Expert's history of musicals shows him as fan, too
If you were to sum up the history of the American musical, the tale would go something like this: Over time, patchwork entertainments featuring loosely strung together musical numbers became integrated by book writers. A golden age gleamed during the postwar boom, when popular radio and Broadway were still in sync. The invasion of the Beatles would change all that, but the whole glorious enterprise would really come undone by a decadent commercialism, leaving Broadway at the turn of the millennium awash in jukebox nostalgia and theme-park kitsch.
The historical record is, of course, infinitely more various, as Ethan Mordden never lets us forget in his latest chronicle of the American musical, “Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre.” For every pattern that can be discerned, there's an unforgettable exception. This makes the history inherently challenging to write, and Mordden, an extraordinarily knowledgeable guide, can't help disrupting categories the moment he establishes them.
His book is divided into four eras: The first concentrates on the European prehistory, the second on the American pond out of which Jerome Kern crawled, the third on the glory days that stretched from Oscar Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim, and the fourth on the deliquescence and decline that are our unenviable inheritance.
This chronology suggests an orderly evolutionary march, but Mordden's title indicates his awareness that musicals exist to please a fickle audience, and no matter how much artists may wish to push the envelope creatively, staying open for business is a show's primary concern.
The arts clearly aren't progressive in any continuous sense, for, if they were, how would you explain Andrew Lloyd Webber, pop opera's vintage sentimentalist, succeeding Sondheim, who made his name perfecting the radical experiment taken up by Rodgers & Hammerstein in “Allegro”?
“Anything Goes” corrects many false assumptions, including the notion that the American musical is a purely homegrown invention. It's true that this category discovered its potential in the polyglot churn of New York's immigrant communities. But the operettas of the British duo Gilbert & Sullivan and the Continental offerings of Jacques Offenbach were formatively influential.
The Irish-born, German-raised American composer Victor Herbert, a figure usually given cursory treatment, is credited here with being the D.W. Griffith of the American musical. In addition to his role as “grammarian, innovator and debate-club coach,” he is said to have “reshaped the very structure of the American song, shortening the verse and lengthening the chorus till his heirs, from Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern to Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins, had a more dramatically protean format to work with.”
Naturally, it's those latter names that will cause musical aficionados to prick up their ears. Mordden, who has already written a series of books examining the Broadway musical decade by decade, reviews this familiar ground with a lighter touch than that of Larry Stempel, whose “Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater” offers a more rigorously synthesized history.
It's the work of an expert who is also an unabashed fan, an inveterate theatergoer who can deconstruct a score and reel off sparkling backstage anecdotes all in the same paragraph. (The book includes a strikingly candid discography that brings out both sides of Mordden's character.)
One section stands out: The chapter titled “The Rodgers and Hammerstein Handbook” magnificently distills what made this composer-lyricist and book-writer team so groundbreaking — chiefly, the central importance they placed on “character traction” in the score and the way they proved to everyone that the musical could pursue tragic or “romantically inconclusive” stories without sacrificing broad audience appeal.
There's a Sondheim handbook, as well, but it's a bit of a ruse, focused mostly on dispelling the false notions that have accumulated around his work, humorously encapsulated in a single sentence: “If Sondheim had written ‘Oklahoma!', the farmer and the cowman would still be fighting.”
“Anything Goes” reads too much like an almanac in its final chapters. Mordden singles out shows he believes are significant for advancing a development in the musical's history or enshrining a trend. But the inventory begins to crowd out insight.
Mordden's ardor sometimes dulls his critical faculties. He thinks “Titanic” got a bad rap from critics who wanted to make sinking-ship jokes and heaps undue praise on “Wicked” for its dramatic substance and “melodious” score. But occasional overzealousness is a pardonable offense from an author who never runs out of interesting things to say about his lifelong passion.
Charles McNulty is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Starkey: Century mark beckons for Ben
- Highmark seeks double-digit increase for more benefits, heavy use
- Wanted sex offender caught hiding in homemade fort in Washington County
- Flyers continue mastery of Penguins at Consol
- Officials identify witness to Port Authority bus crash after releasing photo
- Steelers’ defense on pace for fewest sacks in 16-game season
- Canadians more fearful, aware after ‘very rare’ attack in Ottawa
- Florida fugitive nabbed in Pittsburgh-area homeless shelter
- WPIAL, coaches are still looking to schedule Week 9 rivalry games
- Corbett rips Wolf tax proposals during Hempfield campaign stop
- Motorist in Downtown mishap, passenger arrested on drug charges