A PROBLEM LIKE MARIA: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical

Stacy Wolf, Author . Univ. of Michigan $19.95 (312p) ISBN 978-0-472-06772-5

American musical theater has long been considered integral to gay male culture, but what does it have to offer lesbian viewers? Plenty, argues Wolf, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a self-confessed "feminist musical theater fan." While many people generally think of 1950s musicals as having a conservative slant and upholding conventional social norms, Wolf argues that the myriad "funny girls" of the '50s and '60s—specifically Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Mary Martin and Barbra Streisand—repeatedly appeared in roles that explicitly critiqued postwar gender norms. Wolf frequently insists she's not concerned with figuring out the actual sexual orientation of these actresses (though she often pauses to do so, decoding the Hollywood gossip surrounding Martin's marriage to gay actor Richard Halliday with obvious glee). Nor does she argue that they actually "played" lesbians on stage or in film. Rather, she's interested in using the tools of feminist and queer theory to examine the women's performances and public images. Her analysis of Martin's "tomboy" star persona (particularly as it is presented in South Pacific and Peter Pan) is shrewd, as is her discussion of Streisand's unconventional beauty and her explicit Jewishness. Unfortunately, Wolf only briefly considers why the genre of the musical itself might lend itself to such interpretive practice, and some readers may wish for a more general analysis of musical theater rather than such close attention to the minute details of these four individuals' performance histories. (Aug.)

Forecast:While Wolf's points are sound, the book's target audience—musical theater buffs—may already be overfamiliar with her theme.

Reviewed on: 07/22/2002
Release date: 07/01/2002
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