If there were an award given for Best Use of a Double Entendre in a Book Title, Warren Hoffman’s latest work would have to be considered a front-runner. The Great White Way, which the local author will discuss during appearances at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month and next, is an exploration of how the uniquely American art form of the Broadway musical has been overwhelmingly white over the hundred-plus years it has sat at or near the pinnacle of American pop culture.
Considering how issues of race permeate every level of American life and the significant role that musical theater has played in the entertainment industry for so long, it comes as something of a surprise that no one has examined the intersection of the two in book form before now. Hoffman, who serves as the associate director of community programming for the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, says that books treating the musical theater genre with any degree of scholarly intent only began to appear in the past decade.
The Great White Way dives deep into the history of the musical, going from the miscegenation scandal of Show Boat to the Native American caricatures of Annie Get Your Gun; from the new racial divide of West Side Story’s mid-century New York City to the recently revised revivals of musicals like Flower Drum Song that would be considered offensive if put on today in their original form.
Hoffman, the former longtime senior director of programming at the Gershman Y, who also wrote The Passion Game: Queering Jewish American Culture, as well as the plays Stitched, The Last and New Words, hit upon the idea of an in-depth examination of race and theater while a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was studying racial theory with the activist/professor Angela Davis, but says he often had “Broadway on the brain.” That wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for the 37-year-old, who vividly remembers the details of the first play he saw — 42nd Street at the Playhouse Theatre in Wilmington at age 9.
Hoffman successfully petitioned Davis to oversee a private study with him and another student interested in whiteness studies, which focuses on how being white pertains to race in the United States.
It was just a matter of time before those studies and Broadway coalesced in his mind. He realized that, in addition to being predominantly white vehicles, musicals were also a scripted response to what was going on in American society at the time.
“West Side Story totally makes sense in the 1950s. Ethnic groups, including the Jews, were becoming white for the first time.”
In the original script notes, the producers even ask whether the Jets are white or not, Hoffman continues.
“Well, of course, but they’re not. They are these immigrants who, all of a sudden, in the 1950s, are part of this Caucasian group that didn’t exist before. And the new enemy is no longer the Italian, Polish and Jewish immigrants, but the Puerto Ricans.”
Hoffman spends a good deal of time in the book focused on West Side Story, which was originally to be called East Side Story, a musical version of the onetime record-holder for longest-running Broadway play, Abie’s Irish Rose. His research uncovered how the musical, created by the sons of Jewish immigrants, evolved concurrently with New York’s social structure from its original focus on a forbidden love between warring Jewish and Irish clans to one between a Caucasian of indeterminate heritage and a Puerto Rican immigrant.
“There were the letters between Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents” in the archives of the New York Public Library, “talking about the genesis of West Side Story and how much the show changed racially over the 10 years of production — it was like being a witness to history.”
Hoffman’s book touches upon numerous examples of productions that did cast actors of color. He devotes a chapter to black and interracial productions of white musicals, many of which were staged in the late 1960s and ’70s, including a version of Hello, Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey in the title role; Timbuktu, a remake of Kismet; and Guys and Dolls, which Hoffman says led some reviewers to reassess the show’s Jewish influence.
“The critics were saying, ‘Not only is this a white show, it’s a Jewish show — you have Nathan Detroit saying things like “nu?” and “alright, already” — black characters would never speak like that!’ ”
For the Jews involved with Broadway musicals — Hoffman jokes that “with the exception of Cole Porter, Broadway wouldn’t exist without the Jews” — it was part of the “whitening process” for them. That is why, for example, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote culture clash musicals like The King and I, Flower Drum Song and South Pacific, but nothing about the Jewish experience.
Things have gotten better for minorities on Broadway, Hoffman says — but not by much. The Phantom of the Opera just announced the first black Phantom in its history and there have been critical successes in recent years like The Scottsboro Boys, Passing Strange and In the Heights. But sustained commercial success — which would demonstrate there is an audience for multicultural offerings — has proven elusive.
“I don’t blame producers for not taking chances” on shows that better reflect America’s racial makeup, Hoffman says. “It costs $10-$20 million to put on a show. If their audience is primarily white middle class tourists, that is who they are going to gear their show to.”
IF YOU GO
Warren Hoffman at the Free Library of Philadelphia
April 16 at 6 p.m.
at the Independence Branch
18 S. Seventh St., Philadelphia
May 7 at 7 p.m.
at the Central Branch
19th and Vine streets, Philadelphia