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Showtime

How did we get from "Show Boat" to "Shrek the Musical"? A well-researched look at the history of American musical theater.

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Showtime:
A History Of The Broadway Musical Theater
By Larry Stempel
W.W. Norton & Company
826 pages
$39.95

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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.

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