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Cambridge Companion to the Musical.

Cambridge Companion to the Musical, edited by William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2008. 372pp. ISBN 978-0-521-86238-7. Hardcover.

In 2002, Cambridge published the first edition of The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. Edited by Paul Laird and William Everett, it offered an accessible collection of essays suitable for undergraduates interested in the genre's history, and helpful to scholars beginning research on musical theater. Published only six years later, the second edition of the Companion fills a similar pedagogical and scholarly role. The changes to the second edition, however--there are five new essays, two revised essays, and a new sectional heading--suggest that scholarship on the musical has shifted over the course of the past decade. In this regard, the 2008 version of The Cambridge Companion to the Musical offers a unique perspective on musical theater research, demonstrating where it has been and where it is going.

The Companion's organization exemplifies a traditional approach to musical theater historiography. Laird and Everett retain the first edition's chronological structure and arrange sixteen of the nineteen essays under three sectional headings: "Adaptations and Transformations: Before 1940," "Maturations and Formulations: 1940-1970," and "Evolutions and Integrations: After 1970." To be sure, this periodization provides a practical entry into the material, especially for readers unfamiliar with the history of the musical. Terms like "maturation," "evolution," and "integration," however, do not simply imply the passage of time; rather, they suggest a particular way of understanding the American musical. Like many other narratives of musical theater, this type of sectional division indirectly privileges the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, implying that earlier traditions evolved into the mature Rodgers and Hammerstein model, which later artists followed to produce more fully integrated works.

Despite the volume's layout, few of the Companion's individual authors focus explicitly on any evolutionary narrative, especially in Part I. In her survey of American musical theater traditions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Katherine Preston reminds readers that genres of musical theater cross-pollinate more than they remain separate entities. John Graziano discusses the portrayal of black characters in shows produced from the late-nineteenth century to the 1930s, tracing how "two contradictory goals"--to entertain and to enlighten--encouraged both demeaning minstrel stereotypes as well as more empathetic and progressive portrayals of African Americans. Orly Leah Krasner summarizes musical theater trends in the first two decades of the twentieth century, most of which extend the theatrical traditions described by Preston. William Everett's revised essay examines how Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg transformed operetta for a post-World War I context, offering observations on how the composers use mode, meter, and rhythm to signify characters' gender and cultural identities. Geoffrey Block, meanwhile, explores musical comedies of the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on prominent songwriters, and placing their work in the cultural and economic context of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. Rodgers and Hammerstein are not absent from these chapters--after all, both men began their careers in the first half of the twentieth century--but they do not overshadow the complex and rich history that these authors describe.

Part II covers the so-called Golden Age of the musical, and not surprisingly, Rodgers and Hammerstein are quite prominent, rightfully so. Ann Sears's essay, and her following chapter with Thomas Riis, lay out the origins of the famed partnership, the conventions of their musical plays, and, in the latter essay, the shows influenced by their aesthetic. The works of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Jule Styne, and Frank Loesser receive prominent attention here, but so do many long forgotten musicals from the 1940s, demonstrating just how influential Oklahoma! was in the years immediately following its premiere. bruce d. mcclung and Paul Laird's essay on Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein distances itself from Part II's focus on Rodgers and Hammerstein and outlines similarities in the composers' musical aesthetics. But in their conclusion, even mcclung and Laird cannot escape mention of the prominent songwriting team: "in an age when many were content to follow the lead established by the success of Rodgers and Hammerstein," they argue, Weill and Bernstein "continued to challenge Broadway's prevailing norms" (p. 201).

The majority of the chapters in Part III examine parallel yet stylistically different trends on and off Broadway after 1970, that is, post-Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jim Lovensheimer examines the "concept" musicals of Stephen Sondheim and finds a common theme, that of "a disenfranchised member of society, a non-conformist" (p. 206). Paul Laird addresses productions created by Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, and others, whose shows strove "to combine new musical styles and contemporary thinking with tradition, building upon the genre's proud history" (p. 220). Scott Warfield explores the difficulty in defining the "rock musical," a phrase first associated with Hair and its imitators in the 1960s. Paul Prece and William A. Everett provide an overview of the megamusical through the works of producer Cameron Mackintosh, songwriters Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Finally, Bud Coleman summarizes recent Broadway trends in a chapter new to the second edition. Most of the shows he describes fall into the very subgenres and categories delineated in the Companion's previous chapters: operettas, "ethnic" musicals, integrated musicals, concept musicals, "dansicals," and rock musicals. Perhaps Broadway has returned to a chaotic mess of musical traditions not unlike the mix of genres Preston describes in the nineteenth century.

Or perhaps the musical of the twentieth century--even during the Golden Age--was never quite as codified as some histories suggest. Two essays, original to the first edition and reprinted in the second, call for a more diverse definition of the musical, one that looks beyond New York and beyond the stage. The first, John Snelson's "'We Said We Wouldn't Look Back': British Musical Theatre, 1935-1960," included in Part II, provides both an overview of musical theater in Britain and a careful consideration of why so few of the British shows are remembered or revived. Snelson suggests that a "Broadway-led agenda" has shaped the critical reception of many West End musicals from the 1940s and 1950s, denying "British shows their own home character" even though "it is precisely this character that explains why [they were] successful despite being apparently so out of step with the prevailing notion of a modern 'post-Oklahoma!' musical" (p. 138). In some ways, a similarly American focus guides the Cambridge Companion to the Musical. For example, the lack of attention to British musicals--Snelson's chapter is the only one that specifically addresses the West End--is surprising given that the Companion claims to "trace the development of the musical both on Broadway and in London's West End" (p. i).

