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

By Michael Giltz / September 6, 2010

Showtime: A History Of The Broadway Musical Theater By Larry Stempel W.W. Norton & Company 826 pages $39.95


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.

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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.


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