Thomas Hischak, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Cloth, xxxiv, 923 pp., $ 39.95. ISBN 978-0-19-533533-0. www.oup.com
What is an American musical? Thomas Hischak poses the question in his preface to The Oxford Companion to the American Musical, but the reader needs to look no further than the volume's subtitle for the answer. In an opening essay that presents a whirlwind tour of the evolution of the form, Hischak underlines that it is not restricted to stage plays, but that it encompasses musicals written or adapted for film and television. From the moment Al Jolson began singing on celluloid, and with Julie Andrew's television portrayal of the title role in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, the musical has embraced new venues as quickly as they have appeared. The past season-which included Sweeney Todd on the silver screen, the premier of the made-for-television musical Camp Rock, and a full complement of Broadway productions led by In the Heights-is proof positive that the parameters of the American musical are fluid, flexible, and far from fixed. The Oxford Companion to the American Musical, by covering theater, film, and television in a single volume, emphasizes the broad-based appeal of the form.
The volume consists of nearly 2,000 entries, with information about musicals, movies, television shows, actors, singers, composers, lyricists, directors, awards, companies, and subjects. Entries are short, succinct distillations of essential information, written in an objective and dear style. Hischak does not play down significant contributions, as when he describes Showboat as the first masterpiece of American music theater, and Oklahoma! as the single most influential work in the genre. But the author also keeps the focus firmly on the topic at hand, as evidenced by the biography of film and television performer Ronald Reagan, which contains no mention of his notable political career until the last sentence. The volume consists of major musicals and people in all three media, but Hischak also strives to offer snapshots of the genre at different points in its history by including less known figures and productions.
The compendium encompasses works produced outside the United States, and international artists if they influenced the American musical or captivated American audiences. A few operas, such as Porgy and Bess, are listed because they were first produced as a theatrical presentation. …