Stage Door Jennies
Brett Farmer interviews Stacy Wolf about her New Book, A Problem
Like Maria Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical.
By BRETT FARMER
| Note: Click on each
image to see an enlargement of it.
 FARMER: The affinities between gay male cultures and the Broadway
musical are so widely acknowledged that, in popular imaginings,
one has become all but indexical of the other. The primary objective—and,
in so small measure, the value—of your book, A Problem
Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical (Figure
1) is to argue for the equally vital, if hitherto less registered,
connections between the Broadway musical and lesbian cultures.
What about this particular art form—rooted constitutively
in mid-century ideologies of compulsory heterosexuality and companionate
marriage—attracts and sustains lesbian investment? Is the
musical's appeal for and reception by lesbians broadly correspondent
to the popularization of the genre in gay male cultures or does
it assume a distinctive cast all its own?
 WOLF: There are a number of characteristics of the mid-20th-century
Broadway musical that invite lesbian investments. First, unlike
much of the non-musical theatre of the 1940s to mid-1960s, the Broadway
musical featured women as stars. Women performers like Mary Martin
and Ethel Merman were a primary draw for audiences, and they could
almost guarantee a certain degree
of critical and commercial success. This form of performance places
women, as stars, as supporting players, and in the chorus, center
stage, creating a place of pleasure and identification for lesbian
spectators. (Figure 2)
 WOLF: In addition to their prominence
on the musical theatre stage, women in musicals perform with vocal power and
physical athleticism, completely contradicting the prevalent 1950s stereotype
of the woman as silent or as passive. Whether feisty like Maria in The
Sound of Music, or ferocious like Momma Rose in Gypsy, women
in musicals are active. They sing most of the songs; they do most of the
dances; they speak the most lines. They take up stage space in assertive,
 WOLF: Because of the "ideologies
of compulsory heterosexuality and companionate marriages" that you note, the
presumption of musical theatre's happy heterosexuality tends not to be challenged.
But if we look closely at how musicals are structured, they invite very different,
potentially queer readings. For example, the narrative of boy-meets-girl
(but they hate each other and so are destined for each other), boy-gets-girl
(because they are thrown together or somehow can't resist each other), boy-loses-girl
(because one of them makes some mistake), boy-gets-girl again (and the community
sings together in a happy huge finale) does dominate musical theatre of the
mid-century. On the other hand, the closure of this narrative is severely
undermined by the musical's conventional two-act structure. The first act—which
develops the characters' antipathy for each other, allows the female and male
principals to define and express their characters (through what are called
"I am" or "I want" songs), and demonstrates homosocial bonding within the
singly gendered choruses—is much longer and more song-filled than the second
act, which resolves the romance through reprises and, often, less interesting
musical numbers. For lesbian spectators, it becomes quite easy to read against
the grain of this heterosexual closure, since the woman has been singing solo
(or with other women) for much of the show.
 WOLF: I find that the musical's appeal to lesbian spectators
operates differently than it does for gay men. Gay male scholars
of the musical, such as Alexander Doty, Richard Dyer, John Clum,
Mark Steyn, and Ethan Mordden, often note the form's campiness or
its flamboyance. They tend to emphasize the over-the-top, self-consciously
performative aspect of the female lead, the Broadway diva. I owe
great debt to these scholars who have developed ways of reading
musicals from a queer perspective, but I
don't understand lesbian spectators' attachment to the musical in
the same way. In Place for Us (Figure 3), D.A. Miller,
whose readings tend to be more rueful and less sardonic than other
scholars, observes the powerful centrality of women in musicals,
and I agree with him entirely. My reading of Gypsy,
which argues that this musical appeals to lesbian spectators because
of the incredible strength of a woman, her refusal to be contained
by domesticity or heterosexuality, and the formation of the female
couple, resonates with Miller's.
 WOLF: The musical's attraction
for lesbian spectators is not ironic but rather is based on a positive, if
non-mimetic, representation of femininity. At times the musical calls up spectatorial
identifications with performers or characters, which depends on their visual
and aural power; at times, the musical invokes a pleasurable spectatorship
contingent on the musical's visceral qualities: its ability to cause a spectator
to tap her toes or hum along.
 WOLF: I would also want to add, as I do in my book, that I
understand "lesbian" as a spectatorial location and a spectatorial
practice and not an immutable identity. Certainly many women who
identify as lesbian have developed skills of reading "lesbianly,"
both consciously and unconsciously. Part of my project is to foreground
the histories and conventions of musicals and of lesbian spectatorship
to give any willing and willful spectator
the tools to see and hear these musicals "as a lesbian." My purpose
is for no one to be able to see or hear The Sound of Music
(Figure 4) in quite the same way again.
 WOLF: Finally, my reading of
musicals from a lesbian perspective is thoroughly grounded in feminism, which
is in part why I don't only see female couples or sexual attraction between
women to be the sole signifier of lesbianism in a musical.
