A new book examines the remarkable history of the American musical theater.

SHOWTIME: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater
By Larry Stempel Gr’79
Norton, 2010. $39.95.

By Dennis Drabelle | The first musical I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz, at the Municipal Opera in St. Louis, circa 1952. Admittedly, that’s not much of an anecdote. But it does evoke some of the complexities that Larry Stempel tries to sort out in Showtime. St. Louis has long used the word opera for its outdoor musical theater, but The Wizard of Oz has little in common with La Traviata or Das Rheingold. Nor did The Wizard of Oz follow the usual path of stage to film. What I saw as an eight- or nine-year-old in Forest Park had reversed field, morphing from the hit movie with Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, et al into a live version with a cast of lesser lights. All of which bears out one of Stempel’s main contentions: Located at various points on the continuum between sophistication and kitsch, the American musical is a protean form, never at rest.

Stempel, an associate professor of music at Fordham University, has worked on Showtime since the late 1970s. He doesn’t dwell too long on any one show—he can’t, really, because he has so much ground to cover. So the reader may have the experience of being yanked away from a fondly remembered musical or performer on which she would prefer to linger with someone as knowledgeable as Stempel. In the discussion of Meredith Willson’s Music Man, for example, Stempel sums up “Trouble” in a nice phrase: “seducing the townspeople in rhythm to a mock evangelical harangue”—but that’s pretty much it for the patter song to end all patter songs. Couldn’t he have delved into the origins and development of the form, bringing it to its culmination in Robert Preston’s bravura rendition of “Trouble”?

No doubt he could have—given world enough and time, not to mention ink enough and paper: Showtime runs to 685 pages of text, plus an additional 150 or so of notes and other addenda. Some things had to be skimped on, and nostalgia over favorite moments on the Great White Way is one of them. When Stempel does give an occasional lesson in Broadway legendry, though, he shines. I’m thinking especially of his take on the klaxon-voiced Ethel Merman, perhaps the biggest Broadway star of them all.

“Merman belted with an astonishing breath control,” Stempel writes, “and produced a clarion intensity of sound without distorting the words or obscuring the sense of her songs.” 

Stempel also pays special homage to one of the precursors of Merman and the classic musical comedy: the revue, in which the same players reappeared in various guises, singing, dancing, and acting in loosely related sketches. A joke reproduced from The Band Wagon, a 1931 vehicle for Fred and Adele Astaire with sketches written by George S. Kaufman, gives a sense of how fizzy a revue could be:

INSPECTOR CARTWRIGHT: Ladies and gentlemen, no one has left this house since the murder was committed. I regret very much to inform you that the guilty person is in this room. … The man or woman who killed Hugh Warburton sat in this chair. No two people in the world, upon sitting in a chair, leave exactly the same impression … Find the person who fits that cushion, and you will have the murderer … And now with your kind permission, ladies and gentlemen, we will proceed with the examination.

As he traces the Broadway musical’s evolution from light opera to musical comedy to musical drama to rock opera and beyond, Stempel serves up savory tidbits. It’s widely accepted that, in tackling the issue of racial prejudice, Show Boat (1927) changed American musical theater. But if so, that change was a long time taking hold. After Show Boat, Stempel writes, “there were no dramatically ambitious musicals that did well in commercial terms until Lady in the Dark, and then Oklahoma!

Another Broadway cliché is that something or other stopped the show. According to Stempel, this actually happened at least once, on the opening night of Can-Can in 1953.

“The audience’s outburst came after [Gwen Verdon’s] Apache dance in the second act,” the show’s producer recalled. “They rose from their seats and applauded and cheered with such determination that it left the actors for the coming scene standing there, unable to continue the show …” Verdon, in her dressing room changing costumes, had to be dragged back onstage for a bow. 

Another vignette comes from three years later, when the McCarthy-era political climate was so touchy that the lyrics of a song about burning heretics at the stake had to be neutered. Instead of “What a day, what a day,/ For an auto-da-fé,” the audience of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide heard “Look at this, look at that./ What a pretty, new hat!” 

The recent takeover of the Broadway musical by Disney and special-effects wizards disturbs Stempel, though not to the point of giving up hope. He looks for rejuvenation in Stephen Sondheim’s artistic progeny, whose work is often produced away from Broadway. The danger is that the young composers might become disdainful of broad-based success. For, as Stempel reminds us, what gave the American musical such vitality was its fence-straddling: “It was popular and art at once.”

The last musical I’ve seen as of this writing is Candide, in a socko production at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington. I’m pleased to report that “What a Day for an Auto-da-fé” was performed as originally written—and that it damn near stopped the show.

Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.

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