How did we get from "Show Boat" to "Shrek the Musical"? A well-researched look at the history of American musical theater.
When a book about musical theater is called Showtime, you might expect a little razzle-dazzle. But Larry Stempel, an associate professor of music at Fordham University, hasn’t spent 30 years and much of his adult life just to entertain you. His desire is to instruct: “I thought I might take a more scholarly approach than that of the few books on the subject then available,” Stempel writes in his preface.
Indeed. In the introduction, Stempel exhaustively mentions almost every major book on musical theater and what he thought they lacked from an academic perspective. Then he spends a great deal of time, not unreasonably, in wondering exactly what we mean by “the musical.”
“The term itself is hardly satisfactory...,” Stempel writes. “So it is probably best to begin by defining the musical broadly as a type of performance made up of the basic creative processes that all such practices have in common. These include, above all, talking (almost always); singing (most often accompanied by unseen instruments); and dancing (generally mixed and interspersed with other kinds of movement). The Czech theorist Ivo Osolsobe put it well when he summarized the subject of his ‘Semiotics Of The Musical Theatre’ in such irreducible terms as The Theatre Which Speaks, Sings, and Dances.”
I’ll spare you his labored, unnecessary explanation that while the book is roughly chronological, he must admit that within chapters a certain jumping back and forth in time is necessary to tell a coherent narrative.
Those looking for an entertaining overview of the musical, with vivid characters and great shows of the past vividly described should look elsewhere. Few Broadway figures come especially to life on the page, despite the occasional familiar anecdote, like David Merrick’s headline-grabbing announcement of the death of director Gower Champion on the opening night of "42nd Street."
But how does “Showtime” fare at what it intends, as an academic work, essentially a textbook?
Here, Stempel is on firmer ground. He begins with an acknowledgment that even before Columbus arrived singing and dancing were common in numerous ceremonies. Happily, we move swiftly forward... to Colonial times. Stempel then details everything from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (a de facto musical because it often contained so many songs and dances in its various forms) to minstrel shows to extravaganzas like “The Black Crook,” the mega-musical of its day.
Variety, vaudeville, performer-impresarios like Harrigan and Hart, on to operettas and Gilbert & Sullivan: This is where Stempel does his most useful work, though he is hampered by having to describe shows that naturally he’s rarely seen in any form.
The book is nearly 200 pages in before we reach “Show Boat” and the Ziegfeld Follies. His work becomes a little livelier here (it’s much easier to get a handle on musicals you’ve actually watched or at least listened to) albeit less ground-breaking.
The rest of “Showtime” moves inexorably forward, from “Oklahoma” to the golden age in the 1940s and ’50s, to off Broadway and "The Fantasticks." On it moves to Stephen Sondheim, the megamusicals of the ’80s and ’90s, right up to “Rent” and even current fare like “Shrek The Musical,” which he unfortunately refers to as a “movical.”
For such a staid book, there’s really no excuse for calling the recent flurry of musicals based on movies by the term “movical.” One, Broadway has drawn upon movies ever since movies began, as he notes, so a historian like Stempel shouldn’t treat this as so unusual. Two, it sounds idiotic.
Throughout, Stempel offers a little musical analysis here, a (grudging?) vivid anecdote there, and a major focus on the broader forces that shaped the culture and hence musicals such as war, the Depression and the Communist witch hunts.
You would be hard-pressed to take issue with what Stempel asserts anywhere in the book. As an overview, it is judicious and decidedly in the mainstream of opinion.
Stempel charts the changing role of the choreographer and the producer rather than weighing in on the positive or negative influence artistically of the “British invasion” in shows like “The Phantom of The Opera” and “Les Misérables.” You’ll find no radical reimagining of the major figures in musical history here.
“Showtime” is certainly sober, well-researched, and filled with useful information, especially about the early days of performance in America before the musical as we know it took shape. But casual readers (and more likely, students) who don’t already love musicals won’t be sent rushing off to attend a Broadway show by Stempel’s work. And that’s a shame. Even a textbook can be entertaining.
Michael Giltz is a freelance writer based in New York City.