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, hasnât spent 30 years and much of his adult life just to entertain you. His desire is to instruct: âI thought I might take a more scholarly approach than that of the few books on the subject then available,â 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 âthe musical.â
âThe term itself is hardly satisfactory...,â Stempel writes. âSo 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 âSemiotics Of The Musical Theatreâ in such irreducible terms as The Theatre Which Speaks, Sings, and Dances.â
Iâll 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 Merrickâs headline-grabbing announcement of the death of director Gower Champion on the opening night of "42nd Street."
But how does âShowtimeâ 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 âUncle Tomâs Cabinâ (a de facto musical because it often contained so many songs and dances in its various forms) to minstrel shows to extravaganzas like âThe Black Crook,â 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 heâs rarely seen in any form.
The book is nearly 200 pages in before we reach âShow Boatâ and the Ziegfeld Follies. His work becomes a little livelier here (itâs much easier to get a handle on musicals youâve actually watched or at least listened to) albeit less ground-breaking.
The rest of âShowtimeâ moves inexorably forward, from âOklahomaâ to the golden age in the 1940s and â50s, to off Broadway and "The Fantasticks." On it moves to Stephen Sondheim, the megamusicals of the â80s and â90s, right up to âRentâ and even current fare like âShrek The Musical,â which he unfortunately refers to as a âmovical.â
For such a staid book, thereâs really no excuse for calling the recent flurry of musicals based on movies by the term âmovical.â One, Broadway has drawn upon movies ever since movies began, as he notes, so a historian like Stempel shouldnât 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 âBritish invasionâ in shows like âThe Phantom of The Operaâ and âLes MisĂŠrables.â Youâll find no radical reimagining of the major figures in musical history here.
âShowtimeâ 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 donât already love musicals wonât be sent rushing off to attend a Broadway show by Stempelâs work. And thatâs a shame. Even a textbook can be entertaining.
Michael Giltz is a freelance writer based in New York City.