Publication: Music Library Association. Notes
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 27634
ISSN: 00274380
Journal code: PMUN

MUSICAL THEATER The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical. Edited by Raymond Knapp, Mitchell Morris, and Stacy Wolf. (Oxford Handbooks.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. [x, 480 p. ISBN 9780195385946. $150.] Illustrations, bibliography, index, companion Web site.

The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical (OHAM) is an answer to David Savran's call for multifaceted approaches to scholarly considerations of the American musical. Almost a decade ago, Savran declared: "No form of Western theatre (with the possible exception of opera) uses as many different media to produce a totality that is always far more than the sum of its parts [than the American musical]. As a result, analysis requires an implicit or explicit theorization of multiple (and often conflicting) systems of significance" (David Savran, "Towards a Historiography of the Popular," Theatre Survey 45, no. 2 [Novem - ber 2004]: 215-16; cited in OHAM, p. 21). OHAM comprises twenty-nine chapters (plus a scant introduction) by twenty-seven "leading experts" (dust jacket); the conspicuous absence of a substantial list of these authorities in the field seems both curious and unfortunate: Stephen Banfield, Tim Carter, William A. Everett, Kim H. Kowalke, bruce d. mcclung, Larry Stempel, and Elizabeth A. Wells, to name only a few. Musicologists comprise approximately onehalf of the book's contributors, and theatre, film, or media studies specialists, dance historians, choreographers, and critics make up the other half. Such a diverse creative collective brings within a single book "multiple . . . systems of significance," as Savran recommended, to the topic of American musicals. That the essays may be of uneven standard seems unavoidable given the wide range of disciplines, degree of familiarity with repertoire, and scholarly expertise.

In her introduction to OHAM, Wolf explains the origins of the book: "Even as [musical theater] scholarship has grown in diverse and wide-ranging ways, the teaching of musicals continues to be extremely challenging. This book grew out of our mutual passion for teaching musicals and our mutual frustration with available pedagogically oriented materials" (p. 4). Good resources for university courses on musical theater are, indeed, still scarce. Published in 2010, Larry Stempel's magnificent 800-page tome, Showtime: A History of the American Musical Theatre (New York: W. W. Norton), is a welcome exception, along with its price ($39.95), roughly one quarter of OHAM's. As an alternative to Showtime and other sources, which generally construct a chronological narrative of the origins, ancestry, and generic evolution of musicals, OHAM takes the format of a "keywords book" in which each chapter, allegedly with "jargon-free language" (dust jacket), defines, historicizes, and analyzes terms or concepts that pertain to musicals. Such keywords as "Class and Culture," "Gender and Sexuality," "Orchestration and Arrange - ment," and "Box Office" provide titles for chapters, which are then grouped under six headings: "Historiography," "Trans - forma tions," "Media," "Identities," "Perfor - mance," and "Audiences." These broad conceptual divisions reflect the breadth, direction, and tone of American musical theater studies, and yet also point to obstacles facing scholars today.

I know of no other book on American musicals that offers such an array of approaches and perspectives as OHAM. Nor am I familiar with a source that delves into such an assortment of topics with so little generic, historical, or critical scaffolding. With few exceptions, most essays focus on keywords that apply to virtually any context within the history of musicals. "Acting" and "Dance and Choreography," for instance, invite their authors to explore multiple decades and figures, but prevent them from presenting anything approaching a thorough account of the topic. In "Acting," John M. Clum addresses an arbitrary selection of roles in shows from Show Boat to Spring Awakening, including those played by Gertrude Lawrence (who, as Liza Elliott, performed in Lady in the Dark, a musical play with three dream sequences, not three acts [p. 316]), Rex Harrison, Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, and others. (Merman, Lansbury, and other women who have performed the role of Rose in Gypsy on stage and screen figure prominently in OHAM. In fact, both Wolf and Holley Replogle-Wong recount how Lansbury bowed beyond the audience's applause of "Rose's Turn" [pp. 220 and 386]). In one of OHAM's best essays, Zachary A. Dorsey ("Dance and Choreogra - phy") arms readers with a three-step methodology for analyzing movement in musical theater performance (description, synthesis, interpretation). Drawing on examples from film musicals of the 1950s and 1970s, Dorsey demystifies for the nonspecialist the challenge of describing in words dance and choreography on the stage and screen. But the reader will have to look back almost 300 pages to Liza Gennaro's "Evolution of Dance in the Golden Age of the American 'Book Musical' " for a cursory appraisal of the contributions of Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Jack Cole, Michael Kidd, Bob Fosse, Peter Gennaro, and Gower Champion to the stage musicals of the same period.

The editors of OHAM adopted a decidedly egalitarian approach to the organization of their volume; they have shifted issues traditionally occupying the periphery of discussions of musicals to the center. Susan Smith's essay, "The Animated Film Musical," for instance, a subject usually excluded from surveys of musicals, spans as many pages and thus receives the same amount of attention as Geoffrey Block's insightful chapter, "Integration," in which he outlines five principles of integration, with reference to examples from Oklahoma! and its precedents, and draws parallels between racial integration and the development and reception of the integrated musical. Like - wise, Jessica Sternfeld's "Stars and Fans," another marginalized topic, claims the same number of pages as Paul R. Laird's "Musical Styles and Song Con ventions." Every contributor appears to have adhered to the same word limit, regardless of the subject or repertoire under consideration (most essays do not exceed thirteen pages). Many of the authors attempt to say too much with too few words, which results in generalities that seldom convince.

