MUSICAL THEATER The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical. Edited by Raymond Knapp, Mitchell Morris, and Stacy Wolf. (Oxford Handbooks.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. [x, 480 p. ISBN 9780195385946. $150.] Illustrations, bibliography, index, companion Web site.
The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical (OHAM) is an answer to David Savran's call for multifaceted approaches to scholarly considerations of the American musical. Almost a decade ago, Savran declared: "No form of Western theatre (with the possible exception of opera) uses as many different media to produce a totality that is always far more than the sum of its parts [than the American musical]. As a result, analysis requires an implicit or explicit theorization of multiple (and often conflicting) systems of significance" (David Savran, "Towards a Historiography of the Popular," Theatre Survey 45, no. 2 [Novem - ber 2004]: 215-16; cited in OHAM, p. 21). OHAM comprises twenty-nine chapters (plus a scant introduction) by twenty-seven "leading experts" (dust jacket); the conspicuous absence of a substantial list of these authorities in the field seems both curious and unfortunate: Stephen Banfield, Tim Carter, William A. Everett, Kim H. Kowalke, bruce d. mcclung, Larry Stempel, and Elizabeth A. Wells, to name only a few. Musicologists comprise approximately onehalf of the book's contributors, and theatre, film, or media studies specialists, dance historians, choreographers, and critics make up the other half. Such a diverse creative collective brings within a single book "multiple . . . systems of significance," as Savran recommended, to the topic of American musicals. That the essays may be of uneven standard seems unavoidable given the wide range of disciplines, degree of familiarity with repertoire, and scholarly expertise.
In her introduction to OHAM, Wolf explains the origins of the book: "Even as [musical theater] scholarship has grown in diverse and wide-ranging ways, the teaching of musicals continues to be extremely challenging. This book grew out of our mutual passion for teaching musicals and our mutual frustration with available pedagogically oriented materials" (p. 4). Good resources for university courses on musical theater are, indeed, still scarce. Published in 2010, Larry Stempel's magnificent 800-page tome, Showtime: A History of the American Musical Theatre (New York: W. W. Norton), is a welcome exception, along with its price ($39.95), roughly one quarter of OHAM's. As an alternative to Showtime and other sources, which generally construct a chronological narrative of the origins, ancestry, and generic evolution of musicals, OHAM takes the format of a "keywords book" in which each chapter, allegedly with "jargon-free language" (dust jacket), defines, historicizes, and analyzes terms or concepts that pertain to musicals. Such keywords as "Class and Culture," "Gender and Sexuality," "Orchestration and Arrange - ment," and "Box Office" provide titles for chapters, which are then grouped under six headings: "Historiography," "Trans - forma tions," "Media," "Identities," "Perfor - mance," and "Audiences." These broad conceptual divisions reflect the breadth, direction, and tone of American musical theater studies, and yet also point to obstacles facing scholars today.
I know of no other book on American musicals that offers such an array of approaches and perspectives as OHAM. Nor am I familiar with a source that delves into such an assortment of topics with so little generic, historical, or critical scaffolding. With few exceptions, most essays focus on keywords that apply to virtually any context within the history of musicals. "Acting" and "Dance and Choreography," for instance, invite their authors to explore multiple decades and figures, but prevent them from presenting anything approaching a thorough account of the topic. In "Acting," John M. Clum addresses an arbitrary selection of roles in shows from Show Boat to Spring Awakening, including those played by Gertrude Lawrence (who, as Liza Elliott, performed in Lady in the Dark, a musical play with three dream sequences, not three acts [p. …