- Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical by Stuart J. Hecht
Stuart J. Hecht
New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011 ISBN: 978-0-230-11327-5,
ISBN10: 0-230-11327-3, 240 Pages, $95.00
Transposing Broadway is a landmark survey of the impact of twentieth-century American-Jewish immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren on the development of the Broadway musical. Hecht’s lucid and engaging account of this phenomenon is impressively broad, including nearly a century of American musical theater within its scope, while still remaining firmly grounded in close readings of key moments in Broadway theater history.
Hecht is by no means the first scholar to investigate the close relationship between American Jews and the Broadway musical. Most notably, Andrea Most’s Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (Cambridge University Press, 2004) argued that the Broadway book musical was a crucial pathway for Jewish immigrants and their children to develop their identity as Americans. Yet where Most’s book covered eight musicals produced between 1925 and 1951 (with a particular emphasis on the “Golden Age” musicals of the 1940s and ’50s), Hecht’s study considers dozens of shows spanning the American musical’s century-long history, from early hits like Oh Boy! (1917) and Irene (1919) to the iconic shows of Broadway’s Golden Age (Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game) to the countercultural musicals of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (Hair, La Cage Aux Folles) and, finally, to the contemporary musicals of our own era (Rent, Wicked, The Producers, In the Heights). [End Page 268] This is an ambitious and provocative approach: by including nearly one hundred years of Broadway history within its scope, Transposing Broadway makes a persuasive argument that the Broadway musical is a genre that continues to be shaped by its Jewish roots. What is particularly remarkable about the Jewish encounter with Broadway, Hecht suggests, is not so much that the American Broadway musical was developed primarily by Jews, but rather that because of this initial influence, Broadway has always functioned as a kind of “cultural Ellis Island” that continues to enable one outsider group after another to gain entry into American culture. As Hecht tells it, these vestiges of Broadway’s Jewish past continue to live on in the works of contemporary musical theater artists and writers, whether they are conscious of it or not:
The Broadway musical stage remains an important setting for redefining the American character. The methodologies and forms invented and implemented by past Jewish musical theatre artists live on both through the works of new generations of Jewish composers, lyricists, and librettists, as well as through those of other once-fringe groups who emulated (knowingly or not) the Jewish example, whether black, Latin, female or gay.(13)
This is an ambitious argument, to be sure, but one that Hecht successfully executes. Deftly interweaving dramaturgical analysis and social history, Hecht’s impressive knowledge of his subject matter is on full display in this engaging book.
Transposing Broadway employs a “montage” approach that allows Hecht to include dozens of musicals in each chapter rather than tracing the chronological development of the musical (as Most and others have done). Each chapter addresses a different theme related to the book’s central premise of Broadway as a “cultural Ellis Island.” The first chapter introduces the book’s argument in broad strokes. In the second chapter, Hecht considers the basic structure of the Golden Age book musical and its reliance on the double-couple motif, in which one couple’s plot trajectory presents normative American values while the second (or third!) couple depicts the assimilation of outsiders into mainstream American life. The third chapter, “The Melting Pot Paradigm of Irving Berlin,” considers Berlin’s career as emblematic of how American musicals reflect the immigrant experience. Berlin’s work has been largely understudied within a Jewish Studies context, and Hecht’s addition of Berlin to our understanding of Jewish engagement with Broadway is in and of itself a valuable contribution. Chapter 4 reflects on business-themed Broadway musicals as a chronicle of American Jews’ upward mobility. In the fifth...