Recently, Wallace Best, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of Religion and African American Studies and director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, talked with Stacy Wolf, professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and American studies, and director of the Princeton Arts Fellowship and the Program in Musical Theater, about the power of musical theatre, and about her new book, Beyond Broadway: The Pleasure and Promise of Musical Theatre Across America (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Wallace Best: 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.
Stacy Wolf: 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.