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Jews and the Broadway Musical
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
In her new book Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (Harvard University Press; $29.95), Andrea Most makes the provocative contention that "the story of Jewish acculturation in America and ... the development of the American musical ... are inextricable." Though relatively brief, this ambitious work has a great deal to say; most of it is perceptive and original, but some of it, unfortunately, is illogical or inaccurate.
In this book, Most attempts to demonstrate "how first- and second-generation American Jewish writers, composers, and performers used the theater to fashion their own identities as Americans." The underlying message of many of the musicals they created was that Jews are good and trustworthy Americans. Through the musical theater, these artists expressed their desire to be accepted into American society in the hope that the threats of ostracism and violence to which they were vulnerable would thereby be eliminated. This involved popularizing the idea, not widely held at the time, that Jews are a white ethnic group rather than a nonwhite racial group. These writers propounded a vision of an America in which Jews were fully accepted.
Most tells us that she will argue "we have learned how to 'see' Jews by seeing musical theater and that the musical theater exists because of the unique historical situation of the Jews who created it. The social reality of being a Jew in America is fundamentally transcribed in the form of the American musical theater." I'm not sure this is provable, and I think that in the end Most doesn't really attempt to prove it. However, she does make many interesting points along the way.
Making Americans ... focuses on the following works: Samson Raphaelson's play (with songs) The Jazz Singer (the source of the landmark 1927 film), and the musicals Whoopee!, Girl Crazy, Babes in Arms, Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, and The King and I. Most identifies recurring themes in the shows, most of all the power of transformation - the idea that through talent, intelligence, and guts, people can transform themselves into whomever they want to be. The ability of Jews to perform effectively onstage would show that they could fit in with other Americans, and that identity was malleable and fluid. At a time of tremendous anti-Semitism, most of these shows insisted that the goals of Jews were the same as the goals of other Americans. Sometimes this theme was expressed through characters who were openly Jewish; sometimes through characters who would be perceived by the audience as Jewish even though their ethnic identity wasn't explicitly stated; and sometimes through characters who belonged to other ethnic groups (American Indians were especially popular) but who metaphorically represented Jews.
Although some of the shows Most discusses were primarily comic, even silly, she clearly believes that they made important statements on the Jewish-American experience. Most deserves credit for taking these shows seriously, but she rarely addresses to what degree the creators of these shows may have been consciously aware of the themes she explicates.
Most provides some fascinating social, political, and theatrical background for each show. Great portions of the book are exhilarating to read, and you find yourself easily forgiving those places where she does not make the best case for her ideas. The insightful and eloquent passages largely make up for Most's oversimplifications and obfuscations, as well as some factual errors.
In the first section, an introductory chapter titled "Overture," a good deal of patience for academic-speak is required. Things get considerably better in the first full chapter. In 20 pages, Most covers a huge amount of ground - including the origins of secular Judaism, why theater held a natural attraction for secular Jews, Jewish theater, and the immigrant experience in America - with surprising effectiveness, providing an exciting chapter.
The second chapter, on The Jazz Singer, Whoopee! and Girl Crazy, is somewhat hard to judge, given how completely these shows have fallen out of the repertory, but it reads convincingly. Most does a good job of examining the sociological implications of these works. She suggests that these shows exemplified thematic patterns that were widespread in the musicals of the time but, rather disappointingly, she doesn't offer examples of other shows. And some of the very specific characteristics that she says these shows exemplified are not really true of all of them. But these are minor quibbles.
The following chapter, on the original version of Babes in Arms, completely overturns the popular image of the musical as just being about a bunch of kids putting on a show. Most summarizes the political conflicts - between Jews on the extreme left and those whose politics were mainstream liberal - that underlie the text. She is good at analyzing the deeply political nature of the show and makes you long to see a full production of the original script. (It made me very sorry that I had missed the Encores presentation.)
The most striking aspect of Most's chapter on Oklahoma! is her observation that Jud possesses many of the negative characteristics which white people at that time often associated with black men. Most makes a convincing case for this idea. Her discussion of the relationship between Jud and Ali Hakim is striking, somewhat unsettling, and impossible to dismiss. This section might have been even more rewarding if she had compared these elements of Oklahoma! with the corresponding characters and relationships in Green Grow the Lilacs.
Most suggests a good deal just with the chapter title: "We Know We Belong to the Land." Fascinating though most of this chapter is, some of her ideas are pretentious and rather silly, such as a strange paragraph on the "Little Wonder," the kaleidoscope with a hidden knife that figures in the plot. Occasionally she misunderstands the effects that Rodgers and Hammerstein were aiming for. And, although I agree with her that Ali Hakim is meant to represent a Jew, she provides no real evidence for her claim that the character as originally played by Joseph Buloff was "generally assumed to be Jewish." This may well have been true, but the evidence she offers does not even begin to confirm it.
