- Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical by Stuart J. Hecht, and: Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City by Elizabeth L. Wollman
In Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical, Stuart J. Hecht reads the musical as a model for Jews seeking to assimilate into dominant WASP America: “This is not to say that audiences attended musicals deliberately to learn the lessons of assimilation; they generally attended to be entertained. But the presence on stage of characters that, even if indirectly, represented their own identities and lives, certainly added to their ability to sympathize and enjoy” (36). In her latest monograph, Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City, Elizabeth L. Wollman considers an entirely different set of case studies, but like Hecht, identifies a very precise function played by these musicals: “Adult musicals allowed audience members—some of them questioning their own sexuality, some of them eager to learn something about the rapidly changing world, some of them comfortable in their own skins, some of them eager to experience some aspect of a sexual revolution they felt isolated from—to live vicariously without having to get in too deep” (221–222). Whether audiences were Gentile or Jewish, male or female, gay or straight, as Hecht and Wollman write, they experienced more than entertainment when attending American musicals at particular points throughout the twentieth century. While Hecht is a theatre scholar, Wollman is an ethnomusicologist, and these disciplinary differences translate into methodological differences. Hecht and Wollman’s choices illustrate the range of methods available to musical theatre scholars, as well as the challenges in making such choices.
Hecht introduces his approach as “dramaturgical. . . . Topics are examined through the study of representative shows and analyzed according to how they work onstage for both the immediate audience and for the larger community which that audience represents” (13). Chapter two explores the use of double-couple configurations in a range of musicals from Jerome Kern’s Princess Show musicals to Guys and Dolls and West Side Story. “The primary couple in any given show reflects the societal ideals, not only of behavior, but also in terms of power. The secondary couple served a variety of functions that evolved over time, but they remained subservient to the interests of the primary couple and held lesser sway in the eyes of the audience” (19). This configuration, Hecht explains, thereby reflected traditional WASPS as well as ethnic mixing. He then considers second-generation Jewish Americans seeking assimilation as creators of musicals. Rodgers and Hammerstein established the book musical format, and the musicals they wrote, Hecht asserts, assumed that Jews and other ethnic groups sought upward mobility in American society. [End Page 92]
In chapter three Hecht continues to explore upward mobility through songwriter Irving Berlin’s assimilation and rags-to-riches success story, arguing that, “Just as Berlin has shed his Russian Jewish beginnings to achieve all that America had to offer, so too could the people of Europe and all of the Pacific Rim shed their unhealthy past in favor of a fresh, Americanized future” (55). While Berlin’s music certainly promoted American values and democracy, and his wartime tours were a personal contribution to such cultural imperialism, statements like these might benefit from greater historicization and direct engagement with other scholars.
Chapter four is highly structured in contrast to earlier chapters, methodically examining the plot and characters in business-themed musicals to explore insider-outsider negotiations and Jews’ and others’ pursuit of upward mobility. Chapter five focuses on the Cinderella paradigm: “Though outwardly an innocent fairy tale, when seen in societal terms the Cinderella tale pointed out economic inequities and promoted social mobility,” Hecht explains (112). Chapter six examines two musicals set at the turn of the century—Ragtime and Parade. Hecht’s study of the African-American character Coalhouse Walker in the former is especially fascinating, and...