 FARMER: Well, as someone who has seen the film version
of The Sound of Music hundreds of times—and I do mean hundreds—I
can confirm that the aim of promoting a radically different reader-response
to the text is more than ably secured by your book...but we'll have more to
say about that later, no doubt. Here I'm interested in pursuing further your
deployment of feminism as critical and hermeneutic approach to the musical;
both because, as you state, it is vital to your lesbian engagement and decoding
of the form, and because it signals an important rethinking of the sexual
politics of the Broadway musical and its status in feminist discourse.
 FARMER: Traditionally, feminism and the musical haven't
exactly been, to borrow a phrase from show tune language itself, "bosom buddies,
friends, sisters, and pals." Indeed, you characterize their relationship
as, if not overtly antithetical, fraught with ambivalent tensions. At the
outset, you state that your book is concerned with the apparent dilemma of
being both a feminist and "an ardent fan of musicals," and admit, in duly
confessional tones, to many years of leading a secret or double life: "reading
and discussing feminist theory and doing political activism by day and learning
tap routines and singing...in skimpy costumes by night" (vii). How do you
reconcile these contradictions in your work—and, possibly, even, life—and
develop a properly feminist approach to the musical; one that is as attentive
to the genre's "sources of pleasure and power for feminist and lesbian spectators,"
as to its "conservative representations of women and heterosexual couples"
 WOLF: I think the contradictions that you
note and my negotiation of a "properly feminist approach" (doesn't that sound
like a lyric from Mary Poppins?) locate my book very definitely at
the end of the 20th century, in terms of the intellectual histories of feminism
and of cultural studies in the academy.
 WOLF: As someone who went to graduate school
during the late-1980s/early-1990s, the era of ‘the feminisms' (e.g., Liberal,
Cultural, Materialist, or Socialist, Separatist, and so on), I learned, along
with my classmates, the practice of analyzing and critiquing a text's cultural
and ideological work. Politically, we learned to recognize and reject out
of hand misogynist, racist, and homophobic texts.
 WOLF: Since the 1990s, feminist critical strategies
have been productively appropriated by scholars in virtually all fields (and
not only by self-identified feminists); they are taught and used in many areas
and internalized by many students, even in the face of frequently blatant
misogyny in the media and in politics. That is to say, readings of culture
that you and I would likely identify as feminist have become more pervasive,
even as fewer scholars and students name those perspectives as feminist.
The challenge for those of us committed to feminist studies is to continue
to hone our analytical skills in the face of ever-more contradictory representations
and uses, especially in popular culture. I think this requires a willingness
to explore representations complexly.
 WOLF: In addition, my project is influenced
by cultural studies (which I almost hate to name as such because I am aware
of all of the political and methodological compromises of cultural studies
as it is practiced in the U.S.), in that it takes seriously the uses of culture
by a traditionally disenfranchised group: lesbian spectators.
 WOLF: We are in a time in the academy
with much tolerance (perhaps too much) for what Eve Sedgwick once called the
"kinda resistant/kinda hegemonic" model of analysis and interpretation. But,
as Sedgwick noted, culture really works this way: we interact in contradictory
ways with culture all the time. We take what appeals to us and overlook what
offends us. We identify, disidentify, identify across identity locations,
and of course, as the scholars of the Frankfurt School knew, against our own
best interests. (The question then becomes: What's at stake in identifying
against our own best interests?) That's the appeal of the pleasure of representations.
I think in this way that my work fits squarely within cultural studies and
other work that explores the contradictory ideological projects of representations.
 WOLF: From the perspective of musical theatre
studies, the intervention of feminist analysis produces what I see as excellent
and important frictions and tensions. Musical theatre has for so long been
seen as only commercial, as only entertainment, as having no political or
ideological meaning, that to infuse the musical with feminist politics gives
it entirely new meanings.
 WOLF: I also think your question points back
to musical themselves and how they work. We can and should study ‘representations,'
or images, which tend to be read mimetically and rely on identifications of
(a)likeness. But we also need to account for other, non-mimetic ‘sources
of pleasure,' which enlarge the mode of interpretation to account for the
aural and kinesthetic elements of the musical. Perhaps if no one sang or
danced in these shows, they could more easily be contained as misogynist.
 FARMER: Which motivates my next question: to what extent
is your feminist reclamation of the musical, as of the lesbian readings it
indexes, premised on a prioritization of the performance—or, more to the point,
the female star performance—over and against other aspects of the musical
such as score and book? I ask because some would contend that the predominantly
male authorship of the latter all but imbues the musical with a structural
tendency to phallocentrism.
 FARMER: Just the other day, for example, I was reading an
interview with Gretchen Cryer, the lyricist behind such avowedly
feminist musicals as I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It
on the Road (1978) and The American Girls Revue (2001),
where she laments the male creative monopoly of the Broadway musical
for imposing a masculinist frame that marginalizes "authentic" female
voices and concerns. According to Cryer, classic female characters
of the Broadway stage—she cites by way of example the eponymous
heroines of Hello Dolly! (1964) and Mame (1966)—are
not "real women," but caricatural figures of male fantasy. (Figure
 FARMER: Such an argument depends, however, on an unquestioned
assumption of the musical's (male) production teams as the primary, even exclusive,
‘authorial' source of the form and, thus, the principal measure of its legibility.
