Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater Larry Stempel

W.W. Norton, pp.826, 30

The first Broadway musical that I saw, a quarter of a century ago, actually on Broadway, wasn’t, of course, actually on Broadway; it was on West 44th Street.

The first Broadway musical that I saw, a quarter of a century ago, actually on Broadway, wasn’t, of course, actually on Broadway; it was on West 44th Street. It was 42nd Street.

The geography is confusing, but so is the history, and indeed the nomenclature. For 42nd Street was not, of course, a Broadway musical, but a musical film made in 1933, based on a novel about life backstage at a Broadway theatre, with staged setpieces — notably the title song — in Hollywood’s version of the style of Broadway musical theatre. It was only in 1980 that it became a Broadway stage musical, at the Winter Garden — which actually is on Broadway).

Its very successful run of almost 3,500 performances paved the way for the blockbusters which, as critics periodically complain, have driven out the straight play from Broadway (and West End) stages. The reason the show moved from the Winter Garden to the Majestic on West 44th Street was to make way for Cats — and it subsequently moved again, along the street to the St James’s, to accommodate the arrival of Phantom of the Opera.

Those through-sung shows, by our own Andrew Lloyd Webber, are not quite Broadway musicals either. Indeed, Larry Stempel seems to subscribe to Mark Steyn’s view in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight that Lloyd Webber’s shows and Les Miserables, which prompted responses like the Disney adaptation The Lion King and then compendium pieces like Mamma Mia!, may have killed off the traditional Broadway musical. If they haven’t, the most recent arrival, a $65-million adaptation of Spider-Man with music by Bono and The Edge, currently in previews, and by all accounts as lousy as it sounds, ought to do the trick.

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But if Stempel muses about whether the show is over, he’s not sure when it began, either. Professional theatre in America until the mid-19th century was imported from Britain, and he chooses to begin in 1849 with the riot which greeted the Astor Place Opera House’s staging of Macbeth, with the English tragedian William Macready, a sort of proto-Wolfit or Sinden who got up the New York public’s nose.

That doesn’t seem to have much to do with the musical theatre unless one remembers that the majority of theatre, including Shakespeare, featured music for most of its history. And it wasn’t just the straight play with incidental songs but pantomime, vaudeville, operetta, the minstrel show, revue, the concert hall and, later, the popular music of radio, cinema and rock — in short, anything which put bums on seats —which were greedily appropriated by the Broadway show.

Stempel spares us none of it. Or rather, one feels he would spare us nothing, if only there were space to include all the innumerable shows from the early 20th century. But as he points out, there are scant records of most productions before 1940 or so. So there is no mention, for example, of shows such as A Good Time (of which we know nothing, except that the review was ‘— No’).

The figures who laid the foundations of Broadway’s pre-eminence get their due, though those underpinnings were Tin Pan Alley and revues such as the Ziegfeld Follies. The towering figure of this period was George M. Cohan (1878-1942), a hoofer, showman, producer, songwriter, theatre owner and more, who, by sheer versatility of talent, wrestled the related arts of Broadway into one physical space.

Jerome Kern’s remark that ‘Irving Berlin has no place in American music: he is American music’, Stempel reminds us, dates from 1924. By then, that Titan of the American showtune had written Alexander’s Ragtime Band (which isn’t ragtime), but not many of the songs which subsequently entered the canon. Berlin, like Kern and almost every popular composer of the first three decades of the last century, contented himself with supplying the almost incidental songs which enlivened comic plays.

P. G. Wodehouse, who, with Guy Bolton, supplied Kern with book and lyrics for musicals at the Princess Theatre (Stempel quoting ‘Bill’ reminds us just how innovative Plum was as a lyricist), made this distinction between ways of writing novels:

One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.

Stempel’s book does a similar thing, maintaining that the moment that musical comedy gave way to musical theatre, and starts being worthy of serious study, was the premiere of Oklahoma! in March 1943. I can’t see why he picks it to herald the dawn of the art form, but then I’ve never much cared for ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ’, or the rest of the show, even when I sparkled as Old Man Cairns in a school production.

Perhaps Professor Stempel doesn’t find humour amusing, a possibility which, it must be said, his exhaustive approach tends to confirm. If seriousness is his benchmark, though, there are two obvious earlier examples, Show Boat and Pal Joey, which precede Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first show. Then again, no less a figure than Stephen Sondheim, whose shows the book correctly acknowledge as the acme of the form, also regards Hammerstein as the person who first made the musical tell the story ‘through its songs, not just with its songs’.

One can’t fault the industry here. If you’re interested in musicals, you ought to have this book. Unfortunately, I suspect that it constitutes a panegyric: while Broadway once supplied the hit parade, it’s now very much the other way round. Jukebox shows like Mamma Mia! or Jersey Boys are what now get the punters in. The box- office is thriving. A stage electrician called Steve Swenson sums things up perfectly, if depressingly:

Everyone’s really happy there’s so much work right now. The problem is there’s so much crap being staged that it’s sort of hard to care much about the work you get, once you get it.

It’s not unlike the way Mrs Lovett puts it in Sweeney Todd when she first suggests turning the customers into pies: ‘With the price of meat what it is, / When you get it, / If you get it — / Good, you got it.’ Still, you can’t expect life to be like a musical.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Broadway, Musical theater, Musical theatre, West end