A Problem like Maria

Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical
Stacy Wolf
The Broadway tomboys, rebel nuns, and funny girls, who upset the 1950s gender norms: Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand


Subverting assumptions that American musical theater is steeped in nostalgia, cheap sentiment, misogyny, and homophobia, this book shows how the musical of the '50s and early '60s celebrated strong women characters flouting 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 midcentury 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 Guenevere 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. Pioneering the 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 Theater at the University of Texas at Austin.

Praise / Awards

  • "An exciting and useful contribution to queer, performance, and cultural studies. The basic concept—carving out a "lesbian spectatorial position" in relation to four female American musical-comedy stars—is highly original and fascinating."
    —Alisa Solomon, City University of New York

  • "The question Wolf poses—how and why lesbian audiences can locate queer pleasures in conventional, ideologically resonant narratives of heterosexual consummation and gender-compliant success—is also its obverse: why are the featured characters in mainstream entertainments rendered as unmistakably gay even though they are equally unmistakably not? Wolf's aim is not to understand the cultural stake in this intricate intelligibility, but rather to think about what produces it. . . . . Wolf's book certainly attends to the rich, unmined traditions of performance and persona in American musical theatre. It ably brings these figures to the table occupied by such other 'queer' performers as Sarah Bernhardt, Greta Garbo, Marlena Dietrich, Agnes Moorhead, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbara Stanwick [sic], and Thelma Ritter."
    Theatre Research International

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Copyright © 2002, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 312pp.
  • 9 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2002
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-09772-2

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  • $94.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2002
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-06772-5

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  • $27.95 U.S.



  • Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, lesbians, West Side Story, South Pacific, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Camelot, Funny Girl, The Sound of Music, queer studies, performing arts, lesbian studies, women's studies, feminism, feminist studies, American studies, musical theater, Sarah Bernhardt, Greta Garbo, Marlena Dietrich, Agnes Moorhead, Tallulah Bankhead, Thelma Ritter