Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity

“This book is dedicated to anyone who has ever been told they were too fat,too short, too gay, too disabled, and otherwise too much or not enough to be in a musical,” Ryan Donovan writes in Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity (Oxford University Press, 336 Pages) 

Donovan, a former dancer who tried to increase his chances of being cast by adding an inch to his height on his resume, argues that Broadway and society at large have made insufficient progress at being inclusive, both in representation and in hiring practices.

 Yes, Actors Equity Association has been able to give out an annual Extraordinary Excellence in Diversity on Broadway Award since 2007, to such groundbreaking musicals as “Hamilton.” But “Hamilton’s casting does not extend to include fat actors or actors with visible disabilities, and its depiction of King George as fop relies on making male effeminacy a joke (no doubt heightened when played by an out gay actor like Jonathan Groff or Rory O’Malley). Even cultural zeitgeist-tapping musicals like Hamilton fail in one way or another to be wholly inclusive.”

Donovan, now Assistant Professor of Theater Studies at Duke University, focuses most of his book on the challenges for those three groups he mentioned in that paragraph about Hamilton: fat people, LGBT people and people with disabilities.

“Broadway Bodies” is at its most readable when it details the stories of individual musicals over the last fifty years that are famous for having brought new visibility to the all-but-invisible – even while, ironically (and hypocritically?), many of them in their backstage practices have reflected the prevailing prejudices, and in effect have enforced conformity.  

“A Chorus Line,” the massively successful 1975 musical that was actually about the Broadway casting process, was groundbreaking in many ways. It made the audience see the characters, all dancers auditioning to be in a Broadway ensemble, as individuals with specific stories, and with identities not usually presented on a Broadway stage.  There’s even a song in the show that criticizes the priority on appearance  – “Dance: Ten. Looks: Three.”  And director Michael Bennett, who conceived the show, intended the final number, “One,” to be “the most horrifying moment you will ever experience in a theater,” because the individuals the audience has gotten to know go back to being anonymous, indistinguishable members of an ensemble.

But “A Chorus Line,” the author argues, made some things worse. It became so successful, running 15 years on Broadway with productions of it around the world, that the audition process became like a factory. The show wound up demanding interchangeable body types, in order to make it more efficiently replicable; it was more economical, for example, if a new cast member could fit into the same costume as the predecessor performer.

Because of “A Chorus Line,” performers were now required to be “triple threats” – sing, dance and act – which was something new. Before A Chorus Line, it was more typical to hire a chorus of singers and a separate ensemble of dancers.

And, the author maintains, the show helped make the dancer’s body an ideal to which non-dancers actively aspired, coinciding with, if not helping to cause, the rise in fitness clubs promoting the Broadway Body – and the widespread feelings of inadequacy for not having attained such physical perfection.

Somewhat similarly, in  “Dreamgirls,” which debuted in 1981 and is loosely inspired by the story of “The Supremes,”  the character of Effie White is kicked out of the group because she doesn’t fit in anymore, now that they’re planning to appeal to white audiences. And she doesn’t fit, the musical initially made clear according to Donovan, because she was fat.  Jennifer Holliday gave a star turn in that role, but never originated another leading role on Broadway.  

Effie White in Dreamgirls and Tracy Turnblad in the 2002 musical “Hairspray” are the only leads in forty years that were specifically intended for fat women. And not one of the five actors who played Tracy over the course of its Broadway run   has been cast in another leading role on Broadway. Donovan doesn’t see this as a coincidence.  In an extensive section on discrimination against fat people, entitled “Size,” the author points (again) to elaborate ironies (hypocrisies?) in these two shows. The Tracy Turnblads were forced to have weigh-ins and sign contracts with weight clauses; one was ordered to lose twenty pounds. At the same time, the actresses were made to wear fat suits.

