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  • Victorians on Broadway: Literature, Adaptation, and the Modern American Musical Sharon Aronofsky Weltman
  • Adam Abraham (bio)
Sharon Aronofsky Weltman. Victorians on Broadway: Literature, Adaptation, and the Modern American Musical. U of Virginia P, 2020. Pp. xvi + 321. $37.50. ISBN 978-0-8139-4432-6 (pb).

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...