OHAM's contributors refer to a wide variety of topics, but they concentrate on a rather limited repertoire of approximately two dozen musicals, film adaptations of stage musicals, movie musicals, and television musicals, which taken together form a "canon" of sorts for the book: Cabaret, A Chorus Line, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, The King and I, Les Misérables, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, The Producers, Rent, Show Boat, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Spring Awakening, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, and Wicked. Although these shows are the work of a range of composers, lyricists, bookwriters, directors, choreographers, set designers, actors, and other collaborators, they do not represent any historical or critical consensus of "important" musicals-what one might expect in a pedagogical resource- as, for example, none of the shows of Harold Arlen, Marc Blitzstein, Rudolf Friml, Jerry Herman, Sigmund Romberg, or Kurt Weill receive more than a passing reference.

OHAM contains ten black and white photographs and images, few quotations of lyrics, and no printed musical examples. Instead of an accompanying CD or DVD to complement discussions in the text, OHAM directs its readers to a password-protected companion Web site with a treasure trove of nearly two hundred audio, video, image, and text examples, including a 1901 recording of Bert Williams and George Walker singing "My Little Zulu Babe," photographs of Joseph Urban's set designs for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, and footage from Dumbo, Cinderella, and other films. Likely for reasons of copyright restrictions, most of the audio and video examples are incomplete, but the excerpts, generally thirty to ninety seconds in length, provide a taste of the sights and sounds under consideration and greatly enhance the commentaries in the book. In his chapter, "Race, Ethnicity, Performance," Todd Decker augments his analysis of racial and ethnic stereotypes with audio recordings from a selection of stage and screen musicals. Hearing part of "Love Will Find a Way," a romantic duet from Shuffle Along, the first all-black-cast hit of the Jazz Age, boosts the listener's understanding and appreciation of the number as an example of how the show's black creators, composer Eubie Blake and lyricist Noble Sissle, took risks in characterizing Shuffle Along's black lovers "as just like any other lovers-meaning white lovers-on the musical stage" (p. 200).

Decker's chapter is one of only fifteen (of OHAM's total of twenty-nine) that direct readers to examples on the companion Web site. One wonders why so many authors declined to use this valuable resource. Some keywords may not have invited the use of audio-visual examples. Steven Adler's excellent account of the business of making musicals ("Box Office"), peppered with excerpts from interviews with such Broadway moguls as Jeffrey Sellers and Paul Libin and theater and entertainment attorney Seth Gelblum, has no need of audio-visual illustrations. By contrast, companion media could have lent support to Wolf 's gendered readings of characters and character types ("Gender and Sexuality"). An excerpt of "For Good" (Wicked) would have complemented her description of Elphaba and Glinda's final duet, in which, as Wolf describes, "the women's voices wrap around each other, constantly switching voice parts and concluding the song in unison" (pp. 215-16).

About half of the links on the Web site lead readers to longer recordings on YouTube. The danger with YouTube, of course, is that material can inexplicably disappear, as is the case with example 10.2, a clip from the 1936 film Swing Time starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Another link, 4.17, supposedly a transcript of an interview between OHAM contributor Liza Gennaro and actor-dancer Harvey Evans, is also "dead."

In "After the 'Golden Age,' " coauthors Jessica Sternfeld and Elizabeth L. Wollman interweave a variety of images (album art, photographs, logos) and audio recordings with a critique of the term "Golden Age" and an examination of issues affecting shows over the past fifty years or so. In considering nostalgia and revisionism in the postmodern age, Sternfeld and Wollman briefly turn their attention to musicals by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, one of the most prolific and provocative figures of the post-Golden Age era. They write:

What is misleading about Sondheim's placement in the musical theater canon is that while he was strongly influenced by the songwriting teams of the so-called Golden Age-in particular Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein-his sound is hardly rooted in the past (p. 122).

The sound of Sondheim, a master pasticheur, "is hardly rooted in the past"? His scores may not imitate the memorable melodies of Rodgers (unless, of course, that is the point) but they do draw on, reference, critique, subvert, depart from, and pay homage to the conventions, idioms, genres, and styles of earlier shows and musical entertainments. "Me and My Town," "Side by Side by Side," "Losing My Mind," and "Please, Hello," numbers from four of Sondheim's musicals, spring to mind as examples that self-consciously evoke the past to make dramatic statements. So what could Sternfeld and Wollman mean, particularly in light of Sondheim's two recent volumes of lyrics in which he addresses his debts to and departures from his Golden- Age predecessors?

Despite its editors' aspirations that OHAM become a pedagogical tool, the book, with its battery of perspectives, would no doubt overwhelm undergraduate stu dents just as its limited repertoire and historical framework would underinform them. Indeed, much of the book suggests that the reader bring at least a passing acquaintance with many musicals that are hardly mentioned. The companion Web site may fill in some of the gaps, but the neophyte would require more substantial, lengthier encounters with representative examples in addition to basic information about each show (plot summaries, production history, reception, etc.). To whom, then, is OHAM addressed? According to OHAM's dust jacket, the book's appeal stretches beyond the textbook crowd: "The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical will engage all readers interested in the form, from students to scholars to fans and aficionados." Claiming to offer "something for everyone" sounds more like a marketing ploy than a realistic outreach to a target readership. Whereas OHAM may appeal to the fan or aficionado, professors should look elsewhere; the superficiality of this uneven collection would provide little help in the classroom. OHAM may have begun as a response to Savran's mandate but the book adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Author affiliation:


Eastman School of Music

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