By contrast, your approach—as, indeed, that of most popular receptions—is
to focus reading of the musical around its iconic female stars, considering
how their spectacular presence and performance contribute centrally to the
meanings and pleasures of the musical as text. As you write, the "performer
is the most remembered" aspect of musicals, "the woman in the role is central
to reception." (33)
 FARMER: How can we make critical sense of what might be
termed the performative authorship of the female star? In particular, how
does it interact with other elements of the musical's creative economy? Is
it the case that the female star enacts at the level of performance a resistant
challenge to, if not outright disorganization of, the masculinist and/or heteronormalizing
dimensions of the score and book? Or is the case more complex than this?
 WOLF: I would say that my "feminist reclamation of the
musical" is premised on balancing the performance of the star with the other
elements of performance. Because theatre history so privileges what remains—scripts,
reviews, director's notes, designers‚ drawings, photographs, and so on—my
focus on performance may seem like an unusual prioritizing of the performer
over the other aspects of theatre.
 WOLF: That said, the critical model that I employ and
to which you refer is based on an audience's experience of a performance,
where the performer makes or breaks the performance. Part of my project is
to challenge the dominant histories of theatre that privilege drama, or the
written text, above all else (although more recent theatre histories do attend
to the specific dimensions of performance). In musical theatre studies, composers
and lyricists garner the most critical attention, and directors and choreographers
also receive consideration for a musical's composition.
 WOLF: Of course, all collaborators play a part in the
total performance event. (As does the audience, as a recent interview in
The New York Times with Lonny Price, the director of Urban Cowboy,
which closed on Broadway after 60 performances, reveals. He stressed that
a New York audience "just didn't want to enter the world of the show" for
two hours, while audiences in Coconut Grove, Florida, delighted in it.) It's
impossible for audiences, critics, and scholars to pinpoint which choices
precisely, or whose ideas precisely, or whose labor precisely create the performance.
 WOLF: I think that scholars of musical theatre have not
emphasized the effects of performers because their work is so fleeting and
because it's especially difficult to differentiate among performance choices
made by writers/composers, directors, and actors (that is, the work of designers
is easier to identify, although even design is also created collaboratively).
Cast albums and publicity photos and reviews gesture towards but ultimately
cannot capture the specific elements of movement and expression that compel
an audience. Those of us interested in performers need to expand our vocabulary
to describe and analyze what exactly a performer does, and why, in theatre
terms, "it works." I really like your phrase, "the performative authorship
of the female star" and hope to be able to continue to contribute to a critical
analytical vocabulary of performance.
 WOLF: The various elements of performance—script, music,
orchestration, lyrics, choreography, blocking, acting, set, lighting, and
costume design—work in tension and collusion in any performance. Musicals
tend to be more complicated than non-musical plays because more artists are
involved in their creation. In addition, in the 1950s, the conventions of
the "integrated musical"—the seamless blending of music, speech, and dance—were
so well known and valued that critics (and then scholars) paid more attention
to form and structure than to the contributions of performers.
 WOLF: The performer is in some ways the most powerful and
least dependable element of the musical's "creative economy." Her
body and physicality and voice call up certain unstable associations;
her performance might vary; she might resist the most obvious reading
of the character; she might shift her characterization over the
course of a long run of a play. The new revival of Gypsy
with Bernadette Peters is a great example of the power
of the performer because the director, Sam Mendes, did not re-envision
the whole show (as he did with Cabaret), but rather worked
with Peters to make a new and different Momma Rose. (Figure 6)
In some ways, seeing multiple casts or experiencing different productions
of the same show can reveal the performer's power to make meaning.
 WOLF: Finally, I don't believe that a musical is "masculinist"
because it was created by men. To the degree that the gender of composers,
lyricists, and librettists affects their work (which I believe it does, but
not necessarily in predictable or identifiable ways), so does their race,
sexuality, class, musical training, and so on. I think it's interesting to
consider how all elements of identity and experience affect the artist's work,
but that it's ultimately more important to look at the character and what
she does and says and sings, and to explore the ideological work of the musical
in terms of its characters and narrative. As I say in my book, in spite of
the fact that many musicals end with a presumptively happy heterosexual union,
the dominance of the first act and the number of songs in which the heroine
expresses her independence often undermine that heteronormative conclusion.
 WOLF: I would not say that, across the board, all musicals
are feminist, or even that all musicals could emphasize a feminist interpretation.
But I think that the multiple modes of performance in a musical allow for
a range of resistances that might not be available to non-musical plays.
 FARMER: So let's talk a bit more specifically about the
stars you discuss in your book and how what you just characterized as their
"multiple modes of performance" provide a fertile space for lesbian investment
and interpretation. You focus centrally on four female stars: Mary Martin,
Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand. Though each is very different
in terms of persona and performance style, these four women pretty much dominated—and,
thus, arguably helped to define—the Broadway musical throughout its so-called
‘golden age' of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Not only did they appear in many of
the era's most popular and enduring classics, but, taken together, these stars
signal a veritable compendium of the central genres and styles of Broadway
female performance: from ingénue soprano and lyrical soubrette to powerhouse
belter and brassy comic.
