Musical Theatre Studies

by Stacy Wolf
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Musical Theatre Studies, whose presence as a viable academic field is not much more than a decade old, is spreading out in all directions of chronology, geography, approach, and methods. Scholars trained in theatre studies, dance studies, and musicology and ethnomusicology are becoming more comfortable with each other’s intellectual tendencies and conventions, sharing our analytical languages and epistemological assumptions. A quick, ad-hoc survey of some colleagues turned up an inspiring and formidable range of recent and current projects.

Some books expand the field in valuable ways. These include, for example, Elizabeth Wollman’s Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City, which takes seriously sexually explicit shows and their conversation with the city, with feminism, with gay culture, and with mainstream musicals. Carol Oja’s Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War looks at the work of Leonard Bernstein from a new angle, focusing on his collaborations with artists of color, including actors, conductors, and dancers. Liza Gennaro’s Making Broadway Dance, a much-needed study of Broadway choreographers, is also in process. I’m working on Beyond Broadway: Four Seasons of Amateur Musical Theatre in the U.S., which argues that nonprofessional artists at high schools, summer camps, and community theatres sustain and are the lifeblood of the form.

Other scholars re-locate what’s been called the most American of entertainment genres in a global context. Both David Savran and Laura MacDonald, for example, are working on international projects: David’s explores the branding of Broadway and its significance across the globe, and Laura studies Korea and China-based productions of Broadway musicals.

Some current projects put musical theatre in conversation with other fields, such as urban geography and architecture—Dominic Symonds’ performance cartography of Broadway’s music—and Jessica Sternfeld’s work in disability studies. In Raymond Knapp’s recently completed book on Haydn, German Idealism, and American popular music, he discusses the important role of musical theatre and its sensibilities to the development of American popular music.

In an effort to bolster the undergraduate curriculum, which for generations consisted of knowledgeable professors—typically longtime fans of musicals and collectors of trivia who listed facts and dates and told stories (many of them fascinating and crucial to understanding how musicals are made but with no critical framework)—several textbooks have been published recently. James Leve’s American Musical Theater and Larry Stempel’s Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater offer historical context and critical tools to help students learn the repertoire and develop analytical skills. Several other anthologies geared towards undergraduates and graduate students are in process: The Disney Musical: Stage, Screen and Beyond, edited by George Rodosthenous, and Childhood and the Child in Musical Theatre, edited by James Leve and Donelle Ruwe. Elizabeth Wollman is editing The Methuen Critical Companion to the American Stage Musical, which shifts away from the typical production-based study to a culture- and industry-based overview of the American commercial theater. She and Jessica Sternfeld are editing the large Routledge Handbook, which examines musicals of the last fifty years from many angles and will be the first collection to focus on recent repertoire.

In addition, Dominic Symonds notes that musical theatre studies’ methods and critical ideas, such as “musicality, collaboration and interdisciplinarity” are increasingly being taken up in other disciplines.

This moment in scholarship and pedagogy is, I think, marked by two other issues, which ironically (or not?) seem to pull in opposite directions of access and popularity. The first is the ubiquitous challenge of accessing visual archives to be able to teach musical theatre. Some students are lucky enough to see a New York or regional production of a show, and others can take advantage of local community theatres or high schools, which are both fantastic and underused resources for teaching college students about musicals. But some instructors are limited to what they can find on YouTube, whether clips produced by Playbill or BroadwayWorld, or, more commonly, illegally taped and posted to the web. It’s impossible to teach students the complexity of the genre of musical theatre without a dynamic visual and aural archive. If we want students to understand not only the text-based elements of musicals (script and score) but also casting, staging, and design (to name only a few), we need access to productions for them to see, even in video’s imperfect form. Sondheim’s professionally taped and commercially distributed musicals, including John Doyle’s production of Company, Hal Prince’s Sweeney Todd, and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, for example, are invaluable teaching tools. Legal restrictions on taping hamper our ability to teach a sophisticated and nuanced analysis of performance.

Second, the fans of Broadway musicals have gone mainstream, at once resonant of the 1940s and 50s when musical theatre was a part of popular culture, and with a new, intensely social media orientation. In 1996, Rent broke open a new place for young, politically-progressive musical theatre fans. Now, Hamilton has connected with a diverse audience unlike anything we’ve seen in decades. The fanatical (and I mean that as the highest compliment) passion of “Rentheads” in the mid-to-late 1990s has been bettered by the Hamilton frenzy, which I witnessed firsthand when I attended and gave a talk at the first BroadwayCon in January. Many of the fans I met at that gathering of mostly women, mostly under 30 grew up on Disney musicals and the film versions of Sweeney Todd, Chicago, Les Miz, Phantom, and Into the Woods. Though they (and all of my students) can sing the entire cast album of Hamilton, they also know and love Broadway musicals more generally, and they express their fandom of Fun Home, Fiddler on the Roof, and The King and I on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. Social media enables the consolidation of widespread fan communities, whose engagement with a musical might be by way of the cast album, artists’ tweets, YouTube clips, or the musical itself. But these new modes of communication and connection don’t alter the fact that the object of affection and desire is the live performance event of a Broadway musical.

Stacy Wolf is Professor of Theater and Director of the Princeton Arts Fellows at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University. She is the author of Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical and A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical. She is currently working on a book about amateur musical theatre in the US.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message