Wallace Best and Stacy Wolf talk about the power of musical theatre and her new book Beyond Broadway: The Pleasure and Promise of Musical Theatre Across America.
Wallace Best: I can’t tell you how thrilled that I am that we’re doing this interview. Congratulations on the book. Like most people, I haven’t been able to travel much lately and you took me on a journey. I really loved the book.
Stacy Wolf: Oh, that’s so nice. Thank you.
WB: I was struck by what I’m calling your “voice.” I felt like you were just talking to me and the text was unencumbered by all that it could have been encumbered by, you know, depending on audience.
SW: Thank you. Wallace! I think that I developed a strong sense of audience when I wrote my second book, Changed for Good, which is a feminist history of the Broadway musical. I knew I was writing that book for my students, since I teach musical theatre from a feminist perspective. I imagined specific students as I was writing that book, and I wanted to give them the critical and analytical tools we use in my classes. When I was writing Beyond Broadway, my audience was the people I interviewed for the book, who allowed me to observe their auditions and rehearsals and talked to me about why they care about musical theatre. Then, I followed a feminist ethnographic practice and shared the chapter drafts with the people I wrote about for their comments and corrections. Every chapter had some back-and-forth negotiations.
WB: That’s beautiful. I did not know that was part of the process. There’s obviously great benefit to that. But there’s also great danger, I guess.
SW: There was great danger. With one chapter there were significant objections from a producer, and it was hard. I really struggled, but in the end, I made many of the changes they requested. I felt very clearly that I wanted this book to advocate for the kinds of theatres I write about. I erred on the side of the positive because no one has looked at or taken seriously the venues and people I write about. One chapter, for example, is about the “backstage diva,” who teaches drama or dance and directs kids in musicals afterschool and in the summer. She is a force in American theatre, and I’d wager that there is no actor on Broadway who did not have some kind of backstage diva in their life. This is the person who pushed them and the person who also had the power to hurt them (emotionally, that is). Some would be critical of the backstage diva, but I praise her in the book. It’s for the next person to write a book that critiques community theatres and high schools and summer camp musicals. I also felt beholden to the relationships I built with the people who allowed me into the most vulnerable spaces of auditions and rehearsals. Many people opened themselves up to me and I felt responsible to how I represented them on the page.
WB: I want to talk about your early experiences because I was charmed by your descriptions of yourself in the book as a nine-year-old girl who caught the theatre bug. What was that moment like?
SW: Well, I was a total ham. When I was a kid, I just wanted to be the center of attention, and I wanted to dance, I wanted to sing, I wanted to act. I just loved performing. I was obsessed with the theatre. My sister and I made up little plays all the time, which I think is common among people who grow up to be in the theatre, to make plays in their backyard. It’s funny because I actually feel like I’ve gotten shyer as an adult. I started directing rather than performing after college, and then I realized that I would much rather be backstage.
WB: I love the title of the book, Beyond Broadway: The Pleasure and Promise of Musical Theatre. The title is doing a lot of work. What came to mind when you thought of this as the title of the book?
SW: When I first started working on the book, it was called “The Persistence of Musicals.” The project started by asking why musical theatre in communities away from Broadway persists. Why do people keep doing high school musicals? Why do people keep doing community theatre? And then I started thinking more about these venues—community theatres, high schools, afterschool programs—and their relationship to the Broadway repertoire, to the shows they produce. And I thought about how the production of musicals across the country in local and amateur venues also sustains Broadway. So, one premise of the book is that there would be no Broadway without all of these other locations. “Beyond Broadway” refers to theatres in the rest of the country that perform the Broadway repertoire, and “beyond Broadway” also signifies this arena of culture as bigger than Broadway.
WB: There’s another potential theme here. The subtitle could have been the pleasure, the promise, and the power of musical theatre. You do talk a lot about the power of local theatre in the book.
SW: The power. Totally. Power is key in the book, partly because of musical theatre’s power to draw people in. And also, a lot of the book is about power dynamics. Who has power? The backstage diva. The children. The teachers. Disney. And there’s also a lot of money involved in all of these activities, even though many people are amateurs and don’t make money from musical theatre. For me, the “pleasure and promise” in the title has “power” embedded in it.
