“Divas, Darlings, and Dames: Women in Broadway Musicals of the 1960s”: A Multimedia Presentation by Stacy Wolf

One of the roles I assume at the Graduate Center is that of Theatre Program Placement Offi cer. A few months ago as I combined my job lists, I came across a posting in The Chronicle of Higher Education for the University of New Hampshire, which advertised for an Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre. Today it is not unusual to see calls for people with a focus in musical theatre, but fi fteen or twenty years ago, this would have been practically an anomaly, to say the least. I can just hear the response of a snooty academic in the late 1980s or early 90s: A PhD with an expertise in Musical Theatre?!

As a result of the work of scholars like Stacy Wolf, Professor of Theater and Director of the Princeton Atelier in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, musical theatre isn’t only acceptable as a fi eld of study, it’s downright respectable. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that Professor Wolf has helped ensure musical theatre as a viable, rigorous, and important subject of inquiry in the 21st Century. Without extracting an ounce of joy that one associates with musicals, she introduced the genre to a new generation of scholars across the disciplines.

Professor Wolf is the author of, A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical (University of Michigan Press, 2002), which has been widely regarded and cited in queer studies and theatre scholarship. Her latest book, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical (Oxford University Press, 2011), has already garnered raves. Elizabeth Wollman described the work as follows: “This beautifully written—and desperately needed—feminist history of the Broadway musical is fi lled with exciting insights, humor, and great aff ection for the American musical. It’s an important and interesting book, one I will read again and again.”

On October 13th, in a co-sponsored event with the Graduate Center Theatre Program, Stacy Wolf off ered a multimedia presentation entitled “Divas, Darlings, and Dames: Women in Broadway Musicals of the 1960s.” The event was Standing Room Only as individuals with interests in LGBT studies, musical theatre, and cultural representations of women fi lled the Theatre Program Green Room to capacity.

Showing clips from musicals including, Oliver!, Man of La Mancha, Mame, Hello, Dolly!, and Sweet Charity, Professor Wolf examined the ways in which single women characters of 1960s musicals challenged social and political associations around gender and sexuality. In an era in which single women were often relegated to second-class status, characters such as Dolly Levi, Mame Dennis, and Charity Hope Valentine—as embodied by the shining stars of Broadway, Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury, and Gwen Verdon— commanded the stage through song, dance, and their larger-than-life stage presence. At the same time, Professor Wolf highlighted the anxiety and ambivalence associated with the 60s single girl. For every Dolly Levi, who at the end of the musical gets her man and his money, and Mame Dennis, who brings down the second-act curtain relishing the international adventures that await her and her new child protégé, there is a Charity from Sweet Charity, an Aldonza from Man of LaMancha, and a Nancy from Oliver!, who are, respectively, robbed, raped, and killed by the men in their musical worlds. As Professor Wolf explained, “1960s musicals featured women on stage alone in song and dance, but weren’t sure whether to celebrate or punish them.”

While musical theatre is often regarded as frivolous, simplistic, and, yes, so gay, Stacy Wolf’s presentation reminds us that representations of sexuality and gender cannot be taken for granted.