Rumors of a dearth of musical theatre scholarship have been greatly exaggerated. The recent revitalization of Yale’s Broadway Masters series as Oxford’s Broadway Legacies and the sixth anniversary of the journal Studies in Musical Theatre attest to the vitality of academic publishing about musical theatre. The two books under review here exemplify the worthy critical attention paid to that genre’s artistry: one, a comprehensive history of musicals; the other, a close reading of a single show. Together, they embody much of what is best in the field, though they also reveal the importance of supplementing the primarily musicological perspective offered by both authors with the work of theatre and performance studies scholars.
Among the many histories of the Broadway musical, few match the scope and detail of Larry Stempel’s Showtime. Stempel has crafted a thoroughly researched narrative of “a category of show over the course of time: the kind of show we now call the Broadway musical as it changes historically in form, in style, in content, in context, in purpose, and in meaning” (2). Although attentive to all these topics, Stempel prioritizes genre history. Roughly chronological chapters explore the musical’s major forms, from variety and operetta, through musical comedy and revue, to the musical play and the concept musical. Detailed discussions of significant people and shows flesh out each chapter’s topic. For example, a chapter on the integrated musical play focuses on three creative teams (Rodgers and Hammerstein; Lerner and Loewe; Bock and Harnick) and their genre-defining works. Stempel combines his own analyses with existing critical approaches to elucidate the aesthetic and cultural value of his subjects, as in his fine explanation of the deviations from traditional Tin Pan Alley song structures that characterize the peculiar, persistent magic of the American Songbook. [End Page 190]
Within this narrative, two themes emerge: genre and economics. The history of a theatrical form demands attention to genre, and Stempel’s definitions are clear and valuable; e.g., “a musical comedy is a revue in which the ‘right running order’ is governed by a plot” (222). Yet Stempel’s generic parsing tends toward pedantry, and his insistence on distinguishing, for example, 1950s musical comedies from musical plays simultaneously fragments his larger narrative and elides important connections among the musical’s subgenres. A more delicate touch, particularly in the book’s first half, would be welcome.
Economics provides a far more intriguing and fruitful theme. At first, Stempel underplays this angle, offering a disappointingly brief discussion of the Syndicate/Shubert battle and saying little about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein as producers. But eventually economics gains prominence in Stempel’s narrative, culminating in a chapter about megamusicals that expresses ambivalence about the relative value of art and commerce in the age of Broadway’s corporatization (i.e., Disneyfication). Stempel’s discussion of Man of La Mancha exemplifies the productive intersection of economic and aesthetic histories: in Stempel’s telling, the show’s stripped-down design — which demanded of the audience a sympathetically Quixotic effort of imagination — was a result of tight financing. Despite Stempel’s anxiety that economic considerations can evacuate a musical’s aesthetic potential, he recognizes that commercial and artistic success are not mutually exclusive.
Given Showtime’s size, minor head-scratchers are inevitable (a comparison of musical themes in Show Boat confuses more than it explains ; and is Stephen Sondheim’s canonical status really uncertain? ) but they are few. The scholarly apparatuses are cumbersome (the comprehensive bibliography needs subdividing, while the notes, listed at the end by page number and an identifying phrase, are hard to use), but the book is well illustrated, with multiple musical examples, a selected discography, and a full index. Production information about key shows opens each chapter, a welcome device for the textbook audience.
Stempel necessarily skimps on some...