IASPM-US Interview Series: Elizabeth Wollman, “Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City”

by Mike D'Errico on September 18, 2013

Elizabeth WollmanHard Times

I recently had the delightful opportunity to have a phone conversation with Elizabeth Wollman about her new book, Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City (Oxford University Press, 2012).  In the book, she traces the history of the adult musical and explores the relationship between Broadway, Off Broadway, and Off Off Broadway, the aesthetic ties between the three, and the broader cultural and economic atmosphere of New York City.  The shows she examines provide a complicated narrative of gender, sexuality, class, and race that Wollman parses out through archival research and personal interviews, providing the forgotten history of this unique meeting of sexuality and the musical theater.

Christopher Culp: My first question is about the kind of work that you do on musical theater. In the Oxford Handbook of the American Musical, you and Jessica Sternfeld address musicals “After the Golden Age,” which is also the topic of your two books: rock musicals in The Theatre Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig, and adult musicals in Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City.  What attracts you to this era of musical theater?

Elizabeth Wollman: A bunch of things.  First of all, there’s a part of me that’s always rooting for the underdog a little bit.  One of the things that has consistently bothered me is that social reception of a lot of different types of music tends to overwhelmingly favor the past. What we see an awful lot of is, “well, there was Beethoven, there was Mozart, and now there’s all this other shit.” This seems to be the consensus in terms of the general public.  I’ve gotten a lot of that from students, friends, and family:  “Why don’t we have another Beethoven anymore? Because he was great.”  I see a lot of that in reception of the musical.  The whole article about the golden age–Jessica Sternfeld and I were both in agreement that there were so many books that really drive this home repeatedly: “Well, there’s Rogers and Hammerstein . . . and then everything just fell to shit. Everything since then is awful! After them, it was all over! The whole thing is dead!”  Which is bullshit.  It’s so completely ahistorical and ridiculous. Totally not true.

To be honest, I’ve never quite understood this. My attraction to the arts has always been kind of contemporary.  I’ve had this long-standing debate with my husband, because we live in New York City, and whenever we go into Manhattan to go to a museum, his first reaction is, “Great, let’s go to the Met and see the Roman ruins and stuff.” And my reaction is always, “No, I want to find what the newest, weirdest, most avant-garde, contemporary thing there is and look at that.”  I’ve always leaned toward the contemporary. I think some of that has to do with the fact that I’m fascinated with watching people react to things that are happening now.  So there’s a combination of this perception that everything was always better once upon a time, but also my interest in looking at the way in which people process the arts right now.

Do you find that is partially you working within the confines of music research but, also, within the confines of those who produce musical theater as well?

I think that they [the musical theater industry] caught up in ways that I haven’t.  I realize aspects of myself that are particularly stingy.  I just went through this whole phase where I would refuse to see any musicals that were based on movies.  Which, if you think about it, really levels the playing field.  There’s nothing you can go see after a while. And part of me was refusing to do that because I knew I would go see shows that I’ve already seen in movie form, or know of in movie form, and purposefully be bitchy about the whole thing, because I’m oppositional in that respect. At the same time, though, I started recognizing that I was guilty of clinging to the past as well. There was a part of me that was saying,  “Oh no, it was better before.”  So I lifted my self-imposed strike and I’ve gone back to see Kinky Boots (2013), and a bunch of stuff I had refused to see just because they had been movies.

In the end, I appreciate the ways the industry has worked to keep musical theater alive. Because, frankly, it doesn’t have to be at this point.  We don’t really need the musical.  It’s an outdated form. We don’t need to go to the theater, we don’t need to watch things live. There are all sorts of different media that have come along in the years since we relied entirely on live entertainment. So if we could have let it die.  But they’ve figured out ways to make it relevant, to integrate it with contemporary media, they’ve been able to keep it fresh and interesting to a broader population while still not completely giving in to the ways in which other media work.

I’m wondering if you could talk about us not needing the musical anymore, perhaps directed towards the ways we talk about other media, popular music, and all these that seem to sweep musical theater under the rug.

