This past June 27 through 30, City University of New York’s City College hosted the 11 Annual Song, Stage, and Screen Conference, celebrating “interdisciplinary approaches to the musical stage.” This small but fun musical theatre conference gathered scholars and fans from all over the world, and I was thrilled to be among them.
Organized by Dominic Symonds (University of Lincoln) and George Burrows (University of Portsmouth), in correlation with Studies in Musical Theatre, the conference saw one of its larger attendances this year with seventy-eight people there. Nineteen attendees were from the United Kingdom, with three more from other non-US countries (one Canadian and two Austrian). It’s always been an international conference, which is wonderful for having different perspectives from London’s West End and Broadway as well as small theatres in between.
Its small attendance size meant that most sessions were held in one room, and no more than two sessions occurred at once. Most conversations involved everyone in attendance, making it all the more intimate and wonderful, fostering conference-wide discussions and community collaboration.
In fact, “community” seemed to be the theme of the weekend. And why not? The world of musical theatre has always been a big, open community, one where persecuted minorities and marginalized subcultures, like Jewish people and the LGBTQ community, are welcomed with open arms and made to feel at home. And this conference was no different.
Monday, June 27
The conference began with three papers on Richard Rodgers and his consecutive writing partners, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. The first two papers, respectively, discussed Rodgers’ early works with Hart: On Your Toes, specifically the dance number “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” and I Married an Angel. The third paper discussed the Hammerstein-penned South Pacific, comparing its various revivals in London and New York. Happily, all three papers talked to varying degrees about the dance in these shows—something that is often an afterthought in scholarly discussions.
As a dance historian, I was asked to chair the first of two dance sessions during the week, residing over two papers on tap dancing (which I teach), one on screen, and one on the radio. Apparently, it used to be possible to learn how to tap dance over radio broadcasts! Whether people actually learned the tap steps well, or at all, this way is another question.
After lunch and conversing in the college cafeteria, concurrent sessions about musicals on television and musicals from the first part of the twentieth century continued, followed by a session on library collections. The Keynote address by British scholar Millie Taylor, England’s first full professor of musical theatre (at University of Winchester in Hampshire, England), finished the day, getting extremely meta as she discussed the intertextuality of musicals and even of the conference itself. Afterward, we all reveled in the first day at an opening reception.
Tuesday, June 28
Day two continued the community theme by delving deep into a case study of a northern California community theatre director and the amazing work this “Backstage Diva” does to foster her local kids. A full session of four papers all about the musical phenomenon Hamilton followed, which was wonderful since we all knew we wouldn’t be able to see the show. A handful of folks in the room had seen it, but most of us hadn’t despite how hard we tried (I personally entered the lottery every day I was in New York, and waited for cancellations once). The session amazed and engaged, as scholars considered how Hamilton represents history, how it compares with history’s representation in the musical Hair, how its fan community interacted with the creators, and how the #Ham4Ham lottery helped engage and grow its fan base. My only complaint is that two of the four papers didn’t include any audiovisual supplemental materials, something easily done with such a current show.
That evening, after a full day of papers, I caught up with a couple of high school friends, one of whom I hadn’t seen since we graduated. Then I did what many theatre scholars do when visiting New York: I went to a show. I’m lucky to have seen four shows during my trip, having a full-on Harnick and Bock weekend with She Loves Me on Saturday and Fiddler on the Roof on Sunday, and then seeing Waitress at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre Tuesday night (I squeezed in Shuffle Along the next Saturday). I was concerned because I had heard Waitress received terrible reviews, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. Not to say it was without problems, but I’m glad I saw it. I cried like a baby during it too.
Wednesday, June 29
Though the celebration of community was strong the first two days of the conference, the tone of the last two days turned to how theatre (and theatre scholarship) could be more inclusive. Fascinating papers on queer representation in musicals, the lack of women—especially female characters who hold jobs—in shows, and an exhilarating, engaging session on the depiction of mental illness and trauma in musicals, showed some of the cracks in its inclusivity, drawing our attention to where we’re lacking. Even for myself, I personally am extremely attentive to the lack of strong female roles in Hollywood movies, yet for some reason I was blind to it in musicals. While it’s getting marginally better with works like The Color Purple and Waitress (both based on films, of course), it’s still an issue that needs addressing.
Thursday, June 30
The final day started with a session and conversation about African American musicals and modern representations of the 1920s-era Cotton Club, including the whitewashing of the black experience in some modernized reproductions. As fascinating as the discussion was, we couldn’t ignore the lack of diversity in our own room, which was predominately white and European. While there was not much we could do about it at the time, it was certainly helpful to recognize the need to brainstorm ways to encourage diversity.
The day ended with a queer reading of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, followed by closing remarks from scholar Paul Laird, and announcements from Symonds and Burrows, and the CUNY host, John Graziano. Knowing how much we all enjoyed this week and how we couldn’t wait to do it again, they announced the location of next year’s conference: at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England. I have no doubt it’ll be worth attending, so I’d better start saving my money now.