Diversity, Dramaturgy, and Broadway Musicals

Revisiting the classics with diversity in mind isn’t just a moral and artistic imperative, but a strategy for giving them new life.

By Jenny Lee

Gentle reader, we are both on the internet in 2019, so I assume you too have absorbed a lot of essays about Why It Is Important to Have Representative Media. This is so true and  well-trodden that I must glide over it and write this essay about something else entirely.

I’ve been thinking about how diversity helps us reframe and reimagine older cultural works, written in even more exclusionary times and places, and also I have been thinking about the Stratford Festival’s 2018 production of The Music Man (directed by Donna Feore).  

If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Music Man and do not have a Theatre Kid™ in your life to explain it, I am here to help. It is a Broadway musical about a con man called Harold Hill who rocks up in River City, Iowa, intending to sell uniforms and equipment for a boys’ marching band before skipping town. Imagine Footloose, if Kevin Bacon wanted to sell you a tuba instead of spreading the joy of dance.

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Daren A. Herbert and company in The Music Man, Stratford Festival 2018. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Harold promptly falls in love with the town’s librarian, Marian (I know!), which gives him a reason to stay in town – except that he lacks the requisite musical skill to teach River City’s new boys’ band to play, and the townspeople inevitably find him out.  

In the Stratford production, this was the moment at which the production rose from charmingly classic to vividly contemporary. As the people of River City discover the con and start grimly looking for tar and feathers with which to enact justice on a captive, terrified Harold Hill, played by Daren A. Herbert, you remember that The Music Man’s quaint Main Street U.S.A. set is a recreation of the American Midwest in 1912, and Herbert’s version of Hill – unlike, say, Matthew Broderick’s – is a black man explicitly living in a time and place where lynching is an extremely concrete reality.

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Matthew Broderick and his white privilege starring as Harold Hill in the 2003 TV version. Also, yes, every single production of this musical looks like this. Photo: AP Photo/ABC, Rafy

Suddenly, this anodyne mid-century musical has much higher stakes, and resonates more deeply with a 21st-century audience – and not a word of the script has been changed. It’s an absurdly effective dramaturgical decision, and it works because of, not in spite of, the diversity of the cast.

Often, diverse casting has little effect on the interpretation of the text. Twelfth Night, for example, is set outside of real-world geography and history, and so a modern audience (ideally) shelves their ideas about race at the door, and this is fine. The Music Man is fixed in its time and setting and doesn’t have this luxury, but it has the advantage of a built-in context that much of its audience will understand. (This is why so many productions of Shakespeare are ‘set’ in 1942 Paris, 1920s New Orleans, or whatever: it’s an easy way to help your audience interpret what’s happening using pre-existing knowledge, and also justifies cool costumes.) The fear is heightened, but if you don’t know anything about Progressive-era race relations, the script still works as written. 

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You may have heard of this other musical which uses the racial diversity of its cast to underscore a historical and political point … Photo: Joan Marcus

These choices make worn-out texts feel more interesting, closer to reality, and ultimately better. Rather than rendering performers’ identities and experiences abstract, asking the audience to believe they don’t matter, thoughtful and diverse theatre-making can make race, gender, disability, or sexuality central to the audience’s understanding of an old cultural text, revealing secrets we never knew it was keeping.

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