STAGE AND SCREEN Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical. By Stacy Wolf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. [306 p. ISBN 9780195378238 (hardcover), $99; ISBN 9780195378245 (paperback), $24.95.] Photographs, bibliography, index.
As academics, we occasionally have those precious moments when we encounter scholarly works that inspire us toward new thoughts and research directions. We experience an "Aha!" moment as we read a book or article that brings to light observations we ourselves have sensed, yet never fully formulated, ideas that resonate with the impulses and motivations rooted in our minds. As a young graduate student drawn to intersections between queer histories and musical theater studies, one of those rare instances occurred when I first picked up Stacy Wolf's A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002). A Problem Like Maria presents multi-layered interpretations of iconic female performers and characters from American musicals, interpretations that demonstrate how these performances subvert conventional gender roles and thus reach queer audiences. With her newest publication, Changed for Good, Wolf continues this project begun in A Problem Like Maria, in which she traces female characters' and performers' importance in musical theater.
Wolf's history is impressively broad in scope; it chronicles roughly sixty years of American musical theater history (from the 1950s to today), and discusses about twenty shows in depth. Each chapter focuses on theatrical or musical conventions (e.g., female duets, the "eleven o'clock number"), "that bubbled to the surface at [a specific moment in] time" (p. 19). Detailed readings of shows elucidate the convention and its significance to American musical theater history. Additionally, Wolf grounds chapters in historical moments by considering cultural issues relevant to each period (such as the backlash to feminism in the 1980s). Through this combination of feminist American and musical theater histories, Wolf demonstrates how "changes in the genre of the musical are intertwined with changes in women's roles and activities in U.S. culture" (p. 19). In other words, we can read the Broadway musical as a cultural product directly influenced by the historical trajectory of American women.
Wolf's chronicle begins with the 1950s, thus opening this feminist history in an era distinctly lacking in organized feminist movements. Within 1950s musicals such as Wonderful Town and Guys and Dolls, she categorizes the female duet as either "collaborative" or "pedagogical." She elaborates how these duets effectively disrupt the musicals' "heterosexual project," which prizes heterosexual relationships/unions in their narrative and structure (p. 27). Her reading of West Side Story and Anita and Maria's duet "A Boy Like That / I Have a Love" illustrates the transformative, homosocial power of the female duet.
Following this reinterpretation of 1950s musicals, Wolf launches into the 1960s, focusing on mid-decade musicals like Mame and Cabaret. Wolf explains that these musicals' protagonists can be seen as variations on the 1960s "single girl," an employed, independent, sexually active woman who- despite her current single-hood-looks towards an ultimate marriage (p. 59). This section of Changed for Good stands out in musical theater scholarship for its blend of evidence. Wolf merges musical and dramatic readings with accounts of characters' physicality to demonstrate how these musicals, which, though they may narratively punish women, still present female characters whom audiences may view as powerful through the performances of the character/ actor (a duality that she parses well). For example, while the title character of Sweet Charity is quite literally thrown into a lake (twice!) by men, her character nonetheless emerges as powerful through the actor's impressive singing and dancing throughout the show. …