 FARMER: Mirroring the resistant protocols of queer reception,
you approach these stars as obtaining a marked capacity for lesbian signification.
Each of them, you suggest, signals at the level of performance variations
of what Chris Straayer famously terms "the hypothetical lesbian heroine:"
the figure or character that may not be explicitly coded as lesbian but whose
textual presence nevertheless provides for lesbian readings and pleasures.
How might such a process be engaged in relation to a star such as Mary Martin
or Ethel Merman, say?
 WOLF: I am a huge admirer of
Chris's work and have found her articulation of that "hypothetical lesbian
heroine" to be incredibly useful in moving us away from a simple identification
of a lesbian-in-representation as only a woman desiring sexually or coupled
with another woman. Straayer understands the complexity of spectatorial identifications,
and how all kinds of gestures, movements, and characterizations can call up
WOLF: Martin and Merman were both fascinating women, charismatic
performers, and powerhouse figures on and off the Broadway stage. (Figure
 WOLF: Martin performed the tomboy, both in her offstage life—as
configured in her amusingly effusive autobiography, interviews in
magazines, and exposés of her domestic life—and on stage,
in her choice of roles and her portrayal of women who do gender
and sexuality differently. For example, offstage, she never embodied
the role of the housewife that was so prevalent in the 1940s and
1950s. She hated to cook and decorate; her second husband, the
barely-closeted, gay Richard Halliday, did these tasks well, and
also selected her clothes and eventually managed her career. Onstage,
the roles for
which she is most famous—Nellie Forbush in South Pacific,
Maria in The Sound of Music, and Peter Pan—are
all extraordinarily feisty and also rather ingenuous characters.
They all elude conventional heterosexuality. (Figure 8)
 WOLF: In the context of typical
female comportment in the 1950s, Martin carried herself with what looks like
boyishness, in videotapes of performances and interviews and in publicity
photos. She tended to walk with her weight forward and her head extended;
she landed solidly. Her singing voice, while absolutely a woman's voice,
had a marked break between her chest and head voice, and I argue that this
apparent vocal break emphasizes the doubleness of her performances, how she
was both masculine and feminine.
WOLF: Significantly, Martin was not at all manly. She retained
a kind of childishness throughout her life and career and performances.
 WOLF: Merman, on the other hand,
was very definitely masculine in style and affect. After working as a stenographer,
she was married several times and, according to interviews and her five autobiographies
(!!), ran her life, career, and household just fine on her own. She had the
reputation of being very demanding of attention, of forcing writers and directors
to cut numbers of performers she thought might threaten her primacy.
 WOLF: Her famous voice, with its peculiar vibrato and unmatchable
belt, invokes a thrill in a listener. She could and did sing everything
in her powerful chest voice. Merman's body was square
and gave the impression of some stoutness, although in actuality
she was a typical size for women of the time. She didn't really
dance and her gestures were somewhat stiff and mechanical. (Figure
 WOLF: The fact that many people
believed (wrongly) that Merman was Jewish contributes to my sense of her unusual
femininity. Because of traditional, historical, stereotypical associations
of Jewishness with gender inversion, Merman's apparent Jewishness emphasized
her masculinity even more.
 WOLF: I look to each woman's
performance of femininity, which was unconventional in mid-20th-century U.S.,
and which brought her great fame and fortune. Each woman, as a Broadway star,
was extremely active in her performances, as we've already talked about, in
her ability to shape her performances on stage.
 WOLF: So there are several elements
that make these women attractive to a lesbian spectator: her apparent power
in her life and career, her unconventional, uncontainable performance of femininity,
as well as the particular form in which each woman excelled—the Broadway musical.
Finally, though, I don't want to suggest that only elements of masculinity
contribute to the appeal of a star to lesbian spectators. It's more significant,
I think, that these women refused a typical performance of femininity at the
 FARMER: If, as you're suggesting, lesbian attachments
to these stars issue from a perceived refusal or disorganization of conventional
modes of feminine gender, how do we account for the lesbian appeal of a performer
such as Julie Andrews? While the Andrews star image undoubtedly contains
elements that may be read as gender dissonant—like Martin, for example, she
famously played the tomboyish Maria in the film version of The Sound of
Music, and enjoyed a late-career revival through her portrayal, both on
screen and on stage, of the cross-dressing Victor/Victoria—it would
seem to be more centrally anchored than either Martin or Merman in a traditional
tropology of white, middle class femininity. Indeed, in its early Broadway
incarnation, the Andrews persona was formatively associated with that most
conservative of femininity narratives: the Cinderella story.
