- The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman
Throughout its history, the American musical has been inextricably linked to issues of race: from minstrel shows, to blackface performers like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, to the appropriation of African American musical forms, to musicals that actually dealt with race—from Show Boat, to South Pacific, to The Scottsboro Boys. This history has been recounted in many volumes, but in his interesting, stimulating, and at times frustrating book The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, Warren Hoffman takes a new approach. His focus is on the politics of whiteness, “the ways in which white identity has been shaped, protected and upheld by this art for over one-hundred years” (3–4). Whiteness is so much accepted as the norm by white people that we do not see ourselves as having color or race, while “people of color” (as if white is not a color) are treated as the “Other.” Hoffman is interested not only in overt treatments of race in the musical, but also in musicals like Oklahoma! and The Music Man in which, he argues, the absence of mention of race actually reinforces a nostalgic view of a fictional pure-white America.
The book is in two parts. After an introductory chapter, the first part has three chapters that deal with race in classic American musicals. The first and strongest chapter is an excellent, detailed reading of the 1927 Kern–Hammerstein musical Show Boat. Emphasizing its metatheatricality, Hoffman maintains that one can see Show Boat in postmodern terms: “While it might at times appear that identity is fixed and natural, ultimately the show reveals that everything, including life itself, is a performance” (33). However, while the white characters can change roles onstage and off, the blacks are trapped in their fixed roles and stereotypes.
The second chapter compares the treatment of Native Americans in two musicals of the 1940s: Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun. In the nostalgic Oklahoma of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, Native Americans are not mentioned, even though the characters’ land has been taken from them. Hoffman argues that the farmer and the cowhand must be friends because of the threat from warring Native Americans. Annie Get Your Gun is another matter; after all, the musical is about performers in a famous Wild West Show that featured mock battles between whites and Native Americans. Hoffman points out that the song “I’m an Indian Too,” cut from the most recent Broadway revival because of political incorrectness, “is never meant to parody Indians; rather Annie is the odd woman out who is thrown by the unfamiliar ceremony” (79).
The third chapter combines two classic musicals from 1957: the nostalgic, all-white The Music Man, a celebration of mythical small-town life at the turn of the twentieth century, and Leonard Bernstein’s third New York musical, West Side Story, about gang wars between white and Puerto Rican teenagers. While the Sharks are racially and ethnically homogenous, [End Page 152] the white Jets represent a variety of ethnicities—Polish, Italian, Jewish. Nonetheless, “the unspoken glue that makes a Jet a ‘Jet’ is whiteness” (104). In contrast to the racialized gangs, “Tony and Maria envision a Utopia where race doesn’t exist at all, let alone racial violence” (107). If, as Hoffman asserts at the outset, the American musical is both utopic and nostalgic, the all-white Music Man emphasizes nostalgia while Tony and Maria fantasize a utopic, nonracial “Somewhere.” Yet, in Meredith Willson’s all-white River City of 1912, the locals dressed up as Native Americans on the Fourth of July and the barbershop quartet was played by a group called the “Buffalo Bills,” another allusion to the theatricalization of the Indian Wars.
The second half of The Great White Way is a bit more of a hodge-podge. There is a survey of black and interracial productions of white musicals: the Pearl Bailey–led, all-black cast of Hello, Dolly!, the 1974 interracial revival...