Showtime

Article excerpt

How did we get from "Show Boat" to "Shrek the Musical"? A well- researched look at the history of American musical theater.

When a book about musical theater is called Showtime, you might

expect a little razzle-dazzle. But Larry Stempel, an associate

professor of music at Fordham University, hasn't spent 30 years and

much of his adult life just to entertain you. His desire is to

instruct: "I thought I might take a more scholarly approach than

that of the few books on the subject then available," Stempel

writes in his preface.

Indeed. In the introduction, Stempel exhaustively mentions almost

every major book on musical theater and what he thought they lacked

from an academic perspective. Then he spends a great deal of time,

not unreasonably, in wondering exactly what we mean by "the

musical."

"The term itself is hardly satisfactory...," Stempel writes.

"So it is probably best to begin by defining the musical broadly as

a type of performance made up of the basic creative processes that

all such practices have in common. These include, above all, talking

(almost always); singing (most often accompanied by unseen

instruments); and dancing (generally mixed and interspersed with

other kinds of movement). The Czech theorist Ivo Osolsobe put it well

when he summarized the subject of his 'Semiotics Of The Musical

Theatre' in such irreducible terms as The Theatre Which Speaks,

Sings, and Dances."

I'll spare you his labored, unnecessary explanation that while the

book is roughly chronological, he must admit that within chapters a

certain jumping back and forth in time is necessary to tell a

coherent narrative.

Those looking for an entertaining overview of the musical, with

vivid characters and great shows of the past vividly described should

look elsewhere. Few Broadway figures come especially to life on the

page, despite the occasional familiar anecdote, like David

Merrick's headline-grabbing announcement of the death of director

Gower Champion on the opening night of "42nd Street."

But how does "Showtime" fare at what it intends, as an academic

work, essentially a textbook?

Here, Stempel is on firmer ground. He begins with an acknowledgment

that even before Columbus arrived singing and dancing were common in

numerous ceremonies. Happily, we move swiftly forward... to Colonial

times. Stempel then details everything from "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

(a de facto musical because it often contained so many songs and

dances in its various forms) to minstrel shows to extravaganzas like

"The Black Crook," the mega-musical of its day. …