 WOLF: Yes, absolutely, Andrews garnered a reputation as a
princess, both because of her portrayal of Cinderella in Rodgers
and Hammerstein's 1957 televised version, and also because of her
star persona—whiteness, bright eyes, clear skin, perfect posture,
pleasant affect, British accent just strong enough to make her seem
royal and proper but without making her seem too different or foreign.
(Figure 11) Like all women performers, Andrews's appeal to a lesbian
spectator emerges from the conjunction of her star persona, her
performance tendencies, and the particular roles that she played.
 WOLF: Her star persona is quirky.
She embodies a Cinderella type and maintains a Cinderella image to this day,
and yet I always see a double edge in her performance: there is a kind of
innocence, a childishness coupled with an ironically raised eyebrow. I think
it's fascinating that she now plays a grandmother type who at once disciplines
and contains young girls and also helps them to transgress and be independent
on their way to womanhood. She married her childhood sweetheart, set designer
Tony Walton, then divorced and married Blake Edwards, director of the Pink
Panther movies (among many others) who just does not seem straight to
me. Like Mary Martin's, Andrews's marriage looks queer.
 WOLF: In terms of her performance style, like
the other women in my book, she is a charismatic and gifted performer, who
has many fans and admirers. She has/had an incredibly strong voice with a
freakishly large range. She is an adequate but slightly gawky dancer. So
I think that part of her appeal is the juxtaposition of smooth, calm competence
with zany awkwardness with extraordinary talent.
 WOLF: When Andrews played Cinderella early in her career,
she revealed a certain irony towards the role. Her Cinderella was
much more self-confident than Lesley Ann Warren's portrayal, which
was recorded in 1964 and replayed for many years on TV. All of
the ‘Cinderellas' that Andrews went on to play—Eliza in My
Fair Lady, Guenevere in Camelot, Maria in The Sound
feisty, active women who are at once very conscious of femininity
as a performance and yet don't rely on conventional feminine wiles
to get the man. (Figure 12) In My Fair Lady and Camelot,
the dominant couple in the musical is two men, and the character
played by Andrews merely triangulates them. Her position, then,
leaves her wide open for a lesbian attachment. In the end, none
of those musicals ultimately emphasizes heterosexual romance.
 WOLF: I think that Andrews is an
important performer to think about because she is indeed feminine and yet
she foregrounds femininity as performance. (I'm thinking here, too, in a
completely different performance context, of the work of Lois Weaver, another
absolutely self-conscious femme.)
 FARMER: I certainly agree that Andrews is
a much more interesting performer than generally credited who nuances her
roles with a style that, as you suggest, tends frequently toward the ironic.
It's revealing in this context to recall that Andrews first rose to fame on
Broadway playing the part of Polly in The Boy Friend, a popular pastiche
of twenties-style musical comedy, where she literally stole the show with
a performance that, as Brooks Atkinson effused in his review for The New
York Times, both "burlesque[d] the insipidity of the part," while keeping
it "genuine...and almost moving."
 FARMER: It's Andrews's extraordinary ability to play roles
on the edge, as it were, that, to my mind, doubles the tragedy of
her still controversial loss of the part of Eliza Doolittle to Audrey
Hepburn in the film version of My Fair Lady. As achingly
gorgeous as Hepburn is in the film, her performance of Eliza is
of a vastly different order to that of Andrews on stage—at
least to the extent that the latter can be known through the two
cast albums and the piecemeal television recordings that remain—and
it fundamentally alters the sexual politics of the whole text.
There's a determined grit and feistiness and, again, a touch of
irony to Andrews's Eliza that simply isn't there in the Hepburn
version which is largely winsome and fragile to the point of skewing
the overall semiotic register of the piece toward pathos. Indeed,
whenever I watch the film version of My Fair Lady, I'm left
at the end with a desperate sense of melancholy at the prospect
of poor Eliza who seems destined to a future of wedded servitude
literally at the feet of Professor Higgins. Andrews's Eliza, by
contrast, gives as good as
she gets and seems much more poised to negotiate an equitable relationship
with Higgins on her own terms...or, perhaps, following your line,
even an independent future without Higgins at all! (Figure 13)
 FARMER: This capacity for imbuing a role with
aberrant resonances through sheer performative dynamism is explored most fully
in your chapter-length reading of The Sound of Music. A perennial
popular, The Sound of Music is widely represented—and just as widely
ridiculed—for what is perceived as its nostalgic sentimentalism and simple
celebration of reactionary family values: kinder, küche, kirche. In
your hands, however, the musical assumes a very different cast. Cued by the
competing performances of Mary Martin on stage and Andrews on film, you suggest
that The Sound of Music is in fact a text that "invokes lesbian desire,
compels lesbian identifications, induces lesbian readings, and works as a
contemporary signifier of lesbian identity." (204) Tell us more...
