Words, No Music

By Bawer, Bruce | The Hudson Review, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Words, No Music


Bawer, Bruce, The Hudson Review


Founded in 1979, The Library of America seeks to provide readers with reliable, meticulously edited texts of American classics. It began with predictable, uncontroversial choices-Melville, Whitman, Twain. The series didn't limit itself to imaginative literature: among the first twenty volumes were collections of Emerson's essays and Jefferson's political prose. Over time, the range expanded: 1995 brought Reporting World War II: American Journalism, which was followed by similar compilations devoted to other wars. In 2008 came a compendium of "environmental writing"; in 2009, a selection of fantasy stories; in 2014, Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now. Meanwhile, the LOA began to reissue works of fiction that didn't exactly fall into the category of undisputed literary masterpieces-for example, a 2012 gathering of crime novels by David Goodis (who?). Increasingly, the selection criteria could seem capricious: why an omnibus of "ecology and conservation" writings by Aldo Leopold? Of all historians, why Barbara Tuchman? Many of us could make long lists of authors whom we consider more deserving of a place in this pantheon than, say, Jack Kerouac, who so far has been granted no fewer than three LOA volumes.

Now comes a two-book set, edited by Laurence Maslon, entitled American Musicals.1 The first volume includes eight stage works that debuted between 1927 and 1949; the second, eight more from the 1950s and '60s. So far, the LOA has put its stamp of approval on plays by Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Thornton Wilder. Do these musicals belong in that company? Well, Show Boat (1927), the earliest work here, does, if only because of the breakthrough it represented. Look at what passed for a Broadway musical before it came along: stuff like George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones (1904), which introduced the song "Give My Regards to Broadway"; Jerome Kern's Sally (1920), which gave us "Look for the Silver Lining"; and such mid-'20s George Gershwin offerings as Lady, Be Good ("Fascinating Rhythm"), Oh, Kay! ("Someone to Watch over Me"), and Funny Face ("'S Wonderful"). Yes, the best of the songs were top-drawer, but the shows themselves were jaunty, light-as-air baubles about jockeys, flappers, madcap heiresses, etc., that no one would ever mistake for Ibsen. Then there were the European-style operettas-such as Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta (1910) and Sigmund Romberg's The Desert Song (1926)-which spun fanciful tales about pirates, princes, and the like and featured melodramatic arias best put across by operatically trained voices. Finally, there were the "revues"-most famously the annual Ziegfeld Follies-which were hodgepodges of comedy skits, dance numbers, and so on. Show Boat was different. Yes, some of the songs ("Make Believe," "You Are Love"), by Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, have an operetta-like feel. But Show Boat was something new. Based on Edna Ferber's 1926 novel about a family that operates a show boat on the Misssissippi, it was a real play, with songs that (in most cases) had something to do with the plot, plus a serious message about racial prejudice. With good reason, it's universally recognized as the first modern American musical.

The revue that follows Show Boat in the first LOA volume, As Thousands Cheer (1933), is a curious choice; one would've expected its songwriter, Irving Berlin-who always wrote both music and lyrics-to be represented here by Annie Get Your Gun (1946), easily the best of his Broadway musicals, which tells the distinctly American yarn of sharpshooting legend Annie Oakley with humor, charm, and songs like "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "They Say It's Wonderful." One can only imagine that copyright issues made its inclusion impossible. In any case, As Thousands Cheer, while hardly in the same league, does at least provide a glimpse of the revue genre at (or near) its peak. The songs include "Heat Wave" and "Easter Parade"; the unifying conceit is that the sketches, by the legendary comic playwright Moss Hart, are based on the headlines of the day-for example, "Joan Crawford to Divorce Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. …

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