'Victorians on Broadway': On Sharon Aronofsky Weltman's New Book

November 22, 2021

By Frances Laskey 


Sometimes good things take a long time to grow. Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, a long time Dickens Universe participant and professor at Consortium member Louisiana State University, had the first glimmer of the idea that eventually became her new book, Victorians on Broadway: Literature, Adaptation, and the Modern American Musical (University of Virginia Press, 2020), back around 1989 while she was still a graduate student. She attended a production of a musical adaptation of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market and became intrigued by the connections between Victorian literature and modern American musical theater. She sketched out an article, but put it aside since it didn’t tie in (at the moment) to her dissertation work on John Ruskin.

The idea wouldn’t go away, however, and over the years various opportunities arose that both pointed and paved the way for Victorians on Broadway. One was that Weltman was invited to contribute an essay to a collection titled Essays on Transgressive Readings: Reading over the Lines (edited by Georgia Johnston). This gave her an opportunity to revisit the article she had drafted years earlier. As it turned out, the finished essay, “Performing Goblin Market” was a finalist for the Kurt Weill Foundation Award for Best Essay on Musical Theater in 1999. This in turn led to her being asked to serve on the committee to judge later Kurt Weill book and article submissions, giving her the opportunity to read emerging scholarship on musical theater. 

About the same time, Weltman organized a conference in conjunction with a Santa Fe Opera production of an opera based on John Ruskin’s Modern Painters. This put Victorians and musical theater together again—but it wasn’t yet time for Victorians on Broadway. First a book on Ruskin and theater, Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theater, Science, and Education (Ohio State University Press, 2007). Finally she was ready to turn her sights toward Broadway.

In researching Victorians on Broadway, Weltman watched all of the Victorian-based Broadway shows she could find (accessing some less well-known plays on archival recordings at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts). She also interviewed actors, directors, composers, and choreographers. She particularly enjoyed interviewing Rowan Atkinson (who was then performing Fagin in a London revival of Oliver!). She says that her biggest surprise in the entire process of researching the book was that “Stephen Sondheim (RIP November 2021) wrote me back” and agreed to participate, after she had all but given up on attempts to contact him. 

The Dickens Project played its part in the development of the book as well. Weltman had more or less completed the manuscript in 2014 when she led a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar in conjunction with the Dickens Universe. The topic was adaptation and the experience, particularly learning more about the theory of the “meta-text” (essentially the idea that each adaptation carries all previous adaptations within it) caused her to revise and reframe parts of the manuscript.

The book was published in 2020. Weltman’s hope is that the book will help convince people that the “middle-brow” is worthy of attention, and that putting light entertainment in the context of its literary origins might do this.

She also hopes that non-scholarly readers—those who love musicals or Victorian literature or both—will enjoy the book. But she says to feel free to skip the academic bits if you like!