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Theater 32.2 (2002) 44-55
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What It Used to Be
Nostalgia and the State of the Broadway Musical
Rebecca Ann Rugg
"Springtime for Hitler and Germany!"
A surprise smash!
"Springtime for Hitler and Germany!"
It'll run for years!
—Max Bialystock, "Betrayed," The Producers
After Springtime for Hitler becomes a huge hit, Max Bialystock, one of Mel Brooks's two charlatan producers, finds himself in jail, abandoned by his co-conspirator. Pacing in prison stripes, he goes into "Betrayed," a high-gear, showstopping extravaganza of a solo in which he recaps "how it all began"—everything that has happened in The Producers up until that point. The first act lasts five hilarious minutes in this halftime Cliffs Notes rendition, leaping through all the twists and turns of the story, like a run-on sentence, breathless, in double time. Nathan Lane, who performs it, has called the number a "musical nervous breakdown." 1 For the audience, the song is an in-joke, a crazy midstream retelling, full of nostalgia for the show before it's even over, adding another ring to the circularity of a musical about making musicals. Wanting the performance never to end is, of course, the point of showstoppers; the march of narrative briefly halts as the audience experiences a perfectly present moment with the performer. In "Betrayed," The Producers combines the audience's longing to stay in the moment with self-referential nostalgia, in a new and improved attempt to immortalize the ephemeral theater experience.
Nostalgia is the prime dramaturgical mode of musical theater. It steers not only the course of audience response and show structure but also marketing strategies, the critical machine, and the settings of the productions themselves. On the surface, musicals present a historically simplified America. However, history's social and political complications seep through the cracks in those famous and oft-revived examples of the form, Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943), and also in many more recent productions—Kiss Me, Kate, Chicago, The Music Man, Annie Get Your Gun, 42nd Street, Seussical, [End Page 45] The Full Monty, and Follies. Throughout the twentieth century, two modes of nostalgia—cultural and personal—have been employed in the dramaturgy of musical theater. The two overlap but use distinct strategies to evoke a particular audience relationship to a particular historical America.
Where previously there were only coffee-table picture books and star autobiographies, recent academic-theoretical interest has created a niche for musical theater studies. I want to examine the way academic critics also participate in the nostalgia that grips the form. As though in response to these scholars and the contemporary climate of at least relative acceptance that supports cultural studies, The Producers came along with its own brand of the backward glance—for a world before political correctness. These kinds of nostalgia are the dots that I seek to connect.
Cultural and Personal Nostalgia
Nostalgia was coined in the seventeenth century by a Swiss physician as a translation of the German heimweh (homesickness). Homesickness generally wears rose-colored glasses, and in this respect, nostalgia retains the etymological link, as a longing for something in the past that never actually existed, at least not as remembered. All memory is selective, but nostalgic memory selects only the carefree, blissful past. The effects of nostalgia in individual psychology have fascinated analysts for decades; no less fascinating are its uses and effects in popular culture.
Versions of an enchanted American past have infused musicals across the twentieth century. In 1927, Show Boat's "Ol' Man River" was a response to two decades of momentous resettling—the urban migration of blacks from the rural South. Inventing a pastoral portrait of the Reconstruction South, Show Boat claims that if the past was peaceful, then so, by god, is the present. Similarly, Oklahoma! (1943) revisited and whitewashed the nation's territorial past in order to shore up a patriotic present in the middle of World War II. When the Oklahoma territory becomes a state, it suggests, the biggest obstacle is how to have the "Farmer...