The majority of what she has to say here, though, is thought-provoking and illuminating. For example, she points out the inclusion of the merchant ("the farmer and the cowman and the merchant") in "The Farmer and the Cowman," a line that is easily missed, and goes on to identify the merchant as "the most likely representation of the Jew in the nineteenth-century Midwest." Typically, though, Most mentions this before she has mentioned the relevant character, Ali Hakim; this is not the most effective way to make points.
In her excellent chapter on Annie Get Your Gun, Most clarifies that all of the characters are aware that Annie is just pretending to lose to Frank at the end. Annie, like American Jews, has learned how to use her natural talents to advance in America, but as a woman she must perform a literal act of subservience to fully assimilate. Most asks, "Can a relationship based on this performance of submission possibly work?" She proposes that Annie is the first of what she calls "problem musicals." The implicit comparison with the so-called "problem plays" of Shakespeare, made in passing, is a good idea that might profitably have been explored further.
Unfortunately, in her chapter on South Pacific, Most loses her way. Things start to go wrong early on with two almost inexplicable factual errors. First, she claims that South Pacific "is one of the top ten longest-running plays in Broadway history"; this was true at one time, but that time is long past. Second, she makes the ridiculous statement that "Before 20th Century Fox bought the movie rights in 1956, South Pacific had already earned profits of more than five billion dollars [author's emphasis]." One of Most's own sources contradicts this. According to Frederick Nolan's The Sound of Their Music, by January 1957 South Pacific had earned a profit of close to 10 million dollars (not counting the money from the film sale).
A good case could be made for Most's basic thesis in this chapter - that Rodgers and Hammerstein, while intending to write a show condemning racism, display racist and antifeminist attitudes - and she does marshal some telling evidence in support of it, especially in regard to Liat. Much of what she writes, however, is unsupported or even contradicted by examination of the text, sometimes even by her own statements. For instance, she describes the Asian characters as "one-dimensional" and says that Bloody Mary's "only goal is to make a quick buck." She goes on to offer her "selling" of Liat to Cable as evidence of the latter.
Later in the chapter, though, Most points out that Bloody Mary "pays them [the native workers] so much that they no longer want to work for the low wages that the French planters are willing to offer." This suggests that Bloody Mary is not that much of a stereotype. More important, there is no implication in the script that Bloody Mary sells Liat to Cable. In fact, she wants to give the two thousand dollars she has saved to the young lovers and then continue to support them so they can live together on Bali Ha'i without having to work. Some of what Most writes about the non-Asian characters is more convincing, but even here there are misstatements and places where her interpretation seems twisted, ignoring things that would contradict her point of view.
This is not to say that there is not some insightful stuff here. In particular, her discussion of contemporary issues that doubtless influenced the writing of the show (racial politics, United States involvement in Asia, and the politics of anti-Communism, particularly Jewish anti-Communism) is most interesting.
Unfortunately, she remains somewhat off-track in the last chapter, on The King and I. There are a number of misstatements that call into question how closely she has studied the script. For example, Most says that the King addresses Anna as "Sir," but he never does. Probably the strangest error is her statement that "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" is performed by the children. (According to the script, it is performed by the "royal dancers.") This would be relatively minor if Most didn't use this as an example of one of her main themes in this chapter: that Anna is teaching the children "how to perform like Americans."
Most seems unaware that The King and I is more an adaptation of the film Anna and the King of Siam than it is of the novel. She even manages to make an error about The Sound of Music, describing Max in that show as a "Jewish theater producer." As in her chapter on South Pacific, such errors undercut some genuine insights. It is unfortunate that a book that is so thought-provoking most of the way ends in a rather disappointing fashion.
Elsewhere, there are a few truly odd passages, such as her brief section on Teleny, a pornographic novel believed to have been partly the work of Oscar Wilde. Most writes, "Wilde, who was deeply resistant to Freudian, essentialized notions of identity, insisted on removing the blinders from his characters' eyes." A very confusing sentence in several ways.
Still, Most may completely change the way you think about some of these shows. And it's a good idea as you go along to read her extensive endnotes, which are often informative and illuminating. For example, a note about "Kansas City" from Oklahoma! finds an intriguing connection between Will's teaching Aunt Eller the two-step and the Roosevelt administration's 1943 attempts to promote the idea that even the elderly could learn "new steps."
The best parts of Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical are challenging, perceptive, and downright fascinating. Other parts are disappointing, reductive, and inaccurate. Still, its strengths are enough to make it not just an important addition to the literature on the American musical, but an often quite exciting one.
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