Sarah K. Whitfield is a Senior Lecturer in Musical Theatre at the University of Wolverhampton. Her research focuses on exploring the historiography of musical theatre, and recovering the work that women and minoritised groups have done through archival research and digital humanities. She has published widely on collaborative practice in musical theatre, film musicals, and in queer fan studies. Her most recent book is the edited collection Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture and Identity (2019).
In the last post – I talked about how we could research the people listed in the 1893 RNCM register, most of whom are women. I’ve shared some of the research findings here – with some intriguing, but sometimes incomplete findings. It is very difficult to find details on women’s professional careers because their names often changed at marriage – and not just their first name as some women became professionally known as Mrs [Husband’s first name] [Husband’s last name]. It is worth noting that the Married Women’s Property Act had only come into effect in 1882.
So here are 16 mini-biographies where women can be traced – more may be added if I find anything else!
Back in the *before times* I did quite a lot of research on the 1893 register of the first intake into what was then the Royal Manchester College of Music.
I’ve come back to this dataset to think about how we can understand who was part of this first group of students, and how they began their professional careers. The first intake into the school in October 1893 was 82% female – and some later historical accounts of the school emphasised the idea that it was a kind of finishing school for nice, middle-class, ladies looking for good husbands. But the reality is very different, and the evidence clearly demonstrates the school was a vital part of training musicians and teachers, right from the beginning. The assumption has been made that because it was for women, it couldn’t possibly have been serious, but of course, that’s just not the case.
So this perhaps the most tricksy part of all of this – how do we know that this musical engages with whiteness? Part of the answer is because it doesn’t engage with anything else. To be unconcerned with race in the autumn of 1985 is a luxury only whiteness could allow; being indifferent is a privilege only whiteness would embrace.
The musical as a form relies on a relatively straightforward dramaturgical structure, broadly used in the majority of musicals, where a set number of characters, usually relatively small in number, go through some kind of conflict or experience and their story is resolved by the end of the show, ideally with some kind of happy ending. The happy ending in Les Mis might be fairly thin on the ground, but there is some kind of hopefulness. In this part I’m going to explore how the musical is structured, and consider what does this have to do with Autumn 1985, and narrative whiteness?
Handsworth Songs opens with an image of a Black security guard looking at a large engine (perhaps in a museum), intercutting with a series of unsettling images and sirens (birds roosting, a rotating clown face), before settling on the civic centre of Birmingham and the statues of the ‘great noble men of Birmingham’ outside the city’s library buildings. Images of the morning after street protests are intercut with the same clown; then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd visiting the residents of Birmingham. (Hurd had to leave the area quickly after his arrival, news footage records his unwelcome visit).
In one of the most distressing sequences of Handsworth Songs, which comes only minutes in, a young Black teenager is chased by police, we seem him violently restrained as other young Black people look on – watching but not surprised by what they are seeing. The film then moves into a series of archival footage of earlier Caribbean immigrants to the UK, of hopeful wedding photos and ballroom dancing. Homi Bhabha argues that Handsworth Songs resists time because it stages ‘the historic present of the riots’[i], it explicitly presents fractured time:
Handsworth Songs (1986), is a vital representation of much that Les Misérables avoids. Produced by Black Audio Film Collective, and directed by John Akomfrah, the documentary montage was commissioned by Channel 4 for the series “Britain: The Lie of the Land”. The film unpicks the violence that took place during the late summer and autumn of 1985 by refusing to obey narrative expectations of a single story.[i]
Les Misérables was in rehearsals when the so called Handsworth Riots took place. During 9–11 September 1985, Handsworth, an area to the north-west of Birmingham, experienced widespread protests and street violence. In this post, we’ll look at the context for that Autumn and see how the chronology overlaps.
I’ve been sitting on this academic article for a couple of years – I meant to come back and edit it and revise it, but decided that ultimately I wanted it to exist. As ever, I’m writing from the position of a white British academic in making these arguments.It explores the relationship in much further detail and thinks about how whiteness is coded into what we experience in megamusicals.Because it’s written in the ‘before-times’ – it doesn’t mention the most recent summer of protest.Also, academic articles are generally massive – I’ve posted it as a series of blog postsand slightly edited it so it works on a blog series rather than an individual piece.
Save the Hulme Hippodrome campaign (https://niamos.co.uk/savethehippodrome) is raising funds to save the theatre from developers (https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/save-hulme-hippo). The theatre has an important place in British theatre history, as a surviving venue in the variety theatre networks that dominated British theatre from 1900 to the 1950s. In this article, I explore some of the performers who worked at this beautiful and at-risk theatre.
This is a session about finding stories in the archive which are inclusive and open up the presence of people who have been thought to be not part of the official story. It is for the Doctoral College here at the University of Wolverhampton, and partly for them and anyone else interested in this topic I’ve put together some notes and starting points. There’s also a huge overview of digitised archives you might consult and look at.
The key thing to remember before we get too far into this is to note that the language we use to discuss these topics matters. If we talk about diversity rather than minoritised histories, we are drawing on a specifically white word:
Diversity is a white word, or as Ghassan Hage describes, a ‘white concept’. It seeks to make sense, through the white lens, of difference by creating, curating and demanding palatable definitions of ‘diversity’ but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness.