There are two uses for encyclopedias – looking up specifics and browsing through interesting material. Here is a two-volume set that serves the second use quite well, but isn’t comprehensive enough to work for the the first. You wouldn’t pull these volumes off the shelf to look up a specific play, playwright, actor, composer, lyricist, director, producer or critic (yes, some people might sometime want to look up some critic!)
There have been thousands of plays that have been produced on Broadway but there are only 30 that have entries of their own in these volumes. The same is true for any of a dozen categories – from stars to playhouses – that one might want to look up in an encyclopedia, but which can’t be found within these covers. What can be found, however, provides diversion, insight and inspiration for further exploration.
The volumes offer interesting entries on a wide range of topics. The subtitle of the set gives a hint of what they might entail. The focus here is on “Theater and American Culture,” so the impact of what happens in New York’s theater district on the wider culture of the nation is given more attention than is often the case in other theater-centric volumes. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to work in the opposite direction with much less attention to the impact of the wider “American Culture” on the drama, comedy and musical entertainments on Broadway.
The rationale behind the selections is never quite clear – could it be that the entries simply happen to be the areas of interest and expertise of the contributors the editor enlisted? Why, for example, is there a three page essay on Barefoot In The Park? Why is there a generally satisfying entry on the American Theatre Wing and its Tony Award but none the Wing’s Tony Award partner, The Broadway League, or on other important organizations such as the unions that have such impact on the modern Broadway theatre?
Although not always the case, some of the write-ups are both satisfyingly comprehensive and well balanced. Melanie N. Blood‘s article on “European ‘Megamusicals’” is refreshingly free of the anti-Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh bias often found on the western side of the Atlantic, Steve Abrams‘ coverage of Disney Theatrical Productions is well balanced and Gwen Orel’s seven page history of the Regional Theatre movement is both instructive and literate. Ben Hodge’s six page survey of the impact of producers on Broadway presents many interesting ideas and concepts, but could have benefited from stringent editing to reduce the number of ungainly explanations and expressions.
Philip Furia provides a cogent six page history titled “Show Tunes: From Tin Pan Alley to Pop Radio” and Sue Ann Brainerd follows it with an even lengthier history of “Show Tunes: The Rock Era, Disney and Downloads.” Unfortunately, they both fall into the error of referring to recordings of Broadway scores as “soundtrack” albums – most musical theatre lovers know that this term applies to recordings of scores from movies and television.
Editor Thomas A. Greenfield authors a number of the entries himself, most notably and enjoyably, thirteen pages on the evolution of the touring production from its earliest days before there really was a Broadway through the Syndicate and the Shuberts, right up through the contemporary effort to market Broadway as a brand.