WB: You mention Disney. Disney comes off pretty well in this book. I’m happy to see that because I think it’s kind of easy to demonize Disney. Once something becomes as large as Disney it’s an easy target. I mean, how they handle issues of race and gender have been scrutinized.
SW: Yes. First, I think it’s important to differentiate between the Disney corporation and Disney Theatrical Group, which is the where the theatre works are produced and where the education department lives. The people who work at Disney Theatricals and the President, Thomas Schumacher, are theatre people. They are based in New York and work on live theatre. Disney is a big corporation, and there’re so many ways to villainize them but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to draw attention to the good things that the theatre division of Disney does.
WB: Musical theatre and the arts in general are being undermined and underfunded in ways that are just tragic right now. Given the power of theatre and the way it gives voice to students, what are we cutting when we cut the arts? What statement are we making when a theatre program is cut from a high school?
SW: Absolutely. The first goal of this book was to give voice to art makers who have never been paid attention to. The second was to advocate for the arts. And that again is partly why there’s a positive cast on the stories I tell, because this book is one hundred percent an advocacy project. I am saying, look at all the things that musical theatre does. Look at how important it is for the development of kids. I visited many schools—elementary and middle and high schools—and talked to all kinds of kids who were doing musical theatre. The schools that I ended up focusing on were just a few among the many places that I visited, and the stories were profound about what theatre was doing for the kids. Most of these schools were underfunded in terms of the arts, and yet the energy of the teachers and the idealism of the kids allowed them to hang on and present some terrific shows.
WB: I never saw High School Musical. You talk a lot about it and portray it as important particularly for young men. Tell me about this musical and the response from young men to it.
SW: High School Musical was huge. It was the most watched made-for-TV movie that Disney ever made. Troy Bolton, the main character and love interest, is a straight boy who’s a basketball player and also does musicals. It was a representation of an athlete who’s also an artist. So that alone gave this movie power and influence. And it has catchy music and fun dancing and a great cast of supporting characters. For some boys, HSM awakened the idea that they would not have to sacrifice their masculinity to do musical theatre. Glee was also influential, and American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. These TV shows presented all kinds of people who wanted to perform, including young men. Around the same time, 2010s, a number of musicals were adapted as films. The Hamilton explosion made it completely acceptable for boys to do musicals. Hamilton’s use of rap and hip hop is masculine in an entirely new way. And, of course, Hamilton has attracted a younger and more racially diverse audience.
WB: That’s amazing. I mean I celebrate that.
WB: My last question, and I think you can anticipate this last question about Broadway during the time of Covid-19. I worry about New York and Broadway. What do you see happening to theatre at the local level and to Broadway? What do you think we should expect if this endures much longer?
SW: Maybe I’m an idealist, but I think when it’s safe to go back to the theatre, people will return to theatre with a vengeance. I think every place that I write about will come back. I really do. People in their schools and communities still want to do theatre as they have always done—in real space and time—and now more than ever, people want to be together. I share your anxiety about New York City and the people who are struggling to live there as artists. I know so many artists who have left New York City because they obviously can’t afford to stay there if there’s no theatre and no work. I don’t know how long it will take to wind up again, but I have confidence that there will be theatre. Musical theatre composers and lyricists and book writers and directors have a lot of time on their hands now, so many are generating new work and engaging in other kinds of creative activities.
WB: You know, I’m going to take some comfort that Broadway will survive, that these small theatres you write about will survive, but I miss it.
SW: I miss it so much. I’m really not that interested in watching theatre online, except I loved the Apple plays, written by Richard Nelson and produced by the Public Theater. They’re beautiful plays that were written for Zoom. And I love the online performances that my students do.
WB: I’ll look up the Nelson plays because I just miss it.
SW: I know. I do, too.
WB: Well, Stacy. Thank you so much.
SW: This is just a total gift to me to let me talk about this book. I really appreciate it.
WB: This is a gift to me, to all of us. Congratulations on the book. I loved it.
SW: Great. Thank you so much.