It is awfully hard to dig deep into the history of musical theater without having access to the essential thing that sets it apart from other theatrical events – the music.

Of course, you can buy recordings of the full scores of all the major shows and study them in some sort of systematic sequence (chronological, all the operettas, all the light comedies, all the jukebox musicals, all the revues [if you can find them … that is a sadly neglected sub-genre] or all the star vehicles). That is, however, extremely expensive in terms of money and in terms of time.

Or you can get a history book such as Gerald Bordman and Richard Norton’s superb American Musical Theatre, A Chronicle  and “read all about it.” However, if you are anything like me you’ll read along for a while and then get to a reference to a score you’ve got somewhere on your theater shelf and you’ll stop, plug in the cd and listen before proceeding. It may take you a long time to get very far into such a history book.

Here are two options that might give you a broad brush acquaintance with the topic without requiring that you retire, head to a desert island and devote a season to study.

Naxos records has issued a four-disc, five and a quarter hour “talking book” of The History of the Musical narrated by the often wonderful Kim Criswell, a Broadway and West End actress who has recorded a wide range of scores including a sparkling Annie Get Your Gun.

The nearly 100 tracks of Criswell reading the text are separated by another 100 tracks of excerpts from the songs being discussed. While not all references to songs or shows are accompanied by excerpts from the scores, enough are that you don’t need to stop every few minutes and find your own recordings.

Nearly half of these musical snippets are from historic recordings, and the other half come from the catalog of John Yap’s JAY Records. That catalog is a reliable source for quality recordings often using the original orchestrations.

The booklet accompanying the discs includes a complete track listing which adds up to a good table of contents. This makes it easy to go back to check something if you need to. The samples are not complete, but they are long enough to give a good idea of the importance of what you are listening to. It is a shame that the booklet doesn’t include photos which could have illustrated some of the points from the text.

That text is by Richard Fawkes whose credentials are more impressive in the area of classical music and opera than in stage musicals. His text covers the ground quite well, however. Without checking source material for all the dates and credits he cites, it is clear that he sketches the long history quite well and that is quite an accomplishment. After all, only a topic as broad as the history of the musical from 1728 (The Beggars Opera) through 1985 (Les Misérables) could result in a 5 hour briefing!

Fawkes does make a number of gaffes that weaken his credibility however. He describes Richard Rodgers’ decision to ask Oscar Hammerstein II to work with him on what became Oklahoma! as being done in “a fit of pique.” Everything I’ve read on that momentous decision indicates that Rodgers agonized over the decision to end his partnership with Lorenz Hart, it was not a spur of the moment impulse.

He goes on to dig himself deeper into a hole with the observation that “Rodgers … opened the show … with a solitary person on stage and the sound of off-stage singing.” Yes, Richard Rodgers wrote the music for that moment, but it was Oscar Hammerstein’s book that “opened the show” that way.

He also blows it a bit with the comment that “all” of the wonderful songs George Gershwin composed in Hollywood prior to his death in 1937 were “written while he was in excruciating pain from a brain tumor.” The pain came intermittently, becoming constant only late in the process after most of those songs had already been composed.

The text is a bit heavier on musical developments in London and Europe than in America, and gives a bit of a short shrift to the important films in the development of movie musicals, but Fawkes is English so I guess we can forgive him for placing the “Dust Bowls of the Great Depression” in California. Overall, however, the briefing gives a listener a solid feel for the evolution of the art form for the reasonable price of five hours of your time and $25.99.

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If you want to dig deeper into particular aspects of the topic, you might invest in a more pricey method with a $150 copy of The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical which offers 29 learned essays on many aspects of the topic. Each is a stand-alone scholarly lesson. The editors say they designed the book as a teaching tool. The introduction says “We intend this book not (necessarily) to be read cover to cover, nor (necessarily) assigned in order, but as a resource for instructors, students and aficionados of the musical.”

The editors, UCLA’s Raymond Knapp and Mitchell Morris and Princeton’s Stacy Wolf, separate the 29 essays into six parts (historiography, transformations, media, identities, performance, and audiences) with articles such as “Musical Styles and Song Conventions,” “Minstrelsy and Theatrical Miscegenation,” “Gender and Sexuality,” “Orchestration and Arrangement” and “Performance, Authenticity and Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical.”

Pretty heavy stuff!

But the publishers, the Oxford University Press, have established a website where they have posted audio and video examples as well as images and additional textual material to help you appreciate just what the authors are talking about. The book comes with the password to the site and the text of the book has icons at appropriate places identifying the specific example relevant to that point in the discussion. Even the footnotes have icons pointing you to examples.

The site is pretty slow to load and this can be frustrating when you really want to hear a specific strain of melody or see a particular step of choreography to understand what an author means by a particular observation. Still, the clips make it much easier to comprehend the points being made if you can stand waiting for the example to appear.

Not all the authors of individual sections avail themselves of the website. The opening essay, Mitchell Morris’ “Narratives and Values,” is pretty heavy going, which all but serious history students may find pure gobbledegook, and it has no icons referring to the website at all. However, it raises a half a dozen ponderable precepts in the space of less than a half dozen pages. It certainly could have benefited from some samples, a few snippets and perhaps a clip of Joel Grey as the Wizard in Wicked saying “where I’m from we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true … we call it ‘history.’”

Liza Gennaro (the choreographer of the revivals of Once Upon a Mattress and The Most Happy Fella and the daughter of legendary choreographer Peter Gennaro) uses more website examples for her chapter “Evolution of Dance in the Golden Age of the American ‘Book Musical’” and also does an excellent job of describing some classic dance sequences. Her description of Oklahoma!’s ballet “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” is  easy to follow, which is a good thing since the website example in this case is a clip from the Hollywood movie version which is much less earthy than Agnes de Mille’s Broadway original. (There’s not a “post card girl” to be found in the clip!)

Knapp and Morris’ chapter on Tin Pan Alley songs, on the other hand, exploits the website opportunity fully. This is good as even the most avid musical theater recording collector is unlikely to have 1896 and 1901 discs on their groaning theater shelves.

Using the Naxos talking book and then the Oxford book-with-website to gain a fuller sense of the evolution of the musical is a pleasant way to enhance your appreciation of the genre.

History of the Musical
Naxos catalog number NA422712
Running time: 5:15 over 197 tracks on 4 discs
ISBN 9-62634-227-7
List price $25.99

The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical
Oxford University Press
470 pages including bibliography and index
ISBN 798-0-19-538594-6
List price $150.00

Two Ways to Revisit the History of the Musical

June 26, 2012