The Musical as Drama: A Study of the Principles and Conventions Behind Musical Shows from Kern to Sondheim

By Wells, Elizabeth A. | Notes, September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Musical as Drama: A Study of the Principles and Conventions Behind Musical Shows from Kern to Sondheim


Wells, Elizabeth A., Notes


MUSICAL THEATER The Musical as Drama: A Study of the Principles and Conventions behind Musical Shows from Kern to Sondheim. By Scott McMillin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. [xvi, 230 p. ISBN-10 0-691-12740-1; ISBN-13 978-0-691-12730-9. $24.95.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

Rarely does a book come along that seems to elegantly summarize what has come before while taking its subject to the next level. The Musical as Drama by Scott McMillin is just such a book. Published in the last year of the author's life, this volume encapsulates an entire career's reflection on the nature and structure of musical theater. Although he doesn't advance any one overarching thesis, McMillin looks at musical theater as a dramaturgical phenomenon, not searching for organic unity within works but instead exploring the incongruities and disjunctions that form one of the central tensions in musical theater. Taking examples from among the best known and best loved shows in the repertoire, McMillin successfully argues for a more subtle reading of musical theater works as products of a collaborative process, and, as he asserts, the most important form of drama produced so far in America.

Scholarship on musical theater has tended towards studies of individual works (bruce mcclung's Lady in the Dark: A Biography of a Musical [New York: Oxford University Press, 2007]) or, more commonly, studies of the works of one composer (Stephen Banfield's Sondheim's Broadway Musicals [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993]), or one issue (lesbian and feminist reality in Stacy Wolf's A Problem like Maria [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002], or Jewish identity in Andrea Most's Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical [Cambridge, MA: Harvard Universtiy Press, 2004]). Alternatively, a number of books have come out in recent years that provide a broader narrative of Broadway appropriate as textbooks (Joseph Swain, The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990] or Geoffrey Block, Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Showboat to Sondheim [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997] for example). Rarer is this kind of study, which takes a critical and dramaturgical look at a number of important musicals from different historical eras, and advances ideas about how the disunities of the genre function dramatically, and how music and text and staging make the musical "work" in the theater. As McMillin notes, "I am not aware of a book that brings the musical before us as an aesthetic entity, a genre of drama with definable conventions around which one can think about the musical as a form of art." (pp. ix-x).

McMillin also poses a crucial question: "There is a challenge involved, and it is offered to the universities: are we in universities able to use our methods of analysis-historical, musical, literary, philosophical -and still get this form of popular entertainment right?" (p. xi) Certainly if musical theater history has had a weak spot, it is that few scholars can be adept in all of these areas at the same time and conduct research that adequately addresses the multifariousness of the genre while at the same time representing it realistically. One of the central issues in musical theater history has been the extent to which musicals of different eras are "integrated," i.e., the extent to which the various elements of the musical belong together. McMillin dismisses to a certain degree this emphasis-born from organicist and in some ways European models of looking at opera-as inadequate for dealing with the way in which musical theater works operate. Bringing to bear on his analyses are a number of thinkers, including Joseph Kerman, Brecht, Wagner, and Kierkegaard. More prevalent is his borrowing of aspects of narrativity from Carolyn Abbate, who is best known for her work on opera, particularly the music dramas of Wagner (see her Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991]). …

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