Late last year, a book-reviewer friend sent me a paperbound "Advance reading copy --- not for sale" of one of the best books about theater I have ever read. I lived with it for about a week over the year's-end holidays and it was the first book I finished in 2011. Even as a paperback it's a couple pounds, and I've been promising myself an attempt at reviewing it ever since I finished its last paragraph. Amazon lists a discount on the hardbound W.W.NORTON book --- but I'll bet that hardback would be so big and heavy as to be unreadable. That said, it IS exceptionally readable, informative on every page, and an indispensible experience for anyone who truly loves theater.
"SHOWTIME is not a chronicle. Nor does the story it tells depend on an overarching narrative. ... I have tried, in fact, to construct a history of the Broadway musical theater at once coherent and critical: to shed light on the patterns of thought, behavior and achievement that make sense of such a history, without overlooking their attendant tensions, complexities and contradictions. I have also tried to write a history at once balanced and comprehensive both in the evidence it takes into account and in its coverage of the subject. Comprehensive, however, does not mean exhaustive ort encyclopedic. You won't find every show ever produced on Broadway mentioned in these pages. Instead, you'll find a careful selection of shows --- virtually all the well-known ones, and a good many of the not so well known --- chosen for their ability to serve as trenchant examples of each of the many styles, genres, subjects, personalities, institutions, movements and trends that play a major role in the development of the different kinds of productions we know today as Broadway musicals."
And you think it's easy to define the musical? On page 3:
"Opening night critics variously referred to OKLAHOMA!, for instance, as a musical comedy, an operetta, and a folk opera. In a sense, all were correct."
And a bit later,
"Whether or not a show actually has a story line can serve as a basis for distinguishing among the musical's many genres and for dividing them into two large groups for the sake of clarity. Minstrel shows, burlesque, variety, vaudeville and revues make up some major types of musicals without stories, though they differ from each other in structure, style, where they are performed, and what kind of audiences they attract."
"Story-telling musicals, by contrast, focus on the ways they handle the basic tension between their narrative parts (usually spoken) and their unabashedly performative parts (usually sung and/or danced). Shows of this type include (in order of increasing musicality) plays with added songs, musical comedies, musical plays, operettas, and even operas of a certain popular bent (Broadway, folk, rock, etc.). While these also differ significantly among themselves, such shows all rely on narratives for continuity; they use song and dance in specific patterns of pacing and proportion either to interrupt their story lines as they unfold or to help them along. Talking carries great weight in plays with added songs (UNCLE TOM'S CABIN), but virtually no weight at all in popular operas that favor singing throughout (LES MISERABLES)."
At the book's end Stempel quotes (p. 684):
" Over half a century ago, Leonard Bernstein drscribed the American musical as 'an art that arises out of American roots, out of our speech, our tempo, our moral attitudes, our way of moving.' Musicals, he felt, reflect not just our external characteristics as Americans but also our internal makeup: our national character."
"It has changed as a medium, bent to the imaginative wills of those intent on catching us and showing us to ourselves as we change as a nation."
Stempel starts, essentially, with a general look at the post-Civil War smash-hit THE BLACK CROOK (1866-68; 475 performances) and ends 685 pages later with a quick survey of shows and trends in the first few years of the 2000's. It's quite a run!
In Chapter 2 ("Variety Stages") he tackles minstrel-shows and comedy-teams from 1879 to 1903.
Chapter 3 ("A Transatlantic Muse") deals (1868-1907) with European operettas, while Chapter 5 ("The Cult of Romance") handles the Americanization of the romantic operetta. In between ("The Native Wit") he shows the rise of musical comedies, featuring George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, and Al Jolson. In Chapter 6 ("A Shadow of Vulgarity"), there is "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919" and its often racy imitators, and revues like "The Bandwagon" (1931-32) that specialized in sketch-comedy. (A photo from that show features, in its cast, Adele and Fred Astaire!)
It's really not until "Broadway Songbook" (Chapter 7, pp. 241-287) with the rise of Tin-Pan Alley and jazz, the Gershwins and Rodgers & Hart, that what we'd recognize as musicals ("Strike Up The Band" "Anything Goes" "Pal Joey") begin to emerge --- with songs that could, and still do, take on a life of their own outside the shows in which they first appeared. But it's in "The Script Angle" (Chapter 8), with "Oklahoma!" "Lady in The Dark" (1941-42) and "Kiss Me, Kate" (1948-51) that the big names Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein join the parade. Then what Stempel refers to as "The Literate Musical" comes to full blossom (Chapter 9: "Musical Theater: The New Art") with this string" "Carousel" "Brigadoon" "South Pacific" "The King And I" "My Fair Lady" "Fiorello!" "Camelot" and "Fiddler on The Roof". Here, from 1945 to 1972, is our golden age.
But in that age, many genres and styles overlap. What he calls "Opera, in Our Own Way" (Chapter 10) he tackles "Porgy And Bess" "Carmen Jones" "The Consul" and "West Side Story" while in Chapter 10's "The Great American Showshop" can be found "Guys And Dolls" "The Music Man" and "Gypsy" --- with a nod to The Abominable Showman David Merrick --- he and Leland Heyward produced "Gypsy" and Stempel enjoys retelling the tale of Merrick's classic ad for "Subways Are for Sleeping" --- and to both Harold Prince and Bob Fosse for "The Pajama Game".
It's here that Stempel deals with "alternative musicals" and "the Off Boadway renaissance" in Chapter 10 "Away from Broadway": "The Cradle Will Rock" by the WPA Federal Theater Project (1937), "The Threepenny Opera" "The Fantasticks" (1960-2002) and "Hair (1967-72). Stephen Sondheim emerges with "Company" (1970-72) and "Assassins" (1990-91) and Kander & Ebb with "Cabaret" (1966-69) in Chapter 13 titled "The Metaphor Angle" --- a discussion of what some call "The Concept Musical".
Then in another jog in time ("A Dancing Place" Chapter 14) come "Hello, Dolly!" "Chicago' "A Chorus Line" and "Grand Hotel"; while Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Jesus Christ Superstar" "Evita" "Cats"), "Les Miserables" and "Beauty And The Beast" and "The Producers" are all covered in a Chapter 15 called "Distancing Effects" --- and then its time to wind things up with "Another Broadway... Another Show... " (Chapter 16), a quick look at the '90s with such different items as "Jelly's Last Jam" "Falsettos" "Floyd Collins" "Rent" "Hedwig And The Angry Inch" and "Parade".
There are 58 pages of tiny-type notes, and 37 of bibliography --- in addition to the 684 pages of readable, insightful, fact-filled, gossip-peppered, can't-put-it-down enjoyable text. This is the sort of big book you must rest on a table while you race through page after fascinating page. And, as I said up there at the top, it's "an indispensible experience for anyone who truly loves theater."
( a k a larry stark)