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Integration and the American Musical: From Musical Theatre to Performance Studies

  • Author(s): Rogers, James Bradley
  • Advisor(s): Jackson, Shannon
  • et al.
Abstract

In this dissertation, I challenge the discourse of "integration" that has long served as the foundation of musical theatre historiography. Integration ostensibly refers to an artful melding of the various components of the musical, such that the dances, songs, and dialogue appear fluid and continuous, of a whole. Most histories of the musical claim that the Kern-Hammerstein musical Show Boat was the first piece to adumbrate integration, and that the 1943 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! fully realized this promise of integration. I argue that this commonly held view ignores the fundamental impossibility of the musical to speak from a single voice, given the shift between the dialogic and musical registers. My dissertation illuminates how certain components or conventions of performance--divas, dancers, and the relationship of musicals to film and opera--have helped to consolidate this fictive sense of integration. This analysis also shows how the dominant narrative of musical theatre historiography--and our subsequent understandings of musical theatre--have been intimately suffused with the politics of gender, race, class, and nation.

In my examination of Show Boat, I analyze contemporaneous reviews, arguing that the integration of the stage production of Show Boat is inextricably tied to the simultaneous development of talking pictures. As it was used to describe Show Boat, the logic of integration can be understood as the theatrical appropriation of the racially-inflected cinematic phenomenon of synchronization. In the case of Oklahoma!, the discourse of integration seems to be an attempt to mute the power of the diva, emphasizing instead the concepts of "ensemble" and "text." A close reading of Wagner shows how he adopts the same attitude toward the diva, revealing unexpected parallels between the "integrated musical" and the Gesamtkunstwerk. I also explore how dance has been central to discussions of integration: I argue that scholars were unable to take dance seriously--or to claim that it was "integrated"--until the subject matter of dance became serious itself. Only when Oklahoma! choreographer Agnes de Mille began to imbue choreography with dark, somber themes did critics conclude that the interludes of dance were integrated. This attitude towards dance also allowed scholars to claim, retrospectively and quite incorrectly, that The Black Crook was nothing more than a burlesque or a "girlie" show.

Thus, these claims of integration are not claims about the formal features of the genre; instead, they represent attempts by critics to smooth over the inevitable gaps between dialogue, song, and dance. The motivations for these attempts are manifold and complex: in some cases, such claims of integration endow the musical with the sense of being "art"; in others, these claims diminish the power of the female performer; in yet others, they respond to the growing threat of film to live entertainment. In almost none of these cases, though, does integration refer to the poetics of the form.

Having spent the first four chapters arguing that we have long misapplied the term "integration," I conclude the dissertation by claiming that there is such a thing as an integrated musical. Ballet Ballads and The Golden Apple, two works by Jerome Moross, John Latouche, and Hanya Holm, are through-sung and through-choreographed; at the time of their production, virtually all of the contemporaneous critics recognized these pieces as being unique syntheses of music, dance, and action. Though they have some operatic qualities, they avoid recitative, instead linking Broadway-style songs with pantomime, thus remaining solidly within the tradition of musical theatre. By attempting to unite the arts without sequestering dialogue, music, and dance to discrete episodes, these pieces challenge our understanding of integration and require us to rethink the principles upon which we have understood the historical development of musical theatre.

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