Lessons off Broadway: Princeton professor dissects zeitgeist in musicals

The Broadway musical is an art form both beloved and maligned. Whether you love it or hate it, the Broadway musical has the power to tap into the zeitgeist, capturing and propelling social change. Princeton musical theatre scholar Stacy Wolf takes host Nahlah Ayed on a tour of the hidden power of musicals from the 1950s to today.

'Most musicals are giving us double messages', says music theatre scholar Stacy Wolf

The success of Hamilton is a clear example of how the Broadway musical captures the zeitgeist, says Stacy Wolf. 'It has resonance today because it connects the past to the present.' (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

* Originally published on October 3, 2019.

When Princeton University professor Stacy Wolf was a child she was completely obsessed with The Sound of Music. It was her favourite musical growing up. 

"I think that's probably true for a lot of girls who grew up in the 60s and 70s," she said. "[It's] Maria's freedom and her energy, and the songs that she got to sing."

According to Wolf, it's not unusual for people to identify with musicals. Yet this identification goes beyond the 'regular' — we see a character running around on stage, singing great songs and we want to be them. Instead, she identifies what she terms a 'kinaesthetic' engagement audiences have with musical theatre. 

Stacy Wolf considers the musical, Come From Away a very 'generous' show — one that is sad in places, funny and where the music is infectious. 'I do think that it's a show that says from top to bottom, open your place to a stranger.'

"When we experience a musical we're tapping our toes and we're humming along and we're seeing the lights change and we're seeing the choreography... and that has an incredible emotional effect," said Wolf.

"That then leads directly to how we feel about the world, how we understand the world."

A new academic pursuit

The enmeshing of stories and music has been a fact of human history for millennia, and nowhere is this more evident in contemporary culture than in the modern musical. 

However, despite the clear connection that musical theatre has with audiences, musicals have not been a fruitful basis for academic inquiry until very recently. 

Stacy Wolf's book, 'Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical,' demonstrates how the history of musicals reflect and propel social change. ( Oxford University Press, Justin Goldberg)

Before she became one of the world's foremost scholars of musical theatre, Wolf received her graduate training in theatre studies. It was then that she decided to apply her skills in dramaturgy to musicals. 

"[Through] the same tools that I learned to analyze Shakespeare or Ibsen or Arthur Miller, I then turned to analyzing the libretto of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Lerner and Loewe musicals," said Wolf. 

Through applying lofty academic theory to what was seen as purely entertainment, Wolf was able to discover, along with a handful of other scholars, that musicals reflect their contemporary zeitgeist. 

"I was amazed to see... how gender was a crucial component in the structure of musicals," said Wolf

Fiddler on the Roof  is really about young women defying the patriarchy, says Stacy Wolf.

Echoing culture

Wolf identifies a clear cultural trajectory in the evolution of musicals in the mid-twentieth century.

"This form was being perfected… at a time when American culture was very conservative," said Wolf. "Gender roles were conservative, it was the post-war boom and women were expected to be good wives and mothers." 

By the time the 60s came along, musicals had undergone a change that reflected the revolutionary context of the time. 

Stacy Wolf points to A Chorus Line as a musical about rebellion against status quo, both in content and format.

The repetitious cycle of 'formally integrated' musicals — where all of the songs seems to emerge from the voice of the character — gave way to self-reflexivity as the decade passed by. 

"The text itself, that is the script, the music, the lyrics and even sometimes the choreography, can often be in a contradictory relationship with the performance," Wolf explained.

"This is especially clear in musicals of the 1960s where… the character is a victim and yet the actor has a chance to stand centre-stage and sing a great song."

Musicals encompass both conformity and rebellion, according to Wolf. By the 80s and 90s, eras characterized by corporatism, Wolf told IDEAS that musicals turned huge profits through the work of Cameron Macintosh and Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

According to Playbill, 18 million people have seen The Phantom of the Opera in New York City, alone — which amounts to $1.1 Billion in ticket sales. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

"The mega musical completely transformed the production of musical theatre, the reception of musical theatre and the marketing of musical theatre... they're big and they're big in every way."

Reflections and contradictions

Whether musicals reflect or push back against the contemporary moment Wolf emphasizes their complexity. Maybe they're critical of our moment, maybe they are contradictory, said Wolf.

"I would say most musicals are giving us double messages all the time, but those that do succeed are tapping into something vital in our culture."

While this Guys and Doll's tune presents sexism, author Stacy Wolf says you can decode a feminist subtext.

Regardless of the often contradictory messages that audiences receive from musical theatre, their spectacle remains vital in a time that threatens to divide us. 

Humanity's instinct toward the combination of music and stories reflects a need to come together, said Wolf.

"The impulse comes from the desire to tell stories and the effectiveness of song. When people come together and sing together it creates something bigger than we can imagine."