Theatre History Podcast #42

From West Side Story to Wicked: Dr. Stacy Wolf on Feminism & the Broadway Musical

 

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Are Broadway musicals feminist? It’s a fair question, given that many classic examples of the genre evince their fair share of outdated attitudes regarding gender and the role of women in society. However, as Dr. Stacy Wolf of Princeton University points out, there’s a surprising undercurrent of feminism even in the more traditional musicals of the 1950s or major commercial hits of recent years, such as Wicked. Stacy’s book Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical tracks how women’s roles have changed on the stage throughout the post-war period, and she joined us to share some of her insights.

Two women on stage
Chita Rivera & Carol Lawrence in West Side Story, 1957. Picture courtesy of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

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As a huge fan of traditional musicals it's nice to hear someone speaking so positively about them from this feminist point of view.

I am glad that you were able to include Professor Wolf in your series. She hosts many discussions about musical theatre at Princeton, and thankfully they are open to the public. "Changed for Good" is a thought-provoking read. In general I would suggest that musicals are both easier and harder to diversify than non-musical dramas. Easier, because the collaborative nature of musicals (more so than plays) mathematically increases the possibility of a diverse cast and creative team. Harder, because the prevailing pedagogical focus on musical theatre's mid-century "Golden Age," which on its face would seem to discourage boundary-pushing--both in form and in societal content. However, several passages in "Changed for Good" offer a rebuttal of that theory.