I return to this in my writing and research a lot because it’s fascinating to me.  Maybe this is a little generalized, but the story with the musical theater is that it dominated popular culture until around the mid 1950’s.  And maybe this is a little derivative, but essentially, the 50’s come around and there’s rock and roll, there’s a major generation gap –an unprecedented generational divide between old and young.  The young people of the 60’s and 70’s, while perhaps occasionally going to the theater with their parents, associate the musical theater with the old guard. It doesn’t help that there are, at the time, a bunch of really lousy seasons on Broadway. Speaking more specifically, there’s a couple of reasons for these lousy seasons:  New York is edging towards bankruptcy, the younger generation doesn’t listen to the same thing as their parents, producers are having the same financial problems plaguing the rest of the city, tourism is plummeting… all sorts of reasons why the musical theater is falling by the wayside in terms of is appeal and centrality to American popular culture.

What kind of fascinates me is this very abrupt about-face between the so-called Golden Age, where up until the 1950’s, or even through the early 1960’s, Broadway is a predominant aspect of American popular culture: Tin Pan Alley still exists and is putting out music that is still being consumed not only by people going to the theater but by people all around the country, the music is played on the radio, it’s entering the top 40 all the time. That drops off very dramatically, and results in musical theater creators and the theater industry sort of starting, after a brief period of denial, to ask, “Well, what are we going to do? Are we going to fix this or are we going to die?”  This has happened to a lot of cultural institutions and forms.  People have been talking about the death of the philharmonic for decades, the death of the indie label, the death of this, the death of that. But what we notice when it comes to the ways that entertainment industries seem to work is that they don’t die – they reinvent.  How long have we been hearing that the music industry is dead?  It’s certainly not dead.  And that publishing is dead?  It’s totally not dead – it’s just reinventing itself. Now, in ways of keeping things relevant, you don’t please everybody all the time, you have to reinvent yourself in ways that maybe make people lament the past, or make people feel that it’s all shit now: it’s all recycled movies; Broadway is a big museum for tourists. But then again, it’s still alive and people are still going.  I take my daughter to the theater and she is interested in seeing shows that maybe are not relevant to me, and maybe were made out of movies, but Broadway is still a place that she wants to go to, and musical theater is a thing she still wants to see, and ultimately, I find that fairly exciting.

To go into the book a little bit, the adult musical exists in a similar space within musical theater history. In addition to the conclusions in your book, I’m wondering what you think about the forgetting of the adult musical in musical theater history?

I remember when I was going through graduate school–is there still constant railing against the canon, and much bitching about the canon and how it excludes so much?

Yes, that shows up a lot.

Right. One of the things that causes tension in the academy is that we try to go against the canon, because the canon excludes so much. But at the same time, if we didn’t have those parameters, those limits, we would never be able to stop teaching. One of the things that fascinates me with theater is that there can never be a true revival.  Say there’s this long misunderstood film director from the 1960’s who has never had anything restored to DVD, who’s only now being restored, and he’s really great, and we should celebrate him and rediscover him, and some film forum is going to show three solid days of his movies.  It can’t work that way with musical theater.  We have things like Encores!, which does this wonderful job of reconstructing old musicals and brushing them off and showing them to new audiences.  But there are so many shows in a season–so many–that open and then close, and some of them even do pretty well, yet they still don’t stay remembered. It’s not just adult musicals, it’s lots and lots of musicals that are like, “Yeah, it ran for three years, but Hair (1968) opened a week before it so we don’t think about it or remember it anymore, though it ran to sold-out houses for three years.”

There’s always something, to me, really strange about the way in which we structure our musical theater history, in that so much of it is Broadway–based. Which kind of made sense once upon a time, up to the 1950’s, but it doesn’t anymore.  There’s tons and tons of musical theater all over the place, all over the country and the world, certainly not just on Broadway.

