- Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical
Stacy Wolf's Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical deftly traces the changing roles of women in the Broadway musical from the 1950s to the present, focusing on how the genre has transformed its historical investment in heterosexual romance. By exploring the changing conventions in how women are represented in musical theater, Wolf makes a compelling argument for how the musical genre has responded to and participated in broader movements in feminism and cultural transformation. In an earnest tone reminiscent of John Clum's excellent Something for the Boys, Wolf is especially successful [End Page 149] at articulating the tensions that exist as women oscillate between narrative object and powerful singing subject in musical theater.
Wolf's consideration of the 1950s focuses on the female duets in Guys and Dolls ("Marry the Man Today"), Wonderful Town ("Ohio" and "It's Love"), and West Side Story ("A Boy like That/I Have a Love"), arguing that these same-sex duets occur late in the show and complicate the presumed heterosexual union that ostensibly resolves the plot. Wolf insightfully notes that musicals of the 1950s often involve two romantic leads, each tightly bound to a cohort of friends of the same sex. For Wolf, "the heterosexual relationships in some ways authorize the salient and frequently represented and performed homosociality (for both women and men, both Sharks and Jets) in West Side Story" (49). Paying attention to the female ensemble numbers and especially to these female duets, Wolf argues that "the intimacy created by two women singing together . . . troubles the formally integrated musical's heterosexual closure, at the very least offering a different kind of affective connection or possibly undoing the musical's heterosexual presumption altogether" (32).
Moving to the 1960s, Wolf outlines the tensions between Helen Gurley Brown's vision of autonomy and sexuality, on the one hand, and the lingering cultural association of chastity with virtue, on the other, drawing a parallel with several "single girl" musicals of the decade, musicals in which women were depicted as powerful agents yet also punished for their agency or desires. In this chapter she is especially successful at articulating the friction that can often exist between a narrative denigration of woman and a simultaneous affective celebration of her. Focusing on this tension allows Wolf to discern feminist moments in, for example, Sweet Charity, arguing that the supreme choreographic talents of Charity, along with her powerful musical presence, show themselves to be far more interesting than Charity's fantasies of conventional heterosexual romance. "Romance for Charity," Wolf writes, "is less about the specific man and more about the feeling. In the end, romance matters only because it allows her to perform" (67). Cabaret, too, sustains these performative contradictions as Sally triumphantly performs the title song, since the musical has otherwise condemned her by aligning her single-girl mentality with her casual indifference to the Nazis. These readings offer an intriguing account of how the Broadway musical of the 1960s, often portrayed as increasingly detached from contemporaneous culture, was in fact negotiating many of the cultural anxieties that were most pressing in the period.
As she moves into the 1970s, Wolf again links mainstream musical theater to cultural politics, arguing that several "ensemble musicals" obliquely explore the tension between "Me Generation" individualism and the growing commitment to social causes and collective action. While the ensemble musical does provide yet another interesting alternative to the heterosexual romance, some of Wolf's readings in this chapter seem less consequential to her feminist argument. Her reading of Godspell, for example, focuses more on the broader structural [End Page 150] effects of foregrounding an ensemble and less on the relationship of this ensemble to either its female characters or its actors. She does mention that "the balanced gender and race casting in Godspell reflects the mainstream infiltration of feminist and antiracist movements" (106), but this feels fairly slight when compared to her other persuasive and compelling arguments. However, her sensitive...