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Michael Bennett Examines “Incarceration” in the Broadway Musicals of the 1980s-2000s

Benett, Michael - Sable Brown Fund recipient 2021
Michael Bennett, recipient of the Dr. Lisa Sable Brown award, during his research trip to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

February 22, 2022

Support from the Dr. Lisa Sable Brown Endowed Fund for Human Rights helped to fund research for my dissertation, titled “The Broadway Musical in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” My project examines the theme of incarceration in the Broadway musicals of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, a period during which American culture was consumed by the specter of rising crime rates, the War on Drugs, and a series of bills that increased penalties and imposed harsher sentencing guidelines, leading to an unprecedented rise in the prison population. During this same period, Broadway musicals increasingly depict scenes of incarceration, with some musicals set entirely within the confines of a prison cell. In these musicals, characters (almost always white) perform musical numbers—impassioned ballads, duets with love interests, or lively dance numbers—behind bars. My proposal was for funds to support a research trip to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, the foremost repository of primary materials related to Broadway musicals. Their Billy Rose Theater Division houses a variety of physical items for nearly every musical, including photographs, playbills, news clippings, and other paraphernalia, along with audio and video recordings not available anywhere else.

Photograph from the musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1982),” used in news articles to show that policing and incarceration were a part of the visual storytelling in order to attract audiences.

In January 2022, after months of COVID-related delays ranging from library closures to travel restrictions, I was finally able to visit the library for the first time. In order to access the performing arts special collections, patrons must set up a researcher account, make an appointment in advance, and specify the (limited number of) items to be reviewed. For this visit, I was specifically interested in sources pertaining to two musicals the debuted on Broadway in the 1980s: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1982) and Les Misérables (1987). These musicals are the focus of the first chapter of my dissertation, as well as a paper I am presenting at the Society for American Music annual meeting in March 2022 titled “‘Close Every Door to Me’: Incarceration in the Megamusical.” Using the characters of Joseph and Jean Valjean, I establish the archetype of the sympathetic white male protagonist at odds with the law who is ultimately saved through his (Judeo-)Christian faith. I argue that this whitewashed version of the criminal justice system appealed to religious tourist audiences and is partly responsible for the overwhelming success of these musicals throughout the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s.

Sable-Brown Fund image from summary-Javert threatens Jean Valjean

Javert threatens Jean Valjean in Les Misérables

I was able to spend several hours pouring over print media of all kinds for these two musicals. In the special collections reading rooms, I was given one folder at a time and asked to use gloves while handling the delicate materials. Among the most valuable materials I surveyed during my visit were archival press images from these musicals depicting the protagonists either behind bars (as with the titular character in Joseph…Dreamcoat) or at odds with the law (as Javert holds his police baton up to the face of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables).

These photographs were used in news articles about these musicals, showing that policing and incarceration were a part of the visual storytelling used to attract audiences. These images helped support my argument that a national political zeitgeist around crime would fuel an interest in these musicals. In one New York Times article published just prior to the opening of Les Misérables titled “The Hunter and the Hunted,” the central relationship between the policeman and parole officer Javert and the formerly incarcerated Jean Valjean (who breaks his parole) is outlined as the central driving storyline for the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. Director John Caird explicitly draws the connection to modern times during the interview. Being at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts allowed me to come across these sources, and I am immensely grateful to the University of Washington Center for Human Rights and the Dr. Lisa Sable Brown Endowed Fund for supporting my research.