Feminism and fandom

Wolf's talk examines gender roles in Broadway musicals

Laura Scherb Mar 2, 2014

On Thursday, a sizable group assembled to join Princeton University professor of theater Stacy Wolf as she whirled through musical theatre history with her talk, “Divas, Darlings, and Dames: Women in Broadway Musicals of the 1960s.”

According to the introduction by Wendy Arons, an associate professor of dramatic literature here at Carnegie Mellon University, Wolf works at Princeton University as a member of their drama department and is also the director of the Princeton Atelier. Wolf has published two books, A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical, followed by Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.

The talk was largely inspired by Wolf’s second work, which focuses on examining the history of Broadway musicals through a feminist lens. By focusing on six musicals from the 1960s — Hello, Dolly!, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Oliver!, Mame, and Man of La Mancha — Wolf was able to explain how crucial gender roles are to Broadway musicals. Wolf chose the ’60s because “musicals are always in conversation with their historical context,” and the historical context of this decade included the prevalent social change movements.

Wolf introduced the 1960s as a monumental decade of musical theatre history. The mid 1960s represented a selection of Broadway musicals which exhibit a range of styles, but all focus on a single woman and undervalue her strength in some way. There are glimpses of women holding power, but the overall messages of the musicals are confusing.

Most musicals of the 1950s and ‘60s relied on five conventions: they alternated between spoken word and singing, their storylines were easy to follow, songs were sung from a specific character’s point of view, there was aesthetic unity among the various elements of the production, and a heterosexual love story as a narrative force in the story. In the 1960s, however, a series of shows premiered that focused on the single girl cultural icon.

Portrayed in television shows, movies, and advertising, in addition to the musicals, the single girl was strong, independent, fearless, and fun. Though musicals such as Hello, Dolly!, Sweet Charity, Cabaret_, Oliver!, Mame, and Man of La Mancha possessed characters that exhibited such traits in Dolly, Charity, Sally, Nancy, Mame, and Aldonza, respectively, the musicals represented exactly what was, and still is, wrong with women’s roles in Broadway shows.

The roles, Wolf explained, are full of “contradictions between what is done and what is said, what is sung and what is danced, and what is thought and what is felt.” Wolf illustrated that paradoxically, the female character is humiliated and objectified even if the production is prominently featuring an admired actress. “These stories condemn the character while celebrating the actor,” Wolf said.

The romantic aspects of these musicals was equally confusing: While the female characters engaged with males, they end up “alone but optimistic.... The heterosexual relationship has failed, but the vibrant female body remains,” Wolf said.

In explaining the troubling trends of gender roles that were prevalent in the musicals of the 1960s and since, Wolf connected her agenda with modern day theatre. Musicals that are released on Broadway eventually filter down into high school and college settings. The messages that Broadway musicals send will eventually be the ones that young women and girls portray on public stages.

“In playing these roles, you’re 100 percent there,” Wolf said. “It should be good. You shouldn’t have to play a character that’s getting beat up and thrown around.” Wolf’s assertion is incredibly relevant and thought-provoking, especially at a school such as Carnegie Mellon with such a well-known and respected drama department that will produce the next generation of female Broadway performers.