Broadway Musicals: Visualizing Cultural Taste

Sissi Liu, Theatre
Faculty Advisor: Lev Manovich

broadwayBroadway musical theatre is the most distinctive US form of theatre. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, works by Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein contributed largely to the formation of US culture. Contemporary Broadway musicals continue to be consumed every year by millions of theatre-goers, and appreciated and performed endlessly by fans all over the world. The theatrical genre synonymic to “US theatre,” Broadway musicals remain one of the barometers of US culture.

There has been a considerable gap between public and scholarly perceptions of Broadway musical theatre, both synchronically and diachronically. The longest running musicals tend not to be the most critically acclaimed; the most popular musicals early on do not always end up in history books as the canonical musicals a century later. What makes a musical popular? What makes a musical canonical? Which musicals best represent US culture and US identity? Does the change in cultural taste determine the varying fates of musicals? What then determines the change in cultural taste? Broadway musical is a middlebrow genre, but is consumed by audiences of all brow levels. How are brow levels manufactured and maintained? Who are the real arbiters of cultural taste? Theatre goers, critics/scholars, or neither?

Broadway museThis project gathers musical, textual, and theatrical data from musicals since the 1920s; runs comparative data analyses of crucial indicators such as song forms, musical idioms, recurring topics, relevant social issues, and plot structures; and visualizes the construction and change of cultural taste through the production, consumption, and branding of Broadway musicals. The end result will be a pedagogical tool in the form of a website. The target users are teachers and students of Broadway musical theatre, musical theatre fans, scholars, practitioners, and the general public who are interested in looking into, at their leisure, the ways in which cultural taste could be visualized.