“Chicago’s” haul at the Oscars and the box office makes this an auspicious time for three new surveys of American musical theater. “Our Musicals, Ourselves” is the most interesting of the bunch.
Author John Bush Jones pairs the history of musicals with that of America itself. In Jones’ chronology, American musical theater took off in the late 19th century as Broadway impresarios put a Yankee spin on the operetta of Gilbert & Sullivan. Meanwhile, Washington put an American spin on European imperialism with the Spanish-American war. From there, Jones tracks musical theater through the Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights era and into the shallow, “recycled culture” of the 1980s and 90s and the revival-besotted Great White Way of the present.
Jones’ work is a provocative big-picture analysis that gives new insight to familiar classics, but the devil is in the excessive details. (One section is titled “The Failure of Mid-Decade Satire.”) Still, Jones unearths many gems. One example is the reaction of African-American composer Eubie Black to the enthusiasm for his 1918, all-black musical “Shuffle Along:” “At the intermission all those white people kept saying: ‘I would like to touch him, the man who wrote the music.’ Well, you got to feel that. It made me feel like, well, at last I’m a human being.”
Unfortunately, David H. Lewis’ overwritten “Broadway Musicals”is not nearly as interesting. History and ideas take a backseat to Lewis’ opinions, which are rarely backed up by any sort of analysis of the shows. One chapter actually opens with this statement: “Talent. It comes and goes, gracing some ages abundantly, slighting others. It is irreplaceable.” To learn this we buy a book?
Finally, Ethan Mordden’s “One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s” is the latest installment in his decade-by-decade serial survey of the form. Though he spends too much time explaining his aesthetic categories, at least Mordden knows his theater and music. He is at home dishing about backstage rivalries as he is analyzing the modulations in “Follies” and “Grease.”