Operetta Research Center
21 October, 2020
There’s a lot happening in the world of theater right now, not just because of Corona and the ongoing lockdown that will probably change the scene dramatically because of financial consequences. Also, ideological debates are changing the world of theater, musical theater and operetta included. For next year’s meeting of the US-American Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) Professor Amy Osatinski from the University of Northern Iowa has sent out a note seeking participants for a panel on “swapping the canon”. The proposed title for the panel is “This Not That: Revising the Musical Theatre Canon”.
Amy Osatinski is the author of the recent book Disney Theatrical Productions: Producing Broadway Musicals the Disney Way which came out in 2019 at Routledge. Her reasoning for revising the current musical theater canon is this: “For many years, educational institutions have bought into the notion that it is essential that we teach and produce the ‘canon of musical theatre.’ However, with few exceptions this ‘canon’ is created by white men and tells stories that center white men. Many of these titles are also racist, sexist, and/or homophobic. Yet, they still appear in our classes and on our stages.”
Osatinski would like to “dismantle” this canon “by presenting musicals that can be swapped in for ‘canonical’ musicals in class and in production.” She elaborates: “These swaps are musicals written by and featuring women and people of the global majority, musicals that allow for equitable non-traditional casting, and musicals that seek to dismantle racism and hetero-cis-patriarchy rather than reinforce it. This panel aims to equip attendees with ideas for what we can teach and produce instead of ‘the canon.’”
While her goal is probably laudable, from her point of view, it raises quite a few question, not just because she’s throwing buzz words around such as “hetero”, “cis” and “patriarchy”, as if everyone who is heterosexual and cis-gendered is the automatic enemy and a representative of oppressive patriarchy. No, another more deeply disturbing aspect comes to mind when reading about “swapping” the musical canon.
You will recall the Nazis were also faced with the problem that most operettas being performed as they rose to power in January 1933 did not fit their ideological ideals. So, while taking many of the “problematic” titles by Jewish authors out of circulation, they substituted them with new but similar titles by approved “Aryan” writers. To give a few examples: since Im weißen Rössl was considered “scandalous” (for mixing jazz music and Alpine folklore, and for having dancers emerge from the waters of Lake St. Wolfgang on stage in wet reveal-all bathing costumes) they had Fred Raymond create Saison in Salzburg. Theaters could re-use the Rössl sets and costumes (minus the bathing suits) and offer a show “written by and featuring” people they wanted to see as the new “global majority”. Similarly, Nico Dostal wrote Ungarische Hochzeit as a “Ersatzoperette” for Emmerich Kalman’s Die Gräfin Mariza. The list could go on.
After World War 2, many LPs had the Nazi substitute operetta on one side, and the formerly forbidden show on the other, re-arranged to sound almost exactly the same. Which took the “sting” out of many Weimar Republic shows and turned them into the boring nostalgia many people see them as today, the Rössl being the most famous example.
Of course, the Nazis were also 100 percent convinced that their ideological cleansing quest was morally right. Is Amy Osatinski seriously proposing a repetition of such an approach to musical theater?
What is wrong with questioning “the canon”, expanding it, making new proposals, and letting new shows (or rediscovered older ones) speak for themselves? Why are so many works written by female composers or lyricists still ignored – also by academia, of which Amy Osatinski is a representative? Why are operettas written by Afro-American authors not being put on right this minute, while people on the streets are shouting “Black Lives Matter”? Where were the high school productions of The Octoroon (1895), of Clorindy (1898) or A Trip to Coontown (1898)? Where are the biographies of Will Marion Cook, Bob Cole, or William Johnson, not to mention Matilda Sissieretta Joyner known as “the Black Patti”?
Has Amy Osatinski suggested researching any of this at the University of Northern Iowa? Has she done so herself? Has she even taken note of books such as Die Frau im Dunkeln by Evelin Förster who dug into the works of female composers and lyricists, without demanded simultaneously that the works of the male counterparts should all the taken out of circulation because they represent “hetero-cis-patriarchy”?
And what happens with the many heterosexual cis-gendered women who wrote/write shows: is their work not eligible for the “new” canon because they are not trans and/or non binary and/or queer and/or homosexual? Will we get, one day soon, double albums featuring the new canon combined with the substituted old one? (It would certainly make for interesting comparisons and might inspire those who, by then, will be busy with the next new “canon.”)
Instead of “swapping” the canon it might be worth the effort to question it more in depth, ask how we can deal with the aspects some find problematic today, without throwing everything over board. Canons are never cut in stone and unchangeable, thank God. And people in higher education should teach their students to always critically question canons and constantly revise them. Not by simply demanding new shows written by and featuring women and “people of the global majority”, but by including different shows in the discussion, bringing them into the spotlight, giving them an academic chance to compete for the attention of students.
To simply “swap” something that does not fit your ideological bill is a very totalitarian approach, almost like a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d say it’s unworthy of an organization such as ATHE. But maybe I got it all wrong…?