Victorians on Broadway: Literature, Adaptation, and the Modern American Musical Sharon Aronofsky Weltman
It is unusual for a book from an academic press these days to be deemed "magisterial." Life moves too quickly: graduate-school essays become journal articles; doctoral theses become books. And yet "magisterial" is a word that describes Sharon Aronofsky Weltman's Victorians on Broadway. It is clear that Weltman has absorbed the history of the Broadway musical and much of the nineteenth-century canon. The Notes on Contributors from the Dickens Studies Annual for 2011 says that Weltman's "current book project" will be called "Victorians on Broadway." It was worth the wait.
In the early chapters, Weltman is just warming up. The first chapter examines a little-known novel, The Tinted Venus, which became a Broadway musical, One Touch of Venus, in 1943. This musical is distinguished by an unlikely songwriting team (Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash) and a performance by Mary Martin. The King and I, the subject of the next chapter, is better known. Yet this 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is not based on a Victorian novel; it is based on a Victorian life–that of Anna Leonowens (the "I" of the title). Her story became a popular book in 1944: Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon. Dorothy Rodgers and Dorothy Hammerstein both read the book and recommended it to their songwriting husbands. Weltman argues that that The King and I Americanizes its heroine. The prototypical Victorian governess becomes something like a plucky American, caught up in "the budding civil rights movement in the United States" (57). Watching the show in the 1950s, Americans could [End Page 112] feel ever-so enlightened because of their moral distance from the King of Siam, memorably played by Yul Brynner: "audiences feel good about their own level of freedom and/or their own virtue in not owning slaves" (73). Appropriately, Weltman lingers over the musical's second-act ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is curious that she does not mention that this ballet in turn gets parodied in the second act of The Book of Mormon (based on yet another nineteenth-century book): the DNA of Weltman's "Victorians on Broadway" emerges in one of the twenty-first century's iconic musicals.
Weltman is on even firmer ground with Oliver!, the exclamatory 1960 musical based on Oliver Twist. Here a famous book becomes a famous show–a hit in London and New York and then on the big screen. What is intriguing about Oliver! is that it changes our reading of the source text. Fagin, in the pages of Oliver Twist, seems more lovable because we have heard him sing "Reviewing the Situation." Audiences may perceive and remember the original through the eyes of the adaptation. But the power of Oliver! is proleptic as well. The book suggests that Oliver! invented, to some extent, the British megamusical, and the show paved the way for later stage adaptations of sprawling, nineteenth-century fictions: Nicholas Nickleby, which premiered as a two-part epic in 1980, and Les Misérables, which opened at the Barbican in 1985. The most compelling point in the chapter is that Oliver! has become, in effect, Fagin!–the center of gravity has shifted from the orphan boy to the shifty fence (who is no longer explicitly identified as Jewish). The 1960 poster art for Oliver! features a sympathetic boy. In Cameron Mackintosh's recent productions and in subsequent ones, the advertised face is that of a bearded Fagin, with the O in Oliver! forming his wicked old eye.
The centerpiece of the book arrives, appropriately, in the middle. Unlike Oliver!, Sweeney Todd was based on a sub-masterpiece, a serialized novel of dubious provenance: The String of Pearls. This story appeared, from 1846 to 1847, in one of Edward Lloyd's penny newspapers; it may have been written by Thomas Peckett Prest or James Malcolm Rymer or both. But, as is often the case in Weltman's narrative, an intermediating adaptation helped to negotiate between the source material and the eventual musical. In this instance, Christopher Bond's 1973 stage play was credited as the source when the musical opened (in 1979); The String of Pearls goes unmentioned. Beyond questions of origin, Weltman's chapter examines Sweeney Todd in the context of the 1970s–the cynical era of Watergate and Vietnam–with a focus on issues from meat production and food safety to the development of the razor. Writing on the demon barber of Fleet Street, Weltman is at her sharpest.
Subsequent chapters cover another Dickensian musical, The Mystery of [End Page 113] Edwin Drood, which "teaches the twentieth- or twenty-first-century audience how to read Victorian theater" (154), and Off-Broadway's Goblin Market, also from 1985. Weltman's reading of this show's reading of Christina Rossetti incorporates issues ranging from NEH funding to the AIDS crisis. In the 1990s, a musicalized Jekyll and Hyde, like Sweeney Todd, borrowed from intermediating sources: not only stage and film versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's book but also The Picture of Dorian Gray and the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper. A weakness in Weltman's chronological approach is that she is obliged to end with the unemphatic Jane Eyre: The Musical, which opened on Broadway in December 2000–thus the last "Victorian" musical of the twentieth century.
Victorians on Broadway is an impressive survey, historical and analytical. As such, it may not have an argument, but it does have a refrain or leitmotif. "Broadway sees Victorian culture through a Dickensian lens," Weltman writes early on (57). A few chapters later: "It is Dickens– and prior performances of Dickens–that determines Broadway's depiction of what is seen as authentically Victorian" (201). Only two of Weltman's case studies have Dickensian sources, and yet all of them are somehow inflected by Dickens– or the way in which readers (and writers) remember him. Anna Leonowens, of The King and I, is a kind of angel in the house–another Rose Maylie or Amy Dorrit (although widowed and a bit older than seventeen). Beadle Bamford, in Sweeney Todd, is a character lifted from the pages of Dickens, and Mrs. Lovett, who loves Sweeney, channels the energy of Mrs. Corney (later Mrs. Bumble): "a combination of lust and avarice" (118). In Weltman's view, these Broadway musicals ultimately narrow the word Dickensian to a single work; she explains that "Victorian simply means Dickensian, and Dickensian means Oliver! " (88).
One hates to quarrel with a book that offers so many pleasures, but there are some inaccuracies. The introduction says that the death of the lyricist Lorenz Hart led to the rise of a new songwriting team: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yet their first Broadway hit, Oklahoma!, opened eight months before Larry Hart died, in November 1943. Further, there are some broken links in the citations. Parenthetical references to "Friedman" (124) and "Kantor" (127) do not point to alphabetized works in the bibliography. But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise splendid book. One final thought: the cover art, an original illustration by Ethan Gilberti, is worth the price of admission. Four Victorian writers wear fishnet stockings and kick up their heels. Charlotte Brontë, Stevenson, Rossetti, and Dickens have never looked so fabulous. [End Page 114]
Adam Abraham is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Auburn University. He is the author of Plagiarizing the Victorian Novel: Imitation, Parody, Aftertext, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. His most recent article, "The History of Barnaby Rudge and the Culture of Imitation," appeared in Dickens Studies Annual in 2020.