Similarly, Graham Wood's "Why Do They Start to Sing and Dance All of a Sudden? Examining the Film Musical," highlights the stage bias of musical history and of the Companion more specifically. "Stage and screen musicals are indisputably and intimately connected in terms of their history, content and style," Wood writes, "and must be considered as such if a full picture of either genre is to emerge" (p. 306). To be sure, many authors in the Companion reference film: Everett addresses film adaptations of operettas; Block nods to Hollywood adaptations of 1930s stage shows; Sears describes the film versions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein plays; and both Warfield and Coleman note the prominence of film-to-stage productions in the past few decades. Besides Wood's essay, however, original Hollywood musicals receive no focused attention, even though their history is as complex as the twentieth-century stage musical.

The second edition of The Cambridge Companion to the Musical begins to address some of these issues with the addition of a fourth section, titled "Legacies and Transformations," which, in addition to Wood's essay, includes two new chapters by Laird and Jessica Sternfeld. Laird offers a production history of Wicked, utilizing his own interviews with creators Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman. While his account of their collaboration provides an interesting case study of Broadway's working process, Sternfeld's essay more directly confronts the criticism at hand. She summarizes recent revivals, film adaptations of stage shows, television musicals, original cast recordings, and musicals on DVD, reminding readers that an original Broadway production is not always the most popular nor most accessible version of a show for many viewers and listeners. Her chapter, paired with Wood's, points to the musical's existence in many different media, all of which require further research.

Laird and Everett also add two essays to the second edition that expand the Companion's coverage of non-English and non-American musicals. John Koegel's "Non-English-Language Musical Theatre in the United States," included in Part I, examines "ethnic" theater of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrant communities. In his overview of Spanish, French, Italian, German, Scandinavian, Finnish, Chinese, and Yiddish musical theater traditions, Koegel promotes a comparative study of musical theater, providing examples that come not only from theatrical productions and published sheet music but also from recordings and films. Meanwhile, in Part III, Judith Sebesta's chapter, "'Something Borrowed, Something Blue': The Marriage of the Musical and Europe," turns to an international context. Sebesta explores "borrowed" musicals, i.e. European productions of megamusicals and well-known Anglo-American shows, and "new" musicals, i.e. the French, German, and Austrian shows that imitate the structure and conventions of American musicals but in many cases draw on "European subjects and themes" (p. 276). With both the borrowed and the new, issues of national identity arise. Sebesta's attention to the confusing nature of identity in an era of globalization make her essay an important contribution to a collection of essays mostly focused on "American" works in American contexts.

Collectively, the original essays by Snelson and Wood and the new chapters by Sternfeld, Koegel, and Sebesta suggest that the history of the musical is not limited to New York, nor is it to be found only on the stage. More daringly, they imply that a history of musical theater need not pivot around the "integrated" Rodgers and Hammerstein model, as The Cambridge Companion to the Musical's own sectional divisions indicate. At conferences and in casual conversations, many musicologists have voiced doubts about evolutionary approaches to the musical, the privileging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein aesthetic, and even the notion of integration itself. Yet few music scholars have offered sustained critiques of such ideas in print, despite the fact that theater historians have done so for more than a decade. In this light, the second edition of the Cambridge Companion offers a timely glimpse into current musical theater scholarship. The organization and sectional titles point to the linear and integrationist approach that has dominated the history of the musical in the twentieth century, while the content of several chapters--especially those new to this edition--suggest alternate approaches and a broader conception of what a musical looks and sounds like. As Laird and Everett themselves note in the preface, the authors who contributed to The Cambridge Companion to the Musical take different approaches to the topic at hand, and it is this aspect that is the collection's greatest strength.

Alicia Koger has already questioned the linear, evolutionary methodology prevalent in many book-length studies of musical theater, especially accounts by Cecil Smith (1950), David Ewen (1958), and Ethan Mordden (1976). More recently, Scott McMillin has suggested that integration theory is "one product of the desire to elevate the form," while Bruce Kirle has challenged "formalistic" studies of the musical that privilege integrated book musicals. See Koger, "Trends in Musical Theatre Scholarship: An Essay in Historiography," New England Theatre Journal 3 (1992): 69-85; McMillin, The Musical as Drama (Princeton University Press, 2006); and Kirle, Unfinished Show Business: Broadway Musicals as Works-in-Progress (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005).

Of the three authors cited above, Koger is an associate professor of theater history and dramaturgy at the University of Oklahoma; McMillin, an Elizabethan scholar, taught in the English department at Cornell; and Kirle served as a lecturer of music theater at London's Central School of Speech and Drama.
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Author:Robbins, Allison
Publication:Society for American Music Bulletin
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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