Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical.
This study offers an interpretation of the Broadway musical through a reading of six representative shows by way of the Jewishness of the authors, composers, and lyricists. The author finds in them a familiar story of the assimilation of the ethnic (and racial) outsider into the American mainstream, and she does this by allegorizing the production history and the narrative content of the form, and by making Jewishness the universal category of alienation.
As one might expect, the study is dominated by a Jewish exceptionalism, often rendered in generalizations: "For all sorts of outsiders, the way to become American is, in other words, a Jewish way, and those who follow that path perform--wittingly or unwittingly--a Jewish story, which is to say, an American story, indeed the American story" (p. 3). The universality of Jewishness puts a great, but predictable strain on evidence. The author has never met a comic who is not Jewish or one degree of separation from it: scratch a Persian peddler (Oklahoma), a gentile US Seabee (South Pacific), an Indian chief (Annie Get Your Gun) or a Siamese king, and one finds the eternal wandering Jew lurking beneath the surface disguise. If you absolutely cannot find a Jew (Babes in Arms), someone beloved of Jews, like Fiorella LaGuardia, will have to do. Since overt Jewishness will disappear in the development of musical comedy, the author's rhetorical problem is to make it linger, but also to authorize its disappearance as a sign of the success of the assimilation: so that Babes in Arms "avoids directly confronting Jewish political concerns," but "offers the observer of American Jewish culture a detailed document of the way secular, assimilated Jews constructed, through political affiliation, a new form of 'socioethnic' Jewishness" (p. 69).
The book is also a testament to the life and death of a pervasive form of American liberalism (fatally confused on the issues of race and gender). Its theatrical expression was liberal melodrama, which addressed pressing political and social problems and solved them with an ease passing understanding. The author is aware of the political shortcomings of her subjects and their art form, but does not offer an adequate critique.
The Americanness on offer here is not an essence but a performance, and Jewish performers used musical comedy to demonstrate a facility of adaptation that amounts to a paradigm. However, the multiple identities that make up the ideal of performativity here can hardly be said to define America since they are precisely the despised identities of Native American, African American, and woman. The author has Jews triumphing over ethnicity and racism by performing racial stereotypes: "Their ability to become someone else with a simple change of costume helped them to negotiate the perilous landscape of American racial ideology both onstage and off" (p. 41). In blackface or feather headdress? The author reads blackface against its overt meaning, "as a triumph of Jewish escapism or American self-invention" (p. 6). Perhaps; but surely only as a minor element in a much grimmer compound. I find it callow and unfeeling to laud the historical means that allowed actual Jews to elide their own racial positioning at the expense of actual blacks. The proposition that performing racial stereotypes can be liberating as well as damning is surely arguable, but we need more guidance through these perilous critical landscapes.
The assimilation the author finds is a form of mythical integration into community long familiar through the foundational studies of the Hollywood musical by Jane Feuer and Rick Altman. Neither is cited in the book, which is unfortunate; Michael Rogin, who is cited, is not used sufficiently given the relevance and importance of his work.
The performance-as-assimilation thesis does not in itself explain the choice of musical theater as a focus for investigation. Why not the theater, Hollywood, or even Carnegie Hall? The study never specifically addresses the facts of singing and dancing, and the elements that make the musical a musical--the music and lyrics--never become in any serious way a basis for interpretation. The author does not examine the music, while the lyrics get into the study belatedly, so that in the chapter on Girl Crazy most effectively ignores the Gershwinness of the work.
In general, turning the Jewishness of authors and actors into an allegory of American selfhood leaves the author little to read for except the obvious facts of Jewish-American social history and does not allow her to engage her subject matter at a critically urgent level. I hear myself being hard on the book, which I found sensible and enjoyable throughout. It was often persuasive even when the automatic turn to Jewishness seemed most reductive or parodic. The book mainly suffers from an advanced case of Jewish exceptionalism (the A side of the antisemitism card), reminding me of my immigrant father who had only to like a celebrity to proclaim him or her definitively Jewish, like that famous author Christopher Isherman.
University of Minnesota
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2005|
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