My theater shelves are already groaning with books about the history of musical theater. Some are well researched but terribly dry reference works. Some are entertaining but hardly definitive source documents. Many of them bear the imprint “OUP” as in Oxford University Press. Today OUP releases another one, and I’m just going to have to make more room.

Seems that Ethan Mordden, author of many, many books on musicals and theater, has taken on the task of creating a single-volume survey of the topic that previously occupied seven of his more than three dozen titles: the Broadway musical. 

Just as with those earlier volumes, I won’t be using it as a reference, but I will most definitely peruse it when the topic of the moment is a specific show or an identifiable trend. Thank goodness, the volume sports a twenty-plus page index guiding the reader to the pages discussing particular shows or people.

Unfortunately, the index doesn’t cover the contents of the two appendices – Discography and For Further Reading. But more about that later.

Best taken in small bites, Mordden’s discussions of important musicals, or of any of a number of categories into which like-shows can be grouped, are both entertaining and thought provoking. He isn’t really the author to pick up to introduce yourself to an aspect of the history of Broadway – there are more authoritative and more usefully assembled volumes for that. But once you think you have a handle on a topic, reading his ruminations can challenge your complacency and stimulate the consideration of alternative views.

Of course, if you already own his volumes on the musicals of the 1920s (Make Believe), 1930s (Sing For Your Supper), 1940s (Beautiful Mornin’), 1950s (Coming Up Roses), 1960s (Open A New Window), 1970s (One More Kiss) or the effort to cap the series with one volume dealing with the 1980s, ’90s and the first half of the ‘oughts (The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen), you don’t need me to do anything but inform you of the existence of his new book Anything Goes, A History of American Musical Theatre. You will either say “Oh, wow, another dose of Mordden” and place your order – or you will say “Uh, oh, another dose of Mordden” and move on to things that interest you more.

He is a bit of an acquired taste. If you haven’t acquired it yet, you may want to know what this volume offers that you can’t get in, say, Gerald Bordman’s American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, in its fourth edition updated by Richard Norton (also, by the way, published by OUP) or Larry Stempel’s superb Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater published by W. W. Norton. After all, with Bordman/Norton you get well documented factual details on all the Broadway musicals from before there was a Broadway till they had to cut it off with 2010′s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in order to go to the printer. With Stemple you get a historian’s eye view of trends and trendsetters.

With Mordden you get, well, Mordden. A sense of certainty pervades his opinions and there is no dividing line between them and factual statements. And not all those opinions are in tune with popular consensus. He knows what he knows and believes what he believes and isn’t hesitant about sharing it with us. And that is refreshing in its honesty and always interesting.

The book starts out with a terrific seventy-page survey of all that preceded the time when Victor Herbert became, in Mordden’s phrase, “America’s composer” turning out forty-one Broadway shows between the 1890s and the 1920s. It is a readable and entertaining zip through The Beggar’s Opera, The Black Crook, the works of Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan, Robin Hood, The Wizard of Oz, Floradora and George M. Cohan.

Of course, Mordden being Mordden, it includes a host of asides and entertaining comments including some whoppers like the book from Otto Hauerbach (later Harbach) for Rudolf Friml’s The Firefly “might be the worst book written for a famous title.”

But it is his connecting the dots between shows he’s actually seen and the entire history of musical theater that is the best thing about the book’s main text. He delights in sharing details that might not have caught the attention of others from his innumerable nights in Broadway theaters. 

He makes that clear in his introduction when he disdains research as merely “ransacking the archives,” thanking a host of people with personal experience who helped him add to his understanding but also saying “I was there for a good deal of it, and I vividly remember certain bits of staging that one cannot glean from surviving documents.”

The man is now in his mid sixties, so his personal recollections go back only to around the mid 1950s. While the book is interesting as it runs through the history that preceded his personal attendance, it gets to be something more as he begins to thread personal observations into the narrative. It becomes something like a leisurely chat with an observant expert who uses personal memories to illustrate his points. Each memory makes you wish you’d been attending the shows with him along the way.

No. This isn’t a book to study. It is a book to enjoy. The more you bring to it, the more you will take away from it.

But Mordden saves the best part for last. Not the last of the main part of the book – in fact he seems to run out of steam as he tries to wrap up too much in too few pages, leaving the final chapter frustratingly sketchy.

No, it is after the final chapter that the book becomes something more than good, it becomes superb. Mordden offers up a ten page survey of the extant literature on his subject under the title “For Further Reading” which is a fabulous guide to building your own theater shelf. He discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of over fifty volumes (only one of which is his own) which would constitute a superb theater book shelf. (Surprisingly, he overlooks Stempel’s Showtime.)

He follows that with an even more ambitious project, a “Discography” that is much more than a simple list of CDs and DVDs. He sets out his intentions in its first paragraph: “one, to guide the reader to a re-discovery of old music and the styles in which it was originally played and performed; two, to outline the development of the cast album, the single most influential element in the creation of a permanent repertory of works; and, three, to point out recordings both enlightening and entertaining.”

How well did he do on those three ambitious goals? Very well, indeed – at least for the first 27 of the discography’s 31 pages. He covers a wide swath of theater music recordings, giving mouth-watering descriptions to those he loves and interesting and informative précis of those he respects while never pulling his punches where he has been disappointed. He devotes no fewer than five fairly lengthy paragraphs to recordings of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, gives a rundown on the various labels’ efforts to record the Gilbert and Sullivan scores, lets the reader know about Opera Rara's two-CD sampler of Jacques Offenbach with its 240 page booklet (if you can call a 240 page document a “booklet”) and highlights a number of packages of historic recordings on Pearl. I do wish he had included the catalog numbers of these releases as some are hard to find.

For an inveterate, irretrievably addicted collector of theater music, this writeup is a marvelous blend of new discoveries and reminders of the best of old friends.

But just as the main text of the book seems to lose focus and Mordden’s interest seems to flag when he gets to what he calls the “Fourth Age” of the American Musical Theatre, the discography gets to the end of the 1970s and then comes to a frustrating semi-halt. Rather than continue with a discussion of the best and most notable of the recordings of musicals post – say – The Phantom of the Opera, Mordden launches into a recording-by-recording analysis of all the Broadway productions of Gypsy that runs to over three pages and ends with a personal diatribe on that oh-so-easy-to-hate playwright/director/author Arthur Laurents.

A disappointing ending to an otherwise superb book.

Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre
by Ethan Mordden
Oxford University Press
360 Pages including 25 black and white photos, Index, Discography and Further Reading
List price $29.95
ISBN-13: 978-0199892839

Anything Goes
A History of American Musical Theatre

September 5, 2013