Musical theater, wherever it is staged, is unbelievably reliant upon public memory and public choice.  A handful of scholars, a handful of musical theater aficionados, and a handful of critics choose to remember certain shows because they made money, or they lasted for 3,000 performances, or they won the most Tonys or something. But all shows have something.  Even the worst shows I’ve ever seen have something interesting and memorable about them.  Maybe they aren’t worth remembering forever, but there are so many that might have at least one fantastic number, or beautiful costumes, or a ground-breaking set.  The fact that we have one little top-layer of ‘the best’ is funny to me and in a lot of my writing, I like to go against that.  I like to say “Yeah, there’s all this other stuff! And we can learn from this other stuff!  There’s so much other stuff going on that’s maybe not what everyone saw, but a lot of people did!” Just because some critic came along, said it’s bad, and it closed in one night doesn’t mean that we should automatically dismiss these shows.

It’s the same with so much. I teach an introductory course; you know, a Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms class.  There are so many other composers that students don’t even have a concept of. They existed, they were perfectly good–they just didn’t become as famous.  The musical theater is particularly prey to what we choose to remember that this praise for the underdog comes from me feeling bad for these shows.  People work so unbelievably hard, they stage these shows and they work their asses off, they raise all this money, and the show closes in a week or in three years and no one remembers them or thinks anything about them is important, and there’s something weird to me about that.

Considering the previous issues of musical theater history and the canon, what approaches do you find the most helpful in researching these musical underdogs?

Well, a bunch.  I really love archive diving.  Like dumpster diving {laughs}.  I really like to look through old, ignored files and see what I can find.  It’s sort of like a treasure hunt.  Some of this really just counters my feeling, you know, “Oh, going to the library, it’s so boring, but I could find something cool!”  Some of it is my own desire to do something interesting and that maybe not everyone else has done–finding my purpose in the academy.   I’m ok being the person who researches the stuff that nobody else does. Like, “I want to be the person that specializes in flops.”  Well, maybe not–maybe it’s just that I like to uncover flops to see what can we learn from them.

Some of my interest in this stuff comes from my training as an ethnomusicologist, because there aren’t a lot of ethnomusicologists who focus on the American stage musical.  I’m not sure I know anyone else who’s trained as an ethnomusicologist who’s gone into musical theater, though I’m sure there are.  One of the things about ethnomusicology–and there’s a lot to ethnomusicology that I don’t agree with and don’t like–but one thing that I’ve come to love is the idea that the first source is the people that make the music.  The first source is the people who do the work.  Why would you remain tied to book-learning if you can call people up and ask them about their show? I can’t conceive of doing a long-term project without talking to the people who made the music or made the piece of art. It just strikes me as missing something.  There’s a part of me that looks for projects that will allow me to do that.  So, probably I’m not going to get to call Stephen Sondheim (although I hear he is nice about people writing him letters and will get back in touch with them). I probably won’t get lots and lots of interviews with him, so I should find someone who might be more willing to talk to me. One of the things that I’ve found is that people who are not super-duper, enormously famous, but who have done a lot of work and who are committed to making art are, generally, really thrilled to sit down and talk with you.  Usually they aren’t so caught up in it that they won’t give you an honest assessment of what they’ve done. The immediate source is my favorite aspect any research project.  Now, of course, that’s flawed too.  Books aren’t perfect, and neither are interviews: people enhance the truth or they focus on things that you don’t want them to or they say things to you that are maybe lies or they remember things too conveniently… so there are all sorts of things with interviews that are not easy.  But, still you can get things out of them that you won’t get out of reading a book about somebody.  I think what draws me to research project is the chance that I get to talk to people.  Believe me, there are tons of research projects I’d like to do. I would love to do the opposite of The Theater Will Rock—a book about rock’s appropriation of the musical theater. But doing that would mean magically somehow getting unlimited interviews with David Bowie and Alice Cooper, and that might happen, but I don’t think so.

That would be exciting!

Wouldn’t it be awesome?  When I was writing the rock musical book I thought “Dude, it would be so great if I could talk to Pete Townsend and Paul Simon.”  And I tried, but of course it didn’t happen.  Maybe I could try again.  Maybe Alice Cooper will be like, “Yeah, sure, I’ve got nothing else going on except my show in Vegas.”

One aspect of the adult musical I find fascinating is its emphasis on reality in performance, an aesthetic focus of the experimental techniques of Off Off Broadway: in nudity being a real representation (they’re really naked), real relationships being formed through sensitivity exercises, and even rumors of ‘real’ sex for Che! (1969).  What are your thoughts about this growing emphasis on realness and its influence in adult musicals and in musicals today?

