Date of Degree
Theatre and Performance
James F. Wilson
Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Jewish Studies | Theatre and Performance Studies | Theatre History
Musical Theatre, Broadway, Jewish American, New York City
This dissertation examines the reoccurring themes and tropes in musicals that recreate, reframe, and reclaim narratives of Jewish American cultural memory. Beginning in the 1960s, Jewish American musical theatre artists felt comfortable enough in their social standing in the United States to represent their own community in an art form where their majority status made them very much at home. For the first time, the Jewishness featured in Broadway musicals was neither represented through racialized comedic representations nor hidden underneath crypto-Jewish characters. Interestingly, many of the musicals of the latter half of the twentieth century that feature Jewish characters, culture, and history are set in the early part of the twentieth century, and most of those are set in the Progressive Era in New York City. I suggest that the Broadway musicals that retell and reframe the history of Jews in the Progressive Era of New York City in fact create a theatricalized cultural history of Jewishness in the United States.
The Broadway musicals, written after 1961, that featured representations of Jewish Americans are steeped in a retrospective point of view, both romanticizing and problematizing narratives of immigration and Americanization. The musicals in this dissertation serve as contemporary origin stories of how Jews came to the United States; a story that is as problematic and nostalgic as the Plymouth Rock myths that abound in US tales of belonging. By looking at the selected four musicals as case studies, I propose that musicals are among the many stories created to reaffirm how Jewish immigrants became Jewish Americans in the United States. These stories are not solely based on historical fact, nor are they entirely devoid of it. The stories of Jewish Americans are not merely a retelling of the past but also a perpetual reclamation of belonging—in the musicals, Jews become American as part of the transformative properties of theatre. Just as musicals often resolve in the reunification of community through romantic pairs, musicals that tell the story of Jewish immigrants becoming successful Americans is also an act of unification: it welcomes Jewish characters into an American community.
This dissertation features a comprehensive intertextual study of Funny Girl, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, Rags, and Ragtime. Each thematic chapter emphasizes the study of musical theatre aesthetics as a way to examine how Broadway musicals create narratives that intersect with history and become part of cultural memory. “The Haunted Jewish City,” focuses on Ellis Island and the Lower East Side as signified Jewish space within the four musicals. The chapter considers the power of Ellis Island as a liminoid space as well as the phenomenal way in which the Lower East Side has been situated in Jewish cultural memory through storytelling. The next chapter, “American Rags” is a thorough examination of the history of the Progressive Era garment industry and its inexorable connection to the history of Jewish Americans; the analysis traces historic moments such as Emma Goldman’s rallies and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire as told through Broadway musicals. In what can easily be mistaken for a stereotype, the repeated narrative of Jewish characters working in the garment industry is both a tribute to historical truth and a metaphor about self-making. The final thematic chapter examines the way in which diegetic moments within the musicals reinforce the assertion that identity is rooted in our performance of variations of self. This chapter considers the layers of meaning that exist simultaneously in a diegetic performance of Jewishness and argues that the musical’s different modalities make the contradictions and complexities apparent. This chapter features the story of Fanny Brice and the fictionalized Follies performances in Funny Girl, as well as stories of Yiddish theatre, vaudeville, and how Jewish Americans found success in the U.S. entertainment industry.
Gelles, Barrie, "“Here in America”: Broadway Musicals and the Making of Jewish Americans" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.
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