The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical


Broadway musicals are one of America's most beloved art forms and play to millions of people each year. But what do these shows, which are often thought to be just frothy entertainment, really have to say about our country and who we are as a nation?

The Great White Way is the first book to reveal the racial politics, content, and subtexts that have haunted musicals for almost one hundred years from Show Boat (1927) to The Scottsboro Boys (2011). Musicals mirror their time periods and reflect the political and social issues of their day. Warren Hoffman investigates the thematic content of the Broadway musical and considers how musicals work on a structural level, allowing them to simultaneously present and hide their racial agendas in plain view of their audiences. While the musical is informed by the cultural contributions of African Americans and Jewish immigrants, Hoffman argues that ultimately the history of the American musical is the history of white identity in the United States.

Presented chronologically, The Great White Way shows how perceptions of race altered over time and how musicals dealt with those changes. Hoffman focuses first on shows leading up to and comprising the Golden Age of Broadway (1927-1960s), then turns his attention to the revivals and nostalgic vehicles that defined the final quarter of the twentieth century. He offers entirely new and surprising takes on shows from the American musical canon-- Show Boat (1927), Oklahoma! (1943), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), The Music Man (1957), West Side Story (1957), A Chorus Line (1975), and 42nd Street (1980), among others.

New archival research on the creators who produced and wrote these shows, including Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, and Edward Kleban, will have theater fans and scholars rethinking forever how they view this popular American entertainment.


When I was nine, my parents took me to see my first musical: the national tour of 42nd Street, the hit 1980 show that had taken Broadway by storm and five years later was still doing boffo business in New York and on the road. We took our seats at the Playhouse Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, and what I saw for the next two and a half hours changed my life forever. As I followed the story of young chorus hopeful Peggy Sawyer and the backstage drama of Pretty Lady, the 1933 Broadway musical that producer Julian Marsh is trying to turn into a hit, I was transported to a world of music, dance, and spectacle that I had never before experienced. An opening number had all these people dancing together in perfect unison. How did they do that, and how did their feet make that metallic rapping sound? One number called “Dames” had beautiful women in spectacular multicolored gowns parading about, while “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” featured a train onstage! My favorite moment, though, was a song called “We’re in the Money,” in which the chorus, costumed in matching shiny outfits to evoke coins, tap danced on giant 1933 Mercury dimes. I even got my first cast album that day; its bold red cover with the show’s logo—a sexy woman staring coquettishly at me—opened up to reveal photos from the original Broadway production. I would spend hours poring over the images in the days that followed as I listened to the album again and again, re-creating in my head what I had witnessed live onstage.

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