On October 28, 2014, I was given the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Stacy Wolf, Professor of Theater at Princeton University. I have been a fan of one of her books, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, since its publication in July 2011, so I naturally jumped at the chance to speak with her. Dr. Wolf did not have intentions to study theater while she was in college. Her undergraduate degree is in English and, while she saw theater as a fun thing to do, she never saw it as something to receive a degree in. A few years after she graduated, she came upon an academic journal in theater, which inspired her to pursue graduate degrees in Drama and Theatre. Even then, she still did not see specifically musical theatre studies as a legitimate option for her. Finally, after receiving her PhD, she wrote an article on Mary Martin, which set Dr. Wolf on her course as a pioneer in the world of studying gender & sexuality in musicals, writing two widely influential books on the subject (the aforementioned Changed for Good as well as A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical).
Dr. Wolf approaches her studies with a feminist lens; that is, she evaluates a musical largely based on its portrayal of its female characters. While the women in a “good” show do not need to be “role models,” they need to have plenty of stage time to do impactful things just as the male characters do. While early musical theatre studies involves analysis of the composers and librettists, Dr. Wolf’s research in gender and sexuality through a feminist lens brings a new, thought-provoking approach to understanding the musicals we all love (or, I suppose, may not love), such as Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Mis. So much of the American musical relies on society’s views of gender and sexuality that it seems foolish not to consider it when evaluating a show.
Outside of exclusively musical theater, Dr. Wolf is involved in other experiences related to theater and music in general. She teaches classes in non-musical theater as well as performance studies and sings in a Jewish choir. Her dissertation, Theatre as Social Practice: Local Ethnographies of Audience Reception, focuses on the social function of the theater and why it matters to audiences. This is a prime example, then, that dramaturgical studies for Dr. Wolf has never been just about what’s on the page (the script, music, choreography, etc.). Rather, it is far more comprehensive to evaluate a show based on its social context. While this raises many questions to be answered, I’d like to sum up Dr. Wolf’s work with a question of my own: In what ways does the American musical portray our society’s conceived notions of gender and sexuality? This, I believe, is at the heart of Dr. Wolf’s research. Through attempting to answering this question, we breathe new life, meaning, and depth into the broad discussion of musical theater that could easily become boring, dull, and dry before Dr. Wolf’s time.