Academic journal article American Studies

THE GREAT WHITE WAY: Race and the Broadway Musical

Academic journal article American Studies

THE GREAT WHITE WAY: Race and the Broadway Musical

Article excerpt

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? …

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