Kelli O’Hara played Anna in the 2015 Broadway revival of The King and I.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux
Class Close-Up: Race and the American Musical

Teacher: Theater professor Stacy Wolf

Focus: How the portrayal of minorities in American musical theater has evolved from minstrel shows to Hamilton during the last century. Productions being studied range from 1940s-era Triangle Club shows that included white students wearing blackface to The King and I, a show Wolf said is centered around the idea that Western culture is superior to the East.

Background: “Race is socially constructed,” said Wolf, director of the Program in Music Theater. “But on stage, it’s not. You look at someone’s body and you look at their complexion, and you make assumptions about that character. The history of musical theater is built on these assumptive affiliations between appearance and character and identity.”

On the syllabus: Students read the scripts, listen to the music, and read critical articles for 15 musicals, including Porgy and Bess, Dreamgirls, West Side Story, Hamilton, and The Wiz.

Other activities: The class will attend and analyze campus productions of Hairspray and In the Heights. Students also will attend Aladdin on Broadway and will discuss the representation of Middle-Eastern characters with Adam Hyndman ’12, who is in the ensemble.

Raising questions: “When we see The King and I, do we say, ‘It’s amazing that they’re doing [a revival] because they hired 50 Asian and Asian American performers, and these actors have work?’ Or, ‘Is it terrible that they’re doing this because it reinforces all of these negative stereotypes?’” Wolf said. “The King and I is produced constantly, and it should be — the music is beautiful — but it sends a terrible message. So what do we do about that?”

Where musical theater is heading: Wolf said she believes every character should be able to be played by any actor, regardless of race, but thinks it’s unlikely that there will be more shows like Hamilton, in which African American and Latino actors portray white historical figures. “Musical theater is not inclined to be progressive and forward-thinking — it’s too expensive, too cumbersome.”