Are Broadway musicals covert vehicles for white supremacy? That’s more or less the argument that theater writer Warren Hoffman made in his 2014 book. The title apparently proved popular enough to allow a just-published second edition of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical (Rutgers University Press, 285 pages), which adds a chapter on “The Book of Mormon” and “Hamilton.”
“Musicals, while perhaps a small piece of the puzzle, contribute significantly to the construction of whiteness in this country,“ Hoffman writes.
In most popular Broadway musicals, his argument goes, there is an assumption that being white is the unspoken norm. To pick a sentence almost at random: “The plots of many musicals are predicated on the belief that true love, a good job, and / or wealth will come to everyone in due time, but the musical perpetrates notions of white supremacy by speciously pretending that such rewards are available to all when in fact they are accessible only to some.”
Another: “…the musical creates an all-white world, but one infused with black culture. Ragtime, jazz, and tap dancing, all music and dance staples originally emerging from black culture, are appropriated by whites, especially Jewish creators, and recuperated for mainstream audiences. “
The author applies this analysis in relatively in-depth looks at specific landmark musicals, such as “Showboat,” “A Chorus Line” and “Oklahoma!” (“Oklahoma! tapped into a nostalgic American core that celebrated western expansion. Just as U.S. service members were fighting overseas and protecting Americans abroad, the cowboys of Oklahoma! were protecting the frontier against an unseen enemy: the Native American.” ) Later chapters look more broadly at black and interracial productions of musicals like “Hello, Dolly!,” at “revisals” and at jukebox musicals.
In a chapter comparing “The Music Man” with “West Side Story,” Hoffman points out that the 1957 Tony Award for Best Musical went to Meredith Willson’s “corn-fed show” over a “revolutionary” musical “created by four theatrical innovators, all working at the top of their game” Why? Their different “racial politics,” the author posits. “The Music Man” embodies “an artificial and imaginary homogeneous America as only musical comedy can do.” But there is a tension over whiteness in West Side Story as well – the Sharks are clearly defined as Puerto Rican, but who are the Jets?
A perk of even some of the most theoretical theater books are the behind-the-scenes tidbits they can offer about favorite shows. “The Great White Way” is at its most readable when it digresses in this way. A good example is a detailed description of the initial drafts of West Side Story, which was entitled “East Side Story,” took place on the Lower East Side (not the Upper West Side) and pitted Jews and Catholics, rather than Puerto Ricans and “an anthology of Americans” (as librettist Arthur Laurents described the Jets.). In one version, the cop calls A-rab (who in this version is a Jew) “you dumb little matzoth ball.”
But Hoffman’s “The Great White Way” rarely wavers from the application to Broadway musicals of “whiteness studies” (which was the title of a private tutorial Hoffman took with Angela Davis as a graduate student at the University of California–Santa Cruz.) If the analysis is often complex (too much so to summarize adequately here), the readers get the point long before the new chapter, which focuses on two 21stcentury hit musicals.
“The Book of Mormon,” about two Mormon missionaries in Uganda, may spoof the white sense of superiority and presumption, but, Hoffman argues, it reflects this superiority as well. One example he cites is the creative team’s decision to locate the show in a specific country, Uganda, without using its actual language, but just making up African-sounding gibberish, and without even visiting the country, though they did extensive research into the other side of the equation, the Mormons.
As for “Hamilton,” the show, “while attempting to make history speak to contemporary audiences, inadvertently whitewashes that history, smoothing out the uncomfortable edges of Hamilton’s life and those of his co-patriots, including their slave-owning pasts. That does not invalidate Hamilton as an important work of art, but it does make it a missed opportunity, one that privileges the story of an individual over the story of the masses. “ Hamilton, he adds, does not even examine slavery, the way the earlier musical “1776” did in the number “Molasses to Rum”
“The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical” may have been, as its publicity maintains, “the first book to reveal the racial politics, content, and subtexts that have haunted musicals for almost one hundred years.” But much has happened in the six years since it was first published, and Hoffman’s book feels a bit left behind.
Soraya Nadia McDonald won this year’s George Jean Nathan Award for theater criticism for using the Broadway musical “King Kong,” in which the Fay Wray part was portrayed by the African-American performer Christiani Pitts, in an article persuasively exploring the history of the big ape characters’ racial and sexual symbolism. “King Kong” is not mentioned in Hoffman’s book, perhaps occurring after his deadline. But Hoffman barely mentions “Caroline, or Change,” which debuted on Broadway in 2004, and is being revived on Broadway this season. The Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori musical tells the story of a black maid and the white Jewish family for whom she works. Why does Hoffman ignore it? Is it because it wasn’t a commercial success, running only four months in 2004? Or is it because it doesn’t fit neatly into his thesis?
Since the first edition, the exploration of theater’s approach toward race has also gained a significant presence on stage itself, in such non-musical plays as the Pulitzer-winning “Fairview”
One could see some of these later developments as boosting the validity of Hoffman’s thesis even while proving the exceptions to it. But in so exclusively and unrelentingly arguing for a view that is now more accepted, “The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical” winds up feeling like an overdose of what a writer in HowlRound recently referred to as “woke supremacy.”