Jake JohnsonJan 6, 2022
Lying in the Middle
Musical Theater and Belief at the Heart of America
University of Illinois Press 2021
Jake Johnson, author of Lying in the Middle: Musical Theater and Belief at the Heart of America (University of Illinois Press, 2021) takes as his subject the artifice of musicals—no one really bursts into song and dance to liven up a simple conversation and even the historical characters are not true-to-life. He argues that it is the very unreality of musicals that makes them powerful sites of belief—whether it is a reflection of the beliefs of the creators of the work, or what audiences want to believe about themselves. He focuses on how musicals serve large and small communities across America and shape local religious, political, cultural, and familial identities. Rather than using examples from the commercial Broadway theater, however, Johnson brings to life more idiosyncratic productions from the middle of America from the “Senior Follies,” a Ziegfeld-follies like production staffed by older performers to a re-imagining of The Sound of Music written for a polygamous community called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the current political climate where consumers are fixated on the urban/rural divide and differences in the “flyover” states from the coasts, it seems especially important to turn critical attention to musical and dramatic practices outside of Broadway institutions.
Kristen M. Turner is a lecturer in the music and honors departments at North Carolina State University. Her research centers on race and class in American popular entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century.