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Sunday, 15 August 2010 00:20

Book Review: Broadway - The American Musical

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“Broadway: The American Musical,” the companion book to the 2004 PBS six-part series has finally been released in an updated paperback edition.  The series and the book are certainly one of the definitive encyclopedias of the American musical theatre.  In 1866 a Germanic melodrama called The Black Crook merged a french ballet company into their own show because the dance company’s theatre had burned down.  This fusion of dance, music and drama is what many theatre historians consider the first American musical comedy.

The roots of the American musical are an amalgam of many of the smaller ethnic communities that had their own style of performing, the Irish, the Jewish, the Blacks.  “Broadway: The American Musical” looks at all of these and shows their combined effect on what has been, is, and will someday be the various incarnations of the Broadway musical.  As Walter Winchell is quoted in the book, “Broadway is a mosaic contrived of living fragments.” Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon have undertaken a Herculean task in putting this book together.  It is exhaustive and lovingly rendered.

The book includes archives of articles written on the topic of the Broadway musical and its cast of characters.  There is Abe Burrows’s obituary of Frank Loesser which was published in the NY Times, Cole Porter with notes on the morning after an opening night, Michael Bennett on A Chorus Line, Eddie Cantor on Al Jolson and Lorenz Hart on Richard Rodgers.  There is also a Who’s Who of the Broadway musical stars by decade and includes everyone from George M. Cohan to Fanny Brice to Al Jolson to Anglela Lansbury to Joel Grey to Matthew Morrison and the cast of “Glee,” the television series centered on a high-school glee club which prominently features such Broadway vets as Matthew Morrison, Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.

The book is full of classic Broadway stories: David Merrick soliciting people from the phonebook who had the same name as some of the major critics to get them to endorse fawning praise for his musical Subways are for Sleeping after inviting them to see it; Jerome Robbins instructing the cast members who played the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story to not associate with each other off-stage as well as on, to foster the called-for animosity between the two groups; the death on opening morning of Gower Champion, the director of 42nd Street, its announcement dramatically held until it was announced that evening from the stage by David Merrick immediately following the curtain call; the dramatic and premature demise of Jonathan Larson the night of the final dress rehearsal for the smash, hit musical Rent.

One encouraging through-line of this book, the American musical is a fluid and evolving entity that looks nothing like it did when it began in 1866.  Its chameleon-like ability to change with the times is what makes the American musical so resilient.  Theatre caricaturist/historian Al Hirshfeld on the resilience of the Broadway musical: “I’ve been hearing about Broadway disappearing ever since I put on long pants.  The form changes, and that’s difficult for a lot of people to accept.”

This book is beautifully designed.  It blends a combination of production photos, window cards, historical and candid photos and even Hirshfeld drawings to tell the story.  This book is Musical Theatre 101 and 201 rolled into one gorgeous coffee-table book.  If you love someone who loves the Broadway musical, give them this book.

“Broadway: The American Musical” by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor.  Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. 497 pp.

Buy "Broadway: The American Musical"

Last modified on Sunday, 15 August 2010 00:34