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Book Review of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical

Ellen Levitt

Posted on November 25, 2021 02:45

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If you are interested in the history of the Broadway musical and how race has played a role in many musicals, you will find this book intriguing.

Recently I taught a three-part course to retirees, about the history of Broadway musicals. I did a great deal of research and listened to songs from many musicals, which I enjoyed, while prepping for this class. One book I read for it was The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, by Warren Hoffman.

I'd actually gotten this book for free, at this year's Brooklyn Book Festival, because it was the first edition and the second has been published recently by Rutgers University Press. I read much of it before teaching the class, and only now finished it. I recommend it highly to fans of Broadway, especially because it critiques the roles that race has played in many musicals.

For many lovers of musical theater, critical studies of Broadway are either beside the point or even irksome. Many people just want to enjoy their shows, and not have to think too deeply about what they see and hear. This book would annoy them. But if you want to consider the ways in which racial depictions, casting and subject matter have played crucial roles in many shows, you will appreciate this book.

As I read Hoffman's book, I was forced to think about certain shows in ways I'd not done so previously. Among the questions I now grappled with were: how should race figure in casting shows, even in revivals of major shows? Why is "white" the default race in so many shows? How should racial stereotypes be modified for modern audiences?

Broadway shows have dealt with characters, situations and themes touching upon Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and not just white characters. And within the category of "white characters" Broadway shows have dealt with various ethnicities: Jews (of European background, primarily), Irish, Italians, WASPs, and others. Broadway shows are not color blind, and to pretend that they are would be wrong.

Along the way, the reader is asked to think about what makes a musical successful, how revivals (and "revisals") often deviate in certain ways from earlier productions, and what can be considered offensive over time. 

And how much do Broadway shows reveal about America and Americans? Some of the analysis here might anger many readers, but I was grateful to read this and consider what is often not considered.

After reading The Great White Way, I now look at Oklahoma! and The Music Man in a different way. These two in particular, seem to have been created in a universe in which non-whites do not figure. And this is strange, and unsettling, despite how many wonderful songs they introduced to audiences.

The chapter "A Chorus Line: The Benetton of Broadway Musicals" had a gimmicky title, but forced me to reconsider one of my all-time favorite shows. 

This book, and the course I taught, have been on my mind also because the Covid Pandemic had shut down the Theater District for a remarkable amount of time. Broadway is intrinsic to NYC. The show must go on!

Ellen Levitt

Posted on November 25, 2021 02:45

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Source: USA TODAY

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