Date of Defense


Date of Graduation




First Advisor

Lofty Durham

Second Advisor

Ilana Nash


Could Musical Theatre Be Worthy of Literary Analysis?

Cultural hierarchy, or the perception that different forms of art relate to each other in terms of higher or lower sophistication, has commanded the way we view art for centuries. Artforms which the cultural hierarchy deems to be “higher” are often given more attention, respect, and appreciation in academia, but can be less accessible both physically and mentally to the masses, while artforms deemed to be “lower” tend to be simpler and more fun, making them have a more popular appeal. The tendency for art that is either simple or fun to be placed lower on the cultural hierarchy, however, has created the impression throughout much of academia that not just anything can be treated with academic respect, and that only kinds of art that require deep thought are worthy of academic analysis.

This thesis discusses the origins of this cultural hierarchy, which stem from the end of the nineteenth century in the United States. It also discusses the emergence of a defined popular culture in tandem with this hierarchy. In order to better demonstrate the differences between high and low art (at least according to those who believe in the superiority of high art), this essay also spends some time on the sub-hierarchies that appear within various forms of art such as writing, music, and theatre, giving examples of art that would be classified as either high or low. After summarizing the research done on cultural hierarchy, this thesis makes the argument that viewing culture and art through this lens can be very limiting and problematic for two reasons. The first is that the kinds of art that fall within the higher categories are overwhelmingly dominated by rich, white, straight men, while art at the lower end is often automatically put there simply because it is created by or enjoyed by oppressed communities. The second is that, by creating an entire category of art that is inherently off limits from being taken seriously, we miss out on the opportunity to analyze many genuinely good works of art that happen to be created in “lower” art mediums.

The ultimate goal of this thesis is to advocate for and begin the breaking down of the cultural hierarchy, and in order to do that the focus of it turns from the hierarchy in general to one art form: musical theatre. Musical theatre falls lower on the cultural hierarchy, and is rarely given academic attention, and so in order to subvert the general perception of musical theatre, this thesis includes four literary analysis essays on four separate musicals. These four musicals are Anything Goes, Into the Woods, Falsettos, and Something Rotten!, and in this thesis, they are treated no different from how one would treat a classic novel assigned in a literature class. Following these individual essays, this thesis concludes with a reflection on the experience of writing these essays, an attempt to answer the question in the title, and a suggestion for a new way to perceive culture that might reduce the problems created by the cultural hierarchy.

Access Setting

Honors Thesis-Open Access