That’s a good question.  In certain ways, there’s always an understanding with the musical theater that it’s not real.  It’s the same with opera. It’s inherently ridiculous that somebody is going to turn to the light and burst out singing.  You have to either accept that that’s going to happen or you’re just not going to be a fan and it’s not going to work for you.  I do think that since the 1960’s the avant-garde proved that there’s ways of bringing realism into all kinds of theater that maybe the Broadway musical didn’t initially embrace.  Tom O’Horgan, the experimental director of Hair, who came out of La Mama–I remember him saying that, at the time, there was a commercial theater that would pump perfume into the air and you’d go in–they’d be pumping an artificial scent into the air.  He said that he had this vision of just smashing through that.  That it was so phony – even the air was phony.  And that there was this desire to break through and reach the audience in ways that hadn’t happened.  The avant-garde had a lot of pull.  The stuff that was Off Off Broadway was being investigated and covered with such interest by the media, and visited by many dedicated theater fans, avant-garde fans, or day trippers, or college students, whatever, who were going downtown to see what was happening.

The idea of reaching the audience really came from the avant-garde, and that stays with us.  There are lots of different trends – if we stick with just Broadway, what you notice is in the 80’s there’s the British invasion with great big scenery and everything was spectacular, but that drove a wedge between the audience and performer–very anti-avant-garde, anti-immediate contact.  Then there was a trend in the 90’s toward stripping things down after Miss Saigon, in 1991, which was the last big megamusical. Afterward, things got smaller.  Shows got bigger again with Disney, but they got bigger in new ways that were a little bit more experimental.  The Lion King (1997) brought in a bunch of different, somewhat more experimental stuff, like having the actors go into the audience.  Julie Taymor, the director of The Lion King, had an avant-garde presence before she came to Broadway.  I think there was a real attempt to bring back a connection between the audience and the practitioner.

YouTube clip depicting some of Lion King’s interactivity

And we see that again now.  Good God, everything is interactive – not even, but it’s being sold as interactive, even if the “interactive” part is that the audience sits around and watches the actors come and sit down at a table right next to them, or at your table, or walk by you and pat your back.  There are these revisited directorial techniques that are trying to shake things up a little bit.  Again, the audience/performer connection–it was fairly safe to say in the 1950’s, it was nonexistent on Broadway, and I think that the avant-garde reminded people that it needed to be there.  The importance of connection between audience and performer has stayed with us.  It waxes and wanes, but it’s one of the more lasting impacts that the avant-garde has had on the mainstream –making an electric, honest connection.

Also, shows like Next to Normal (2008) or Caroline or Change (2003) that are not about jazz hands, that aren’t big and shiny with lots of dancing, but are realer and edgy and try to tackle different aspects of life that maybe Rogers and Hammerstein might not have – even though I think Carousel (1945) is pretty damn heavy too.

“You Don’t Know” from Next to Normal as a display of realism in contemporary musicals

An example of how real (and dark) Carousel can get- ballet scene depicting Louise’s exile from the world from the 1956 film version

You mentioned Next to Normal and Caroline or Change, do you know of any other musical theater or media echoing trends in the adult musical?  Especially considering how much you discuss the economic climate shaping the adult musical, I could assert that we are in a similar place with the latest recession.

Class issues are something that more of us need to look more deeply into.  I’m thinking a lot about it lately because of another project, it’s starting to occur to me that class issues, perhaps even more than race issues, are a huge issue in the theater.  The overwhelming majority of theatergoers are middle class – they’ve done a bunch of studies and they are upper or middle class, they’re educated, they’re affluent and can afford theater tickets.  I think outreach remains important, but it’s a strange kind of outreach because reaching students is one thing but it’s hard to go deep in terms of class issues.

Is there anything that is similar to the adult musical?  For instance, I’m thinking of a new trend in films to show ‘real’ sex, like Shortbus (2006), and that kind of film. Part of me thinks those things are caught in similar structures.