 WOLF: I love how you describe the difference
between Hepburn's and Andrews's Eliza—yes, yes. Critics also noted Andrews's
ability to play Cinderella (on TV) with an edge, another remarkable performance
 WOLF: As a theatre practitioner as
well as a scholar, I am fascinated by the tensions among the performance texts—the
libretto and the score; the history of the performance and its attendant associations
and expectations—The Sound of Music as kinder, küche, kirche;
and the possibilities of pushing on the text via performance choices. I think
for the American musical to function as more than nostalgia, we need to find
ways to preserve what's pleasurable about the music and the dance, and press
on the conservative and limiting representations. Some productions, like
Mendes's Cabaret, Bernadette Peters's performance as Momma Rose in
Gypsy (so I've heard and will see next month), South Pacific
at the National Theatre in London a few years ago, try to shift what the musical
means. But then, we have to ask, when is a production of The Sound of
Music no longer really The Sound of Music at all? This challenge
is an issue from a queer perspective but also from a feminist perspective
and from the perspective of a progressive, critical educator.
 WOLF: As for The Sound of Music, it's interesting
because this is one musical that I find lesbian; that is, any production
I have seen anywhere strikes me as very queer. I love those stories
about ‘typical American housewives' who are obsessed with The
Sound of Music (I just read a funny piece in the travel section
about The Sound of Music tour in Austria), and I wonder what
that is about. I know there are so many appealing points of entry
for spectators and fans of that play or movie—the music, the
children (especially in those sailor outfits), the cold-hearted
man who softens, the pseudo-political message, and of course Martin
or Andrews as Maria. Still, the women in this musical seem queer
to me. Maria is a feisty and energetic character who changes the
around her to accommodate her; the narrative is less that she becomes
heterosexualized than that she queers her world. (Figure 14) She
does marry the Captain but she truly wants to marry the children
and have her own way. In the late 1950s when the musical opened,
her desires would have resonated with cultural expectations of a
companionate marriage, which, representationally, looks peculiarly
unromantic. From a contemporary perspective, it's easy to queer
that relationship and that character. The community of nuns always
carries lesbian connotations. And Elsa and Max form a vampire lesbian/effete
 WOLF: My desire to attach The Sound of
Music to a lesbian identity participates in a larger project to develop
an image of a lesbian show queen/princess. Celebrities like Lea DeLaria and
Rosie O'Donnell count here, too.
 FARMER: The other performer addressed in your book is a show
princess of a different kind: the revisionist J.A.P. persona of
Barbra Streisand. Focusing primarily on her star-making turn as
Fanny Brice in both the stage and film versions of Funny Girl,
you claim that Streisand "knits together queerness and Jewishness
to create a ‘woman' who, in body, gesture, voice, and character,
is indeed a ‘funny' girl" (176). Motivated by the arguments of
critics like Janet Jakobsen and Daniel Itzkovitz that queerness
and Jewishness operate as homologous sites of categorical disruption—in
that, inter alia, both occupy liminal spaces across traditional
binarisms, challenge essentialist concepts of identity, and problematize
orthodox discourses of corporeality—you contend
that the unapologetic Jewishness of the Streisand persona and its
embodiment of a supremely empowered femininity "create another lesbian
type that may be called "the queer Jewess" (177). (Figure 15)
 FARMER: This reading helps foreground
an issue that surfaces at various points throughout your book and that has
been taken up elsewhere in recent cultural and performance studies: the racial
politics of the musical. There is a certain argument rehearsed in the work
of writers like Michael Rogin, Arthur Knight, and Christina Klein that the
musical is subtended by a fantasy of white normativity where ethnic difference
is integrated—and thus erased—into a racially unmarked—read ‘white'—American
identity. It's an argument that has been developed in particular relation
to the influential role of Jews and other immigrants in the development and
popularization of the Broadway musical. In the terms of the modern racialized
American imaginary, Jews were, if not quite coded as absolute racial others,
certainly coded as not quite white and it is suggested that, historically,
the musical stage offered an important cultural space for the production and
performance of Jewish assimilation into a unified white body politic. Does
the overt performance of Jewish difference in the Streisand image represent
a radical rupture in this history of white assimilation through the musical,
and how might this in turn inform lesbian investments?
 WOLF: Your question again points to the tension
between production and performance, and it also requires an examination of
specific moments in the history of the musical. Rogin's reading of The
Jazz Singer, for example, is terrifically persuasive, and I also hugely
admire Andrea Most's work on Oklahoma! and South Pacific, where
she argues that Rodgers and Hammerstein negotiated not only their Jewish identities
but also their liberal politics in their shows. It's significant, in the
history of the musical as well as the history of Jewish assimilation in the
U.S., that Jolson performed in The Jazz Singer in the early-20th century
and that Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! opened in 1943 and South
Pacific in 1947. By 1964, when Funny Girl was produced, the U.S.
was several decades post WWII, post the Holocaust, post McCarthy. That's
not to say that Jewish artists were not struggling with anti-Semitism, but
that the temper of the culture had shifted somewhat in those twenty years.
