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The American Musical

by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon

Hardcover, 469 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $65 |


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The American Musical
Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon

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Book Summary

Presents a history of the Broadway musical theater, including summaries of the shows, photographs of the stars, posters, sheet music, production stills, and essays by theater luminaries.

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Excerpt: Broadway

Introduction Most of the histories of the American musical have focused, understandably, on the "musical" aspect of the genre; this book puts the "American" center stage. The Broadway musical defines our culture and is, in turn, defined by it. The musical tells its stories in music, in Iyrics, in dialogue, in performance, and in dance. Each of these elements is a potent cultural indicator on its own; put together, they provide a frequently brash, occasionally thoughtful, always colorful portrait of our country. Like many of the best Broadway performers, this version of American history demands to be heard.

Once upon a time, when New York theater was the most prestigious performance art form in the country, Broadway musicals were the boldest, bravest expression of the American character. Even though the theater lost its preeminence over the course of the last century, its journey to redefine itself and prove itself relevant again makes for a compelling story, indicative of many trends and tensions in our popular culture. The musical has always reflected different social and political forces-patriotism, skepticism, commercial consumption, escapism, revolt, globalization-and has put those onstage for everyone to see. In one way, the history of the musical can be read as a kind of history of, say, seventeenth-century Europe: a defined territory struggling to survive, constantly under siege by economic forces, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Its story contains the rise and fall of several dynasties: great leaders emerge, come into their own, pass from the scene, and are replaced by a new generation. Like any national history, the epic of the Broadway musical has its heroes and its villains, and in the end, if the voice of the people is not exactly the voice of God, it is the voice of the bottom line, which in show business might as well be the same thing.

A thousand different factors go into both the performance and the reception of a musical. This book shows how this complicated amalgamation has been put together over the course of a century. Because Broadway: The American Musical, as a series and as a book, focuses on a myriad of cultural factors, it must be selective. There are many cherished productions, performances, and personalities that have been cut out of town, as it were. If it is any consolation, many of the authors' favorites didn't make it to "Broadway" either.

In addition to the historical narrative, this book explores several other key aspects of the musical. The Iyrics to more than a dozen songs are reprinted in their entirety; these were either seminal in the development of the songwriting craft or are wonderfully indicative of the culture that brought them onto the stage and into the world. Seven productions have been spotlighted; each show is either a brilliant reflection of its time or sui generis or both. Performers who have devoted their careers to the Broadway stage-not an easy sacrifice to make-are showcased in each chapter's "Who's Who"; certain major figures are dealt with at greater length in the narrative. One aspect of the book that will appeal to readers interested in cultural history is the six essays about Broadway and its relation to other forces, such as Hollywood, television, and real estate, that have been key allies and adversaries to the industry of Broadway. Archives of newly recovered source material, as well as essays taken from the extensive interviews conducted for the documentary series, allow the great artists of the musical to speak for themselves.

The series Broadway: The American Musical is grounded by the nearly sixty interviews of major figures conducted specifically for the program. Most of the direct quotes in the narrative are taken from these precious sources, and a complete list of interviewees is included at the back of the book. The more historical sources quoted in the book are marked by the date of their publication. Sadly, several of our beloved colleagues-Brendan Gill, Frances Godowsky, Adolph Green, Al Hirschfeld, Peter Stone-were interviewed but left us before the project was completed. We are honored to be able to include their perceptions.

At the end of every theatrical season, there is a barrage of articles asking, "Whither the Broadway musical?" This book does not presume to foretell where the musical is going; it simply tries to figure out how it got where it is today. In the best of all worlds, the book and the series will excite their audiences enough to make them contribute to the history of the American musical-as creator, performer, or spectator. The best reason to revel in the past is that it gives one the passion to embrace the future.

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