- The Megamusical
Some books lead readers to surmise that they are reading the last word on a given subject. Rarely, however, does one have the pleasure of running across the first word in what is bound to be a lively debate. Jessica Sternfeld's The Megamusical provides just such a delight.
Sternfeld approaches Broadway musicals from the perspective of a "lifelong musical theatre fan" and an accomplished musicologist. She argues, persuasively, that almost no serious musicological scholarship exists on the megamusicals—those Broadway behemoths that rose to prominence during the 1970s and have dominated the playing field for three decades. By approaching the subject from both historical and musicological perspectives, with The Megamusical Sternfeld provides a good starting point for that scholarship. Significantly, she does so by striking an excellent balance between theorized analyses of the music and lively storytelling.
The author defines a "megamusical" as a musical theatre production of massive proportions, which includes complicated sets and costumes, large casts, and creative advanced-marketing strategies. Megamusicals often have European roots in terms of authorship and subject matter and are usually set in the past. By design, the megamusical grapples with epic yet emotionally basic ideas for ease of transfer to foreign cultures, tends to be sung throughout without spoken dialogue, and is almost universally panned by critics and Sondheim fans alike.
In her introduction, Sternfeld throws down the gauntlet to professional theatre critics, claiming that their general dismissal of the megamusicals has played a role in their relatively diminished sphere of influence. I was prepared for a populist argument—and I got one. I also found myself reveling in the intricate examination of the music theory at work in key productions, which Sternfeld uses to bolster her argument. She wastes no space on illustrations, asserting that coffee-table books have filled that need. The focus here is on the music. The analysis she provides of representative productions is thorough. I was particularly impressed with her knowledgeable deconstruction of the early Rice / Lloyd Webber scores. One of the strongest aspects of the book, however, is its marvelous collection of historical, archival, and anecdotal information about the shows and their creators. Along with a detailed description of the music theory and theme development in Cats, for example, she includes a description of each major developmental phase of the work such as negotiations with the Eliot estate as well as interesting tidbits such as the fact that the actress first cast as Grisabella in the London production was Judi Dench. In this respect, Sternfeld makes an important contribution to Broadway cultural literacy.
The book's organization is roughly chronological. The author begins chapter 1 with an account of the emergence of the writing team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber and an analysis of their Ur-mega, Jesus Christ Superstar. Sternfeld's critique of this production is anchored in a close reading of the musical score. Initially, when I reached the first few passages of musical scoring, I wondered if I would find these sections indecipherable. With a little effort, however, I found that my generalist's musical education was adequate to the task. Sternfeld deals with the play's concept development, the score's techniques and styles (including the use of musical pastiche and recurring musical themes), the decision to release the album before going into production (along with other significant marketing strategies), the journey to Broadway, and finally, the over-the-top, campy New York production and subsequent falling out between Lloyd Webber and director Tom O'Horgan. Sternfeld carefully lays the groundwork for the conflicting philosophies held by Rice, who loves popular music, and Lloyd Webber, who wishes to be taken seriously as a composer.
Later chapters introduce Cameron Mackintosh with Evita, and Trevor Nunn and his colleagues from the Royal Shakespeare Company with Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Sternfeld also includes a fine chapter devoted to Boublil and Shönberg's Les Misérables, which, she suggests, adopts many of the successful techniques of the megamusical. While one might argue that it would be impossible to find...