How did we get from "Show Boat" to "Shrek the Musical"? A well-researched look at the history of American musical theater.
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Variety, vaudeville, performer-impresarios like Harrigan and Hart, on to operettas and Gilbert & Sullivan: This is where Stempel does his most useful work, though he is hampered by having to describe shows that naturally he’s rarely seen in any form.Skip to next paragraph
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The book is nearly 200 pages in before we reach “Show Boat” and the Ziegfeld Follies. His work becomes a little livelier here (it’s much easier to get a handle on musicals you’ve actually watched or at least listened to) albeit less ground-breaking.
The rest of “Showtime” moves inexorably forward, from “Oklahoma” to the golden age in the 1940s and ’50s, to off Broadway and "The Fantasticks." On it moves to Stephen Sondheim, the megamusicals of the ’80s and ’90s, right up to “Rent” and even current fare like “Shrek The Musical,” which he unfortunately refers to as a “movical.”
For such a staid book, there’s really no excuse for calling the recent flurry of musicals based on movies by the term “movical.” One, Broadway has drawn upon movies ever since movies began, as he notes, so a historian like Stempel shouldn’t treat this as so unusual. Two, it sounds idiotic.
Throughout, Stempel offers a little musical analysis here, a (grudging?) vivid anecdote there, and a major focus on the broader forces that shaped the culture and hence musicals such as war, the Depression and the Communist witch hunts.
You would be hard-pressed to take issue with what Stempel asserts anywhere in the book. As an overview, it is judicious and decidedly in the mainstream of opinion.
Stempel charts the changing role of the choreographer and the producer rather than weighing in on the positive or negative influence artistically of the “British invasion” in shows like “The Phantom of The Opera” and “Les Misérables.” You’ll find no radical reimagining of the major figures in musical history here.
“Showtime” is certainly sober, well-researched, and filled with useful information, especially about the early days of performance in America before the musical as we know it took shape. But casual readers (and more likely, students) who don’t already love musicals won’t be sent rushing off to attend a Broadway show by Stempel’s work. And that’s a shame. Even a textbook can be entertaining.
Michael Giltz is a freelance writer based in New York City.