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Theatre Topics 17.1 (2007) 51-60

In Defense of Pleasure:
Musical Theatre History in the Liberal Arts [A Manifesto]1
Stacy Wolf

I. The Problem: An Introduction

Last spring, on the second day of my undergraduate honors seminar, "Musical Theatre and American Culture," we read David Savran's essay, "Toward a Historiography of the Popular."2 Because the essay, which is directed toward theatre history scholars, academics, and professors, so persuasively articulates the importance of researching and writing about musical theatre and because Savran enumerates so clearly and thoroughly the range of historical, theoretical, methodological, and political issues that musical theatre imbricates, I thought it was an ideal reading with which to begin the class.

In his essay, Savran outlines and refutes the central reasons for the dismissal of musical theatre as a viable and serious topic of study for theatre historians.3 He points to musical theatre's middlebrow status, its blatant commercialism, and the lack of extant, stable evidence for study and analysis, and for each of these qualms he provides an answer. Musical theatre's middlebrow position, for example, fosters the study of "modes of consumption," since mid-twentieth-century musicals functioned as a kind of "urban folk culture" and are "monuments of a shared, participatory culture" (215). Musical theatre's overt commercial aspirations mean that "the aesthetic is always—and unpredictably—overdetermined by economic relations and interests" (213). Because of this, Savran asserts: "[T]he musical is able to provide a virtual laboratory in which to study the circulation of the artwork-as-commodity" (213). Methodologically, since many musicals' libretti and orchestrations have disappeared, they "present unique challenges for those concerned with questions of authenticity and evanescence" (214). Finally, he writes, "because of their status as popular entertainments, they often take up—more explicitly and pointedly—many of the same historical and theoretical problems that allegedly distinguish canonical modernist texts" (215). He then goes on to list social issues and the musicals that represent them, including "industrialization, urbanization, and the emergence of commodity culture (Show Boat, Ragtime)," as well as innovative formal techniques, including "sophisticated estrangement devices (Allegro, Chicago)" (215).

I was eager to discuss the article with my students, curious to see if it excited them to study musical theatre and wondering which issues grabbed them and which ideas were new to them. As often happens when one teaches an article for the first time (and perhaps, especially, when one unthinkingly projects one's own assumptions onto students), I miscalculated entirely. They hated the piece! And why? "Because he hates musical theatre," they said. "Because he thinks that it's dumb to study musical theatre."

"What?" I said (trying not to get defensive since it was only the second day of class and I barely knew their names). "Where does he say that?" [End Page 51]

They proceeded (good and diligent highlighter-wielding students that they are) to read aloud (and with great indignation) the passages in which Savran discusses academia's assumptions about musical theatre. They read the sentences where he notes his colleagues' snobbery towards musical theatre and where he explains the reasons why few scholars take seriously the study of musical theatre.

"But he disagrees with all those ideas," I said. "He is laying out the dominant point of view that he then critiques."

They shook their heads. "But why does he need to do this?" they insisted. "This isn't even true. Everyone loves musical theatre!"

I begin with this anecdote, which is both embarrassing and, I think, illuminating, for two reasons. How did I err when I assigned Savran's essay? First and most obviously, I didn't prepare the sophomore and junior undergraduates to read a complex polemic whose intended audience is theatre history scholars, academics, and professors. I didn't ready them to understand rhetorical conventions or the style or tone of the piece. I realized in hindsight that even a brief introduction to the article before they read it would have given them a clearer way...


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