- The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman
If, as the Broadway hit Avenue Q would have it, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” then one might reasonably expect the subject of race in relation to American musical theatre to occupy an appropriately sizable share of critical attention. The back jacket copy for Warren Hoffman’s The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical suggests, however, that this has not been the case, touting the study as “the first book to reveal the racial politics, content, and subtexts that have haunted musicals for almost one hundred years from Show Boat (1927) to The Scottsboro Boys (2011).” While Hoffman is more circumspect in making such claims in the body of the study, his work represents an important engagement with both American musical theatre and critical race theory, particularly whiteness studies, which serve as the dominant mode of theoretical emphasis in the book. In providing close readings of several Broadway musicals, Hoffman posits that, despite individual exceptions, the American musical theatre on the whole has “create[d] images of America that uphold, even inadvertently, white supremacy” (12).
Hoffman divides his study into two “acts,” proceeding chronologically. Act One (1927-1957), divided into three chapters, provides close readings of Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, and The Music Man. Hoffman emphasizes the performance of whiteness in these works, arguing that critics have overlooked this particular dimension in the canon of musical theater “classics.” To classify a work as such, he argues, means that “whiteness goes uninvestigated, because ‘classic works’ almost always assume whiteness to be normative and natural, not performed” (55). Throughout this section, Hoffman writes lucidly and engagingly of the racial implications of these classic works.
Act Two, which covers the span from 1967 to 2012, largely abandons the close reading strategy of the preceding section in favor of a more thematic approach. Thus, chapter four, “Carbon Copies,” examines the phenomenon of all-black or interracial revivals of shows that had originally been performed by white casts. Here Hoffman examines the 1967 Pearl Bailey-fronted Hello, Dolly! and the 1976 rock- and disco-inflected Guys and Dolls, among others. Hoffman uses this chapter to make the argument that color-blind or nontraditional casting has failed to take into account whiteness itself as a normalizing system. Hoffman suggests (though he admits his own discomfort surrounding the issue) that the project of nontraditional casting faces a tremendous stumbling block in regards to the impact of whiteness as a systematic force. “I would suggest,” he writes, “that in the United States, race is all-pervasive, especially whiteness, and can determine social situations even when it seems part of the background” (142). This insight forms the backdrop to Hoffman’s entire study. [End Page 113]
Chapter five returns to close reading, perhaps made easier by the fact that it focuses on a single subject, A Chorus Line. Hoffman links the musical’s emphasis on the line’s uniformity, a conformity that must come at the expense of any individuality, racial or otherwise, to the inconsistency of an American Dream that promises success to anyone who works hard enough, while simultaneously failing to deliver on that promise in any just fashion.
The final chapter of Act Two is subtitled “Nostalgia and the Broadway Musical at the End of the Twentieth Century,” and the majority of the chapter is taken up with three case studies: 42nd Street, The Will Rogers Follies, and a thematic section on such “revisals” as Annie Get Your Gun and Flower Drum Song. If the study’s method (and its relatively tidy narrative structure) becomes a bit less clear in its second half, this may be due in part to the decidedly mixed messages being sent by many of the texts in question. The revival of Flower Drum Song, for instance, attempted to ameliorate some of the more stereotyped elements of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original with a revised...