 WOLF: Considering the number of Jewish composers,
lyricists, librettists, producers, and directors working on Broadway musicals
in the mid-20th century, there were very few representations of Jews. By
1964, there had only been a few Broadway musicals that featured Jewish characters,
most notably Jerry Herman's Milk and Honey in 1961. Streisand on Broadway
(and then in the film) not only embodied a female principal in a musical who
was explicitly and unapologetically Jewish (and who succeeds in no small part
because of her Jewishness) but Streisand's own performance marked itself over
and over as Jewish. The fact that Streisand and Funny Girl invoke
such distinct reactions from spectators—love her or hate her—demonstrates
the persistence of anti-Semitism.
 WOLF: As you suggest, the creation of the Fanny Brice story
on Broadway ‘outs' as Jewish a generation of artists who worked
out their ambivalence about Jewishness through various substitutions
and deflections of character, of narrative, and of musical style.
Certainly her presence as a Jewish female body and voice on the
Broadway stage disrupts a pattern of displacement that works in
earlier mid-century musicals like South Pacific and My
Fair Lady. Gypsy is interesting because the real Rose
Hovick was indeed Jewish (and a lesbian) but Arthur Laurents made
her into a Christian character. Momma Rose reads so very Jewish
(and, too, Merman, who everyone thought was Jewish but wasn't),
but Laurents's making her explicitly not so allows her gender to
dominate and ethnicity to seem unimportant
in that musical. But I do wonder if the ultimate punishment of
Fanny Brice in Funny Girl—that she gets stardom but
loses her man—is another kind of displacement of anxiety about
Jewishness. (Figure 16)
 WOLF: Much of the critical scholarship on
Jewishness has focused on Jewish men and Jewish masculinity. Sedgwick, Jakobsen,
Itzkovitz, Gilman, Ockman, and Pellegrini have contributed in important ways
to discussions of Jewish femininity, as does Riv-Ellen Prell, in her wonderful
work on the Jewish American Princess. Rogin's argument about the musical's
Jewishness is predicated on the struggles of the creators, who were of course
all men. When Styne and Merrill wrote Fanny Brice into a musical, and she
became embodied in the form of Barbra Streisand, new meanings emerged. Streisand's
powerful and charismatic presence made Jewishness a desirable performance.
 WOLF: Streisand's femininity also complicates
how her performance intervenes in the history of Jewish assimilation through
the musical. None of the men in Funny Girl are marked as Jewish (although
Sydney Chaplin played Nick Arnstein on Broadway), so their emasculation by
Fanny/Barbra does not echo the stereotypical inappropriate power discrepancies
of Jewish families in the 20th century.
 WOLF: Streisand is bizarre and excessive in terms of what
a star is supposed to be; she cannot be contained by music or text;
is so clearly not defined by Funny Girl, but rather she defines
it. She performs as if she wrote every song that she sings; as
if she created every step of the choreography, so fully does she
inhabit her role. (Figure 17) The historical blurring of Brice
and Streisand contributes to the sense of this actor/character conflation.
I do think that her ownership of the vehicle in performance provides
an opening for lesbian attachments. So, too, her very singularity,
ambition, drive; the slender, unpersuasive romance plot; her ability
to succeed and become a star not in spite of but because of her
difference; and her inability/refusal to comply with normative performances
of (white) femininity.
 FARMER: Given the steady decline of Broadway's
cultural currency throughout the late twentieth century, commentaries on gay
male fandoms of the musical often assume a eulogizing tenor, claiming the
‘show queen' has become a moribund figure whose only possible move, as D.A.
Miller writes, is "to sink ever more deeply into nostalgia, the dank nether
world where the waning of a cult...commonly sends its diminished members"
(136). Within such a context, what can we make of the current and future
status of the musical as a vehicle for the dreams and desires of lesbian spectators?
Is the ‘show dyke' doomed to expire at precisely the point when your work
has finally given her critical incarnation?
 WOLF: Not
at all! Some gay men, as Miller and John Clum have pointed out, have had
investments in the musical particularly linked to a pre-Stonewall gay male
identity and community. I think that the ‘show dyke' is just coming into
being. Stars like Rosie O'Donnell and Lea DeLaria contribute to her existence,
and also in some ways, the grrrl power movement, which allows a more explicit
homosociality among women. The show dyke is not a figure of nostalgia, in
part because she has not been linked to a specific, historical community.
She is (still) a somewhat solitary image, although singalong Sound of Musics
may change that status.
WOLF: Because revivals of Golden Age musicals continue, there are
more and more opportunities for ‘show dyke' interventions. Wouldn't
an all-girl South Pacific be great? (Figure 18)
 WOLF: Your
question also points to what is traditionally seen as the death of the musical
after the mid-1960s. The narrative goes that the generation of Rodgers and
Hammerstein were getting older; that rock music made Broadway show music popularly
obsolete; that the costs of producing a Broadway musical got increasingly
exorbitant; that British creators like Andrew Lloyd Weber, who relies on spectacle
more than characterologically-rich music and lyrics, began to dominate the
scene; that AIDS then decimated the artistic community. All of these facts
are true, but the lesbian critical and performative possibilities of musicals
of the later 1960s through today are still open for examination.
The Boy Friend.