Not so much in terms of race and class, but in terms of sexuality I think things are as they were.  I don’t think anything in the musical theater was at all out there back then.  My argument in the book about adult musicals was that they’re pretty tame.  I don’t think things are any more or less tame than they were.  It’s no longer shocking to have someone naked on stage.  It’s no longer shocking to have simulated sex on stage.  Actual sex?  I don’t think we’re going there – and from everyone I’ve spoken to, they’ve said performance anxiety takes care of that anyway.  It doesn’t work that way.

In terms of race, these shows were pretty white.  Someone I interviewed told me in passing, so I can’t confirm it, that in Let My People Come (1974) there were only two African Americans, both women, in the original cast and they were clothed the entire time.  And this white woman that I spoke with told me that this was a cast choice because it was deemed too close to the Civil Rights movement and could be seen as exploitative of black bodies.  But then one of the African American women I spoke with basically said, “No, I didn’t sign the contract because I didn’t want to be naked.  It was my personal choice.  We had the choice of being naked or not and I did not want to be.”  So, there are two different ways to look at it. In the cast of Hair there were naked, African American bodies and that was done without incident.  Granted, that was a tastefully lighted, brief moment at the end of Act 1 and then the lights went out, but the revival of Hair had all different sizes, shapes, and colors of bodies, naked on stage for a fairly extended period of time.  I actually noticed, with a great deal of amusement, that the guy who played Hud really seemed to like to be naked.  The whole cast was naked and standing there at the end of act 1 and there were no lights that went down.  The stage just remained bare and the whole cast just kind of ran off the stage.  I remember seeing it twice and I remember the guy who played Hud just slowly strolled across the stage.  It was so different [than the first performance].

I think that this generation is a lot more relaxed about race, regardless of what you read in the newspaper and what we argue on Facebook about different things going on. Younger people – at least my students and my kids, and my kids’ friends – have less hangups about things I remember people being hung up on when I was a kid.  Sexuality, as well.  My college students, regardless of their background or opinions, are a little bit more fluid and accepting than I remember my generation being.  Which is a great thing.  In terms of the way the theater reflects that, I’m happy to see more African American content on Broadway, I’m happy to see more works by women on Broadway.  I very much hope that it’s not just a ‘trend’ because I hate it when sex is a trend, women are a trend, or race is a trend.  But I don’t think that’s the case, here. I think there’s a lot more of an effort to be more diverse and inclusive, both on Broadway and Off.

Your book is impressive on how it balances and discusses the various ways in which revolution can manifest itself – a spectrum ranging from radical action to a more ‘mainstreaming’ approach.  To me, this comes into direct focus at the end of “Chapter 3: The Post-Stonewall (and Post-Company) Gay Musical,” as you describe a transformation of gay musicals from a more camp style (of reading homosexuality into a narrative) to direct representations.  What are some of your thoughts on the political implications of oppressed identities being more ‘visible’ and/or ‘audible’ through musical theater?

Absolutely, they were politically charged.  In some cases they were coming from a more personal space, but were still political – the whole “personal is political” did drive home.  Myrna Lamb remained, when I interviewed her, one of the angriest people I’ve ever talked to.  I think she retreated because she felt so railroaded by the way she was treated for expressing herself, which makes me sad because she was so talented.  Reading reviews for Myrna Lamb is heartbreaking because every one of them is mean, personal, and nasty.  I can understand why she turned her back.  I don’t know if anybody I spoke to really wanted to revolutionize.  I think a great many of them wanted to express themselves from a space that made sense to them.  And musical theater let them.  Lee Goldsmith, who wrote Sextet (1974), who is not at all angry – a lovely guy.  When I spoke to him, he was like “I was in the army and then I moved to Florida with my partner.”  And I asked, “When did you come out?”  He replied, “Honey, when I was born.  Nobody ever cared, my whole life – even when I was in the army.  Nobody cared, it was my life and I was happy.”  And so when he wrote Sextet it wasn’t to revolutionize anything.  I think he wanted to carve out a space that he knew and that was reflective of his life.

