Published: July 2, 2003 By

[1] 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?

 Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical

[2] 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)

 Ethel Merman and chorus in Anything Goes (1934)

[3] 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, aggressive ways.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

 Essay on the Broadway Musical

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

 Film poster for The Sound of Music (20th Century Fox, 1965)

[9] Farmer: Well, as someone who has seen the film version of The Sound of Musichundreds of times—and I do meanhundreds—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.

[10] 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" (xiii)?

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] 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.

[15] 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.

[16] 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.

[17] 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.

[18] 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.

[19] 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 5)

 A caricatural figure of male fantasy?: Carol Channing as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly! (1964)

[20] 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)

[21] 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?

[22] 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.

[23] 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.

[24] Wolf: Of course, all collaborators play a part in the total performance event. (As does the audience, as a recent interview inThe 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.

[25] 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.

[26] 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.

[27] 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 thepower 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.

 Bernadette Peters in the Same Mendes Directed revival of Gypsy (2003)

[28] 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.

[29] 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.

[30] 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.

[31] 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?

[32] 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 lesbian attachments.

[33] Wolf: Martin and Merman were both fascinating women, charismatic performers, and powerhouse figures on and off the Broadway stage. (Figure 7)

 Ethel Merman and Mary Martin reteamed in 1977 for a special theatrical reunion, Together on Broadway

[34] 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 rolesfor 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)

 Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (1949)

[35] 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.

[36] Wolf: Significantly, Martin was not at all manly. She retained a kind of childishness throughout her life and career and performances. (Figure 9)

 Mary Martin as 'the boy who would not grow up' in Peter Pan (1954)

[37] 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.

[38] 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 10)

 Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun (1946)

[39] 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.

[40] 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.

[41] 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 time.

[42] 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.

[43] 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.

 Julie Andrews in Cinderella (1957)

[44] 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.

[45] 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.

[46] 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 of Music—are 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 andCamelot, 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.

 Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1956)

[47] 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.)

[48] 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."

[49] 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)

 Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle takes on Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1956)[50] 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…

[51] 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 feat.

[52] 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.

[53] 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 Musictour 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 world 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 homo couple.

 Julie Andrews queering her world in the film version of The Sound of Music (20th Century Fox, 1965)

[54] 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.

[55] 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)

 Barbara Streisand as "queer Jewess"

[56] 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?

[57] 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'sOklahoma! opened in 1943 and South Pacific in 1947. By 1964, whenFunny 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.

[58] 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 Girlinvoke such distinct reactions from spectators—love her or hate her—demonstrates the persistence of anti-Semitism.

[59] 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 seemunimportant in that musical. But I do wonder if the ultimate punishment of Fanny Brice inFunny Girl—that she gets stardom but loses her man—is another kind of displacement of anxiety about Jewishness. (Figure 16)

 Barbara Streisand and Omar Sharif in the film version of Funny Girl (Columbia, 1968)

[60] 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.

[61] 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.

[62] Wolf: Streisand is bizarre and excessive in terms of what a star is supposed to be; she cannot be contained by music or text;Streisand is so clearly not defined byFunny 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. Barbara Streisand as/is Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (Columbia, 1968)

[63] 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?

[64] 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.

[65] 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)

 Mitzi Gaynor in the film version (20th Century Fox, 1958) washing that man right out of her hair... and possibly out of the cast!

[66] 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.

Works Cited

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  • Funny Girl. Dir. William Wyler. With Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif. Columbia, 1968.
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  • The Sound Of Music. Dir. Robert Wise. With Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Twentieth Century Fox, 1965.
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