Music and Lyrics by Sandy Wilson. Book by Sandy Wilson. Dir. Vida Hope and
Cy Feuer. With Julie Andrews and John Hewer. Royale Theatre, New York. Opened
30 September, 1954.
Camelot. Music by Frederick Loewe. Lyrics
by Alan Jay Lerner. Book by Alan Jay Lerner. Dir. Moss Hart. With Julie Andrews
and Richard Burton. Majestic Theatre, New York. Opened 3 December, 1960.
Cinderella. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics
by Oscar Hammerstein II. Teleplay by Oscar Hammerstein II. Dir. Ralph Nelson.
With Julie Andrews and Jon Cypher. CBS. Broadcast 31 March, 1957.
Clum, John M. Something
for the Boys: Musical Theater and gay Culture. New York: St Martin's Press,
Doty, Alexander. Making
Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Music by Jules Styne. Lyrics by Bob Merrill. Book by Isobel Lennart. Dir.
Garson Kannin. With Barbra Streisand and Sydney Chaplin. Winter Garden Theatre,
New York. Opened 26 March, 1964.
Dir. William Wyler. With Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif. Columbia, 1968.
Gilman, Sander. The
Jew's Body. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Gypsy. Music by Jules Styne. Lyrics
by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents. Dir. Jerome Robbins. With Ethel
Merman. Broadway Theatre, New York. Opened 21 May, 1959.
Gypsy. (Broadway Revival) Music by
Jules Styne. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents. Dir. Sam
Mendes. With Bernadette Peters. Shubert Theatre, New York. Opened 1 May, 2003.
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Michael Stewart. Dir. Gower Champion.
With Carol Channing. St James Theatre, New York. Opened 16 January, 1964.
"Secret Temples." Jews and Other Differences: The New Jewish Cultural Studies.
Eds Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Jakobsen, Janet R.
"Queer Is? Queer Does? Normativity and the Problem of Resistance." GLQ:
A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 4 (1998): 511-36.
Kasha, Al and Joel
Hirschborn. Notes on Broadway: Conversations with the Great Songwriters.
Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1985.
Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Knight, Arthur. Dis-integrating
the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film. Durham: Duke
University Press, 2002.
Mame. Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman.
Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Dir. Gene Saks. With Angela Lansbury.
Winter Garden Theatre, New York. 24 May, 1966.
Dir. Robert Stevenson. With Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Disney, 1964.
Milk and Honey.
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Don Appell. Dir. Albert Marre. With
Mimi Benzell and Molly Picon. Martin Beck Theatre, New York. 10 October, 1961.
Most, Andrea. "'Big
Chief Izzy Horowitz': Theatricality and Jewish identity in the Wild West."
American Jewish History 87.4 (1999): 313-341.
Most, Andrea. "You've
Got to Be Carefully Taught: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein's
South Pacific." Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000): 307-337
My Fair Lady.
Music by Frederick Loewe. Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Book by Alan Jay Lerner.
Dir. Moss Hart. With Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. Mark Hellinger Theatre,
New York. Opened 15 March, 1956.
My Fair Lady.
Dir. George Cukor. With Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. Warner Bros., 1964.
Oklahoma! Music by Richard Rodgers. Book
and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Dir. Rouben Mamoulian. With Alfred Drake
and Joan Roberts. St. James Theatre, New York. Opened 31 March, 1943.
Pellegrini, Ann. Performance
Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race. New York: Routledge,
Music by Mark Charlap. Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh. Book by James M. Barrie. Dir.
Jerome Robbins. Winter Garden Theatre, New York. Opened 20 October, 1954.
Fighting to Become American: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Rogin, Michael. Blackface,
White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1996.
The Sound Of Music.
Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay
and Russel Crouse. Dir. Vincent J. Donehue. With Mary Martin and Theodore
Bikel. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York. Opened 16 November, 1959.
The Sound Of Music.
Dir. Robert Wise. With Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Twentieth Century
Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Oscar Hammerstein
II and Joshua Logan. Dir. Joshua Logan. With Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. Majestic
Theatre, New York. Opened 7 April, 1949.
Miller, D.A. Place
for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.
Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Steyn, Mark. Broadway
Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then and Now. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Straayer, Chris. "The
Hypothetical Lesbian Heroine in Narrative Feature Film." Out in Culture:
Gay, Lesbian and Queer essays on Popular Culture. Eds. Corey K. Creekmur
and Alexander Doty. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
Victor/Victoria. Dir. Blake Edwards. With Julie
Andrews, Robert Preston, and James Garner. MGM, 1982.
Victor/Victoria. Music by Henry Mancini. Lyrics
by Leslie Bricusse. Book by Blake Edwards. Dir. Blake Edwards. With Julie
Andrews. Marquis Theatre, New York. Opened 25 October, 1995.
Wolf, Stacy. A
Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.
BRETT FARMER is a
member of Genders' Editorial Board and Senior Lecturer in the Department
of English with Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne.
STACY WOLF is Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance at the University
of Texas at Austin, and the editor of Theatre Topics, a journal
of pedagogy and praxis, affiliated with the Association for Theatre
in Higher Education.