In the next section, entitled “Sexuality, “ Donovan tells us about “La Cage Aux Folles” which debuted in 1983, based on a French farce about a gay couple, Georges and Albin, who owned a nightclub, and agreed to pretend to be straight for the sake of Georges’ son, when meeting the right-wing parents of the woman he wants to marry, This was the first time a Broadway musical featured a gay couple as its romantic leads, but the production cast two heterosexuals to play them. George Hearn, the first Albin, had to receive lessons in femininity – how to walk in heels – just as Albin in the musical receives masculinity lessons. Librettist Harvey Fierstein (the first out actor on Broadway) insisted that gay actors would be a better fit for the roles, that they would understand the characters better, but director Arthur Laurents (also gay, but closeted at the time) ignored him.

The  “Cagelles,” the 12-member chorus of drag queens who performed in Albin’s night club,  were originally cast with two women  (to make the straight audience feel comfortable) and ten men, none of them with experience as drag queens – because, the production argued,  the role called for professional dancers (and presumably they couldn’t find any who were also drag queens.)

The effort here was to gain mainstream acceptance, and thus commercial success, at a time (during the peak of the AIDS crisis) when there was a special fear and loathing of gay people.  The show, the author says, represented a shift in gay advocacy from liberation to assimilation. But it was a hit – and it did move some gay people; “I Am What I Am” even became a gay anthem.

Not all the shows that Donovan focus on abound with uncomfortable ironies. In the section entitled “Ability,” he tells the story of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, the 2015 revival that paired hearing actors who sang and spoke in English with deaf actors who used American Sign Language. The process was unusual and complicated, but artistically successful. It didn’t make money, though, and there hasn’t been any “ASL Musical” on Broadway since, and deaf actors have gotten few opportunities to perform on Broadway.

Each of the three sections — Size, Sexuality, Ability – features two chapters. The first chapter of each section is focused on a specific show (“Dreamgirls,” “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Spring Awakening” respectively.) The  second chapters are widely aimed, attempting a survey of both characters and performers that have represented and embodied the respective identities over the last half century, as well as an analysis of the prejudiced attitudes towards such identities.  In all three cases, the author demonstrates the frequent disconnect between the (fat,gay, disabled) characters on stage and the performers cast to embody them who most often don’t share these identities.  The second chapter in Ability, which is about both disability and “difference” (including ugliness) is the freshest and most cogent of the three surveys, citing example after example (Shrek, Wicked, The Secret Garden, the revised Porgy and Bess, The Color Purple, The Who’s Tommy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, etc.) of the way, as Donovan puts it, “Broadway prefers disability when it stays metaphorical, difference when it’s assimilated into the mainstream by the finale, and both absent by the curtain call.”

“Broadway Bodies” is rife with the language of academia and identity politics, quoting disability studies scholars and deaf studies scholars and fat studies scholars,  and using phrases like “white supremacist hetero-able patriarchy” and (relentlessly) “neoliberal capitalism.”  This undermines Donovan’s obvious effort at advocacy, which is more effective when it arms the reader with plainly stated insight and information, rather than bombards us with rhetoric.

I wish that before his deep dive into the scholarship around these identities, and rather than assuming that the readers already agree with his views, Donovan had addressed such basic questions as: Why does he expect Broadway to be more enlightened than the culture as a whole? How important is it that an actor have the same identity as the character they’re playing, and why? Are there some identities more important to be shared than others? I’m also curious (although this would make an already diffuse book more so)  how he thinks Broadway is doing compared to Hollywood.

“Broadway Bodies” does end with a useful epilogue, describing four organizations that are attempting to broaden the definition of the Broadway body:

National Asian Artists Project, founded by the actress and director Baayork Lee, provides access to the arts for schoolchildren in Chinatown and advocates on behalf of Asian artists. 

 Broadway Body Positivity Project, founded by Stephanie Lexis, works to end body shaming in the theater industry

Ring of Keys, founded by Andrea Prestinario and Royer Bockus, works to raise visibility for queer women, transgender and gender non-conforming artists.

 Deaf Broadway. produces ASL readings of musicals

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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