite this rather personal opening gambit, on page two Hoffman takes up critical lenses borrowed from whiteness studies and sets out to detail “the ways in which white identity has been shaped, protected, and upheld by this art form” (3). After analyzing select shows from the 1920s to the 2000s, Hoffman concludes that the Broadway musical operates from an “unspoken context of whiteness” (183).
The Great White Way considers many of the usual suspects in studies of Broadway and race. Part one includes three chapters: the first on Show Boat, followed by two comparative studies—of Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun (for their exclusion or inclusion of Native Americans) and of West Side Story and The Music Man (both from 1957). Hoffman simplistically reduces critical response to Show Boat to two camps: those who deem it a “classic” and those who dismiss it as racist. He defends the show to its critics by showing how Hammerstein’s lyrics and script are more subtle in their details than some have claimed. His strong riposte to Show Boat as “classic” usefully maps this category onto specious notions of human universals that support unacknowledged white privilege. Hoffman’s reading of West Side Story draws on archival documents to trace the genesis of the show’s making across a decade that saw a “transformation of racial categories” (110). Unfortunately, his insightful exploration of the Jets gang’s provisional status as white “Americans”—Hoffman draws our attention to bookwriter Arthur Laurents’s scare quotes—is interwoven with a less nuanced take on The Music Man. Here, Hoffman repeatedly shares his friends’ surprise at the very inclusion of Music Man in the book, revealing authorial anxiety about his audience. By insisting, rather than assuming, race is a salient category of analysis for The Music Man (and other shows) Hoffman runs the risk of appearing excessively obvious to scholars (of course a show about an all-white, small town in Iowa concerns questions of race) and leaving musical theater fans unsure how to incorporate what they learn into their understanding of the genre (does this mean I’m a racist if I enjoy The Music Man?).
Part two takes up post–1960 shows and trends. Here, Hoffman’s lack of attention to the sound of Broadway—the music in musical theatre—leads to a missed opportunity. In a chapter on black-cast productions of white-cast shows, he claims that no changes were made to Hello, Dolly! when an all-black cast led by Pearl Bailey took over the show in 1967. White and black cast recordings allow for comparison of the two versions. Several numbers were re-orchestrated for the black cast—often to highlight the racially-marked banjo and ragtime piano. And subtly syncopated timing, sometimes growling vocals, and occasional soulful ad libs mark Bailey’s Dolly as decidedly black. Missing this audible evidence suggests the limitations of Hoffman’s engagement with race primarily as topic or text—in plots, lyrics, stage directions, first-night reviews—rather than as performed by individual performers in specific historical contexts.

Hoffman’s strongest chapter, on A Chorus Line, again offers archival evidence for the making of a musical. He shows how this very well-known musical is at once utopic, naïve, and locked down in the reassurance it gives liberal, white audiences anxious—knowingly or not—about white privilege in multicultural 1970s America.
Despite subjecting the Broadway he loves to critical analysis, Hoffman remains oddly hopeful: he asks, “What if theater could be used to truly grapple with and repair the racial inequalities that exist in society?” (164). Holding out for such an unlikely outcome from the Broadway musical—the most defiantly popular and baldly commercial of theater genres—suggests a powerful underlying tension between Hoffman the musical theater fan and Hoffman the scholar of whiteness.
Todd Decker (Washington University, St.Louis)

 

This book review also appears in print in American Studies 54.4  (2016) and is available via Project Muse

 

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