Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.
If you dive into Warren Hoffman’s The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical expecting it to be a catalog of minorities on stage, you might want to take a second look at the title. Hoffman’s book does indeed cover shows like Show Boat and Flower Drum Song, which focus on the experience of minorities in this country, and it takes a look at all-black productions of traditionally white shows like Hello, Dolly! and Guys and Dolls. But Hoffman is quick to point out that an understanding of race and the Broadway musical can’t possibly be complete without an attempt to understand Whiteness on stage as well. Hoffman asks readers to consider not only what shows like West Side Story (which place white characters in opposition to characters of other races) might have to say about being white, but also to focus on shows like The Music Man and 42nd Street, which white audiences have typically seen as “not about race.” The Great White Way provides an enlightening experience with the potential to open the reader to radical reconsideration of classic and contemporary shows alike.
Hoffman’s theatrical ties run deep, including gigs as producer, dramaturg, literary manager, and even a critic right here on Talkin’ Broadway for a spell. (In the interest of full disclosure, he is also a friend.) He approaches his subject with love, writing vividly about how he was enchanted by his first exposure to the national tour of 42nd Street when he was nine years old. But he also approaches his subject with the trained eye of a PhD in cultural studies, so while the book is utterly readable for the lay person, it employs a sharp academic lens. In his introduction, he lays out some ground rules that help situate his study, explaining both the axioms of musical theater (e.g. songs take on a context and life of their own outside of the shows due to cast recordings) and of Whiteness studies (e.g. who is considered to be White has changed over time).
The book’s two “acts” are divided between Broadway’s Golden Age and more contemporary shows. Act one offers close readings of specific shows, with chapters on Show Boat, Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun; and West Side Story and The Music Man. Hoffman’s careful reading of the shows, taking into consideration both the written text and the performance histories of these musicals, offers new insight into the racial politics and maneuvers of musicals you may think you already know inside out.
Act two takes a more thematic approach, looking at trends like all-black productions of white musicals, color-blind casting, consciously multi-racial shows, and the role of nostalgia in revivals, revisals, and jukebox musicals. Wisely, Hoffman places his analytical abilities before his instincts, and he surprises himself (as well as this reader) with some of his conclusions. But I won’t deprive you of the joy of taking this journey yourself by saying too much about where he arrives, except to say it’s a thoroughly engrossing trip.
My only complaint about the book is the near despair voiced in the epilogue about the state of Broadway (and its treatment of race) today. While Hoffman’s lament that shows like The Scottsboro Boys close quickly may be apt, his quick dismissal of The Book of Mormon is disappointing, given how much of the show centers on race (and “white savior complex” in particular). But having read The Great White Way, I already feel more capable of having that discussion myself.
If you were, in fact, looking for the catalog of minorities on stage that The Great White Way very much is not, then Stewart F. Lane’s Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way may satisfy that need, at least as far as African-American contributions are concerned. A beautiful, 275-page, full-color coffee table book, Black Broadway juxtaposes the history of Black theater from the nineteenth century to today with the general history of African Americans, offering a near-comprehensive survey with quite a bit of context.
Despite the title, the book offers a look beyond what we think of as Broadway today, including looks at vaudeville, the Chitlin’ Circuit, the Negro Theatre Project (an offshoot of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project), Off-Broadway, and more. The text is divided into chapters more or less by decade and, within each chapter, each subject gets a few paragraphs separated by subheadings. The effect is something between reading a narrative and a reference guide. It’s possible to read the book cover to cover, but should you want to jump around, there’s a helpful index as well as indications within the text itself when you might want to skip ahead to a sidebar offering more information about people mentioned.
While the book is a welcome addition to any library, it’s not without its faults. Most glaring are the noticeable omissions. For instance, I’m not sure how you can discuss African-American contributions to Off-Broadway in the ’60s and ’70s without mentioning Adrienne Kennedy. And while the focus of the book tightens more directly on Broadway, the closer it gets to the present day, it feels odd not to mention Tyler Perry, one of the most financially successful African-American theater artists of our generation. Who knows what other figures I don’t know about were left out? I also noticed enough errors in dates and details in the text to make me question what else might be incorrect. (For example, the one-performance Actors Fund Dreamgirls concert is referred to as a Broadway revival of the show.) This isn’t to say that the book isn’t worth reading, but if you’re going to cite information from this text in another context, you might want to double-check the information against another source. Reading the book cover to cover also reveals some annoying tics in the author’s writing; for example, you could make a drinking game out of the number of times he uses the verb “garner” in reference to shows winning Tony Awards.
Despite these shortcomings, Black Broadway is a great introduction to a broad range of people and plays, and it’s hard to imagine a reader not being inspired to seek out the scripts, albums, and films of at least a few of the titles and performers mentioned. Perhaps more importantly, I hope some readers will also be inspired to create the next generation of plays and performances on the shoulders of the work detailed in this book.