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BWW Blog: Conversation with Princeton Professor and Musical Theatre Scholar Stacy Wolf

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Luckily Professor Wolf had the time to Zoom with me for about an hour this last week!

BWW Blog: Conversation with Princeton Professor and Musical Theatre Scholar Stacy Wolf

The first theatre course I took at Princeton was Stacy Wolf's class "The Musical Theatre of Stephen Sondheim" during my freshman fall. I remember thinking that I couldn't be happier reading and listening to Sondheim's musical as my homework. I also deeply enjoyed spending class time closely analyzing Sondheim's works alongside students who came from a diverse array of perspectives and came with differing amounts of theatre knowledge. I felt so at home in Professor Wolf's class and she has been fundamental in making my whole Princeton experience feel that way.

So, when I was thinking of how to make the most of my last BWW article, I thought it only fitting to interview Professor Wolf. Wolf, who is the Director of the Program in Music Theater and a Professor of Theater, is also one of "America's most foremost scholars of musical theatre," as aptly described on Princeton's Lewis Center for the Arts website. She has published three books, including her most recent work entitled Beyond Broadway: The Pleasure and Promise of Musical Theatre Across America (Oxford University Press, 2020) which focuses on what musical theatre looks like across the country in amateur, school and community settings.

Luckily Professor Wolf had the time to Zoom with me for about an hour this last week:

What were your first few years at Princeton like and how did you come to create the music theater certificate?

I feel incredibly fortunate that this job was created for me. All of the faculty agreed that we didn't want a major, even though the Lewis Center was newly created. I felt lucky because I wanted to teach undergrads and I wanted to teach in a liberal arts program... The minute I walked into the classroom I thought, "I have died and gone to heaven," because the students are so smart and so interesting and they aren't theater majors. They're history majors, economics majors and scientists! They're engineers and yet they love theater... I loved Princeton's theater program from the first minute I got there.

One of the things that is unusual about the faculty in our program-and this was true when I got to Princeton in 2008 and is still true now-is that the artists are intellectuals and the academics love the artform. In many theater departments, there is a sharp division between the makers and the scholars. That isn't the case at Princeton and I don't think it will ever be because anyone who likes teaching at Princeton has to love both sides of theater.

Then, soon after I got to Princeton, at the beginning of my second year, I started to work with colleagues to create a music theater program. It seemed to us that we were just putting a name and structure on something that was already happening. There was Triangle, there was PUP (Princeton University Players). There was opera and avant-garde music theater in the Music Dept. In both the Theater Program and the Music Department, professors were teaching courses in different genres of music theater.

So, for five years I wrote and rewrote and shared and edited proposals, went to meetings, talked to students, talked to deans, and eventually it came to a faculty meeting for a vote and got passed...We made the case that we wanted to acknowledge what the students were already doing and to allow them to earn a certificate.. We weren't really creating anything new. We were putting a name on what was already there and acknowledging the students' work and enthusiasm and engagement, so that they could leave Princeton and say, "I was a music theatre certificate student."

What, in your eyes, is unique about Princeton's Lewis Center for the Arts and specifically the theater and music theater certificate programs?

What I think is special is that it is more student centered than any place I have ever taught. I've taught at universities where the faculty decides the season based on the shows they want to direct. We don't do that...no one is prioritizing their artistic thrills from directing a show. (Though all of my colleagues do grow as artists when they direct students!) It is all about what benefits the students.

I also think that because we don't have a major, we don't have a set of lock step requirements, it requires energy and vision from each student to put together a program that fits them, that makes sense, that is really on their path and makes the most of every class. The faculty are active advisors but we expect students to take the lead.

Princeton is not for a student who wants to be told "now you're going to take Acting 1 and then you're going to take Acting 2 and 3," and it's definitely not for people who are anti intellectual. You have to want to think seriously about theater and art-making to thrive at Princeton. But if you're curious about the relationship between theater and everything, we will do our very best to feed that hunger and support that curiosity.

We don't have a large catalogue of classes in technique. We are more "liberal-artsy" and offer classes that are specific and will, we hope, spark your creativity. We want to help you develop as artists. Whatever specializations we, the faculty, have, we want you to be artists, citizens, creative humans, activists, and intellectuals. If you decide to take that and become a professional director; that's fine, but it's not our primary goal. Our goal is for you to be an artist in whatever you do in your life. We want you to have an artistic engagement with the world.

What's your favorite class that you have taught at Princeton?

This is a question that goes in the same category as "what is your favorite musical" and the answer is always whatever I'm teaching. So, right now I'm teaching a new version of the Sondheim class that you took that's "Sondheim's Musicals and the Making of America." It's housed in American Studies and it is focused on American history, race, and gender. I love looking at these shows again with a much keener eye to their conversation with history. I'm

working with PU recent grad, Abigail Jean-Baptiste and a fantastic group of students, and I'm really enjoying it.

How did you find yourself interested and writing about musical theater from an academic lens?

Well, until the early 2000s, there was no such academic field as musical theater. I mean, there were biographies, there were books of facts and figures, but there was nothing scholarly. After I finished my dissertation, which was about theater reception and what audiences do in theater spaces, I got a job teaching at Florida State University, and my area of specialization was feminist theatre. It was around then that I just realized that my first love was musical theater and it always had been. I was a performer as a kid. I performed at dinner theatre and all through college. I gave up my dream of being a professional performer at 14, but I was always a singer, a dancer, and an actor, and I loved musicals. I could not understand... because so much of my work was in feminist studies and queer studies, how so many people I knew, especially women, feminists, and lesbians loved musical theater. Musicals are so conservative, misogynist, heteronormative, white, middle class, mainstream, and commercial. They were all the things that I had been taught to hate in graduate school... But I was obsessed with this question of how could I live in this contradiction, and how it could be that so many of my friends loved musicals? That is the question that led to my first book (A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical)... and it's the question that I am still asking every single day in the classroom.

I ended up being, unintentionally, in the first generation of academics who were taking musical theater seriously. We were building this field, but none of us could have written about musical theater in graduate school. That would have been ridiculous.

Why do you think musical theater is beloved by so many?

Musical theater is meant to grab you, it's meant to entertain you and it's meant to please you. Even if it's something like Next to Normal or Follies, which we're talking about in my class this week, musical are still meant on a fundamental level to give you pleasure. The music of Rodgers or Sondheim or Tesori is meant to land on the ear and stick with you.

Also, when you are doing a musical or are in the audience, you are grabbed kinesthetically. You are tapping your toes, you are wanting to hum along, you are breathing and leaning forward. These are the things that we miss about theater and that can happen for audiences altogether, in a unified way, driven by music and dance, which is completely unique to this art form. So, it comes down to a kind of pleasure. And that's one reason that many academics are suspicious of musical theater. There is an assumption that if the primary goal is pleasure, then it can't be political, or it can't really be art. It's just entertainment and people are just getting rich off of it (because Broadway musicals are commercial products). That's another super interesting contradiction that I'm endlessly interested in; how this thing can be art and entertainment at once. And how it can be commercial, but also cutting edge.

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Stacy Wolf's full bio can be found here and her books can be purchased here. I highly recommend her most recent work Beyond Broadway for a unique look at the inspiring theater that happens in non-commercial and non-professional settings all over the country.


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