One of the things about identity politics in the 70’s is that it became okay to do that.  You could end up in the camp of Myrna Lamb, where you were just lambasted and ridiculed for trying to do that, because she was writing from a very angry space.  She was married at an incredibly young age, had children that she wasn’t prepared for, she was isolated, she was lonely, and she needed a way to express herself.  Then she did and everyone told her she was a fool and an idiot and horrible. Goldsmith really didn’t have it much better, only because people didn’t like his show and it closed.  But, I think that both of these cases, and many others, were people who were working out their personal feelings at a time when suddenly you could.  And that’s what you do with the arts.  One could argue that Jerome Kern was doing the same thing, but in a more tortured, closeted space.  Once you get to the point where you don’t have to be as closeted and as tortured, in a form in which lots of other people are trying the same thing, that is good and can only contribute to normalization.

Certainly, queer theater has only become increasingly present and less about – I remember every show in the 90s about homosexuality was about AIDS. Now, of course, there was a very real reason for that.  But after awhile, it got to the point of recognizing that there are myriad other aspects to gay identity.  Not everybody has AIDS – there was a heartbreaking time where everyone knew someone dying of AIDS, everybody had been involved with someone who was dying of AIDS, and so there was a very immediate and urgent connection between the AIDS epidemic and the theater that was being worked out very publicly, but it’s certainly not the only issue. You start to see reflections of how the culture works. Theater, the best kind, does this in a way that isn’t agitprop-y.  There are shows that do not necessarily force ideas down the audience’s throats. It’s like, “Here’s this representation, what’s your problem?  Why are you storming out of the theater?”  I appreciate the way musical theater can shed new light on difference and make that difference less different.

Relating to the “Here’s the representation, what’s your problem?” comment you made, I’m curious about how that could be related to Ted Hoffman’s, one of the critics you cited, comments about The Club (1976): namely, that the show participates in an ‘aesthetic of tease’ and you conclude that there is a fear that the show might ultimately might signify nothing?

Absolutely, for some people, musical theater is a night at the theater and not anything you have to think more deeply of.  I’ve heard some absolutely astounding, maybe not stupid–no, stupid, I’m going to say it– reactions to shows that I would hope had this kind of cultural relevance, and that clearly did not for some people. I went to see Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (1995), Savion Glover’s tap show. An all-black show with the whole history of tap-dance from the beginning of minstrel era until now, and it was brilliant and wonderful.  And this woman I knew said something like “I hated it because it didn’t acknowledge the history of whites in tap.”  That was her take on the whole thing.  You went to see the show and it wasn’t white enough, what the fuck?  That is exactly what they were trying show – the black history!

A clip of “Taxi” from Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk at the 1996 Tony Awards

So yes, people bring their own baggage to the theater and they take their own baggage out.  Really relevant, interesting theater either makes people change or realize something about themselves or others that they hadn’t known when they went in—or it doesn’t. For a lot of people, it’s fun, then they go eat some lunch.  In the best world, you go to see something and it shakes you to the core and teaches you something.  But, in a way, that’s the beauty of these shows: people can take what they want. Isn’t that the nature of all entertainment?  I’ll play the entire Beethoven’s 5th Symphony for incoming freshman who don’t listen to classical music, who think it’s boring, who can’t wait to get out of class.  Three of them will find it to be a transformative experience and the rest will either fall asleep or complain it was too long.  But then you’ve got those three people.  So, over time, you do spread the message.  There were just as many people in the audience back in the seventies that were saying, “Wow!  Gay people are just like me!” Small messages resonate with people in small ways, but those small ways add up.

I agree with how powerful art can be.  One of the reasons I’m interested in musical theater is a lot of people have a connection to it and in very different ways from other media.  My initial interest comes studying high school students consuming musicals and how dedicated they can be.  Music does that for a lot of people, but musical theater is really immersive.

And it bonds them.  And that changes kids.  It teaches them something.  I had a great experience being in musical theater as a kid in high school.  And with the changing roles in musical theater–there’s a Rent high-school version that I know Jessica Sternfeld is really interested in. Now, there are high school kids performing gay characters, cross-dressing characters, characters struggling with AIDS or addiction–these are really important characters that were absent when I was growing up, and I’m glad to see them in high school, the same way I am happy about the existence of Gay/Straight Alliances in high school. Things like that didn’t exist in my youth.  There was just no place for that.  The fact that there is now is great.

