Cover image for A problem like Maria : gender and sexuality in the American musical
A problem like Maria : gender and sexuality in the American musical
Wolf, Stacy Ellen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xx, 289 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.
Mary Martin -- Ethel Merman -- Julie Andrews -- Barbra Streisand -- Sound of music.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML2054 .W65 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Subverting assumptions that American musical theater is steeped in nostalgia, cheap sentiment, misogyny, and homophobia, this book shows how musicals of the 1950s and early 1960s celebrated strong women characters who defied the era's gender expectations. A Problem Like Maria reexamines the roles, careers, and performances of four of musical theater's greatest stars-Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand-through a lesbian feminist lens. Focusing on both star persona and performance, Stacy Wolf argues that each of her subjects deftly crafted characters (both on and offstage) whose defiance of the norms of mid-twentiethcentury femininity had immediate appeal to spectators on the ideological and sexual margins, yet could still play in Peoria.
Chapter by chapter, the book analyzes the stars' best-known and best-loved roles, including Martin as Nellie in South Pacific, Merman as Momma Rose in Gypsy Andrews as Eliza in My Fair Lady and Guinevere in Camelot, and Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. The final chapter scrutinizes the Broadway and film versions of The Sound of Music, illuminating its place in the hearts of lesbian spectators and the "delicious queerness" of Andrews's troublesome nun. As the first feminist and lesbian study of the American Broadway musical, A Problem Like Maria is a groundbreaking contribution to feminist studies, queer studies, and American studies and a delight for fans of musical theater.
Stacy Wolf is Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance, University of Texas, Austin.

Author Notes

Stacy Wolf is Assistant Professor of Theater, University of Texas, Austin.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

American musical theater has long been considered integral to gay male culture, but what does it have to offer lesbian viewers? Plenty, argues Wolf, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a self-confessed "feminist musical theater fan." While many people generally think of 1950s musicals as having a conservative slant and upholding conventional social norms, Wolf argues that the myriad "funny girls" of the '50s and '60s specifically Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Mary Martin and Barbra Streisand repeatedly appeared in roles that explicitly critiqued postwar gender norms. Wolf frequently insists she's not concerned with figuring out the actual sexual orientation of these actresses (though she often pauses to do so, decoding the Hollywood gossip surrounding Martin's marriage to gay actor Richard Halliday with obvious glee). Nor does she argue that they actually "played" lesbians on stage or in film. Rather, she's interested in using the tools of feminist and queer theory to examine the women's performances and public images. Her analysis of Martin's "tomboy" star persona (particularly as it is presented in South Pacific and Peter Pan) is shrewd, as is her discussion of Streisand's unconventional beauty and her explicit Jewishness. Unfortunately, Wolf only briefly considers why the genre of the musical itself might lend itself to such interpretive practice, and some readers may wish for a more general analysis of musical theater rather than such close attention to the minute details of these four individuals' performance histories. (Aug.) Forecast: While Wolf's points are sound, the book's target audience musical theater buffs may already be overfamiliar with her theme. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Though Wolf (Florida State Univ.) writes that her book is "about musicals from a feminist, lesbian perspective," this volume should not be considered a companion volume to John Clum's Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture (CH, Jun'00). Whereas Clum offers an unsystematic overview noting gay themes and attractions for gay men (enlivened with personal anecdotes), Wolf uses a much more limited and structured approach. Focusing on four performers--Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand--she examines their personal lives as well as the roles they have played and considers how both might relate to the feminist/lesbian experience: for example, Martin as a tomboy and how that figures in her role as Peter Pan. Wolf concludes with a detailed examination of The Sound of Music (she takes the book's title from a song in that show), offering a particularly valuable detailed comparison of the stage musical and the movie. She also does an excellent job comparing the three television versions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella. A helpful selection of photos and excellent notes, but no bibliography. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Collections supporting gay and lesbian studies and comprehensive performing arts libraries; graduate students, researchers, professionals. R. D. Johnson emeritus, SUNY College at Oneonta