“Take Me or Leave Me” from Rent, as performed on the television show Glee, a show noted for its political value in depicting a wide variety of identities

In the book, you discuss the many different ways that obscenity, pornography, and lewdness have been construed in different matrices of class, gender, and sexuality.  What reflections do you have about the definition of ‘pornography’ and how to approach it critically?

I like the one judge who said “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.”  The problem with pornography at this point is that it’s huge–it’s like defining popular music.  There’s increasingly diversified pornography, all these different genres – feminist pornography, gay porn, straight porn, you can rattle off all different kinds of porn.  So it’s this big, multi-tentacled thing.  Most people can agree that pornography is entertainment content that is designed to cause sexual arousal.  I don’t think that’s changed.  When people say they’re going to watch porn they don’t mean that they are going to an art museum.   I really loved Linda Williams’ book Hardcore: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visual.”  One of the things I appreciate about Hard Core is that she doesn’t mess around.  She’s a very straightforward writer who writes about the material from a very intellectually rigorous, cultural space.  She does it well and without sparing words.  She’s like the Ruth Bader Ginsberg of intellectual pornography writers.  If you’re going to talk about pornography you should do it as straightforwardly as you can.  Does that answer your question?

Yes, partially.  One of the through-lines in the critics you include in your book is the labeling of what is ‘erotica’ versus ‘pornography’ – based on class issues.  For example labeling something as erotica rather than pornography even if it has the same content because it makes it seem nicer or more mainstream, a higher class.  So, I’m wondering what advice you have to help juggle class, as a layer of pornography studies, in understanding different interpretations of pornography.

I’m not sure I can answer this, but I don’t think that it’s resolved at all – it’s very class based in how we view pornography.  But I don’t know if we can talk about porn in quite the same way that we did in the 1970s because we don’t look at pornography publicly anymore.  Everything is on laptops and home computers.  But I do think that the class distinction does exist, not just in pornography – in all entertainment.  Or there wouldn’t be art houses versus the Cineplex.

When you were talking about Linda Williams and Ruth Bader Ginsberg: that is how I read your book – you don’t mince words, especially the chapter on the films.  After looking them up on YouTube I was impressed by your descriptions and ability to get past some of the wow-content.

Yeah, I can share that with you. Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy (1976) – I want it known that I watched it at my office at work.  People would walk by and ask, “Whatcha watching?”  “Oh, porn.”  I was particularly pleased with that.  I love my job, just sitting in the office in the afternoon watching a pornographic version of Alice in Wonderland.  One of my colleagues found it for me – keyed me into the fact that it was out there.  I asked how he knew about it and he just gave me this kind of knowing look.  And I thanked him in the acknowledgements and he was really pissed off that I didn’t specifically say “Thank you for finding the pornographic musical version of Alice in Wonderland.”  But yeah, those films are oldies but goodies. If they don’t deserve to live in the cultural imagination, I don’t know what does.

NSFW – The trailer for Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy

Elizabeth L. Wollman is an associate professor of music at Baruch College, City University of New York. She received her PhD in ethnomusicology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2002. Her research and teaching interests include American popular music, the mass media, the American musical theater, sexuality and gender, aesthetics, and the postwar cultural history of New York City. She has published articles on the relationship between gender stereotypes and rock radio programming, the economic development of the Broadway musical in the 1980s and 1990s, the reception of rock musicals, and New York’s commercial theater scene in the 1960s and 1970s. She is author of the book The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From Hair to Hedwig, which was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2006, and Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2012. 

Christopher M. Culp has a Masters of Music in Clarinet Performance and a Masters of Arts in Philosophy. He is currently a PhD Candidate in Musicology at University at Buffalo researching issues of Sincerity in Modernist/Postmodernist discourse, Queer Studies, Television Studies, Philosophy of Music, and the metaphysics of musical drama. His dissertation focuses on Serial Television Musical episodes as a new step in musical theater that may be a symptom of a return to Metaphysics after Postmodernism’s rescripting of sincerity and the Real.  His personal website 

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