Last May I told you about an “Encyclopedia of Theater” that was interesting but not very useful as a reference work. Well, I’ve found a useful volume to fill the need. In fact, two volumes filled with easy to find entries for the words/titles/names a theatre lover needs to check from time to time.
Robert Blumenfeld’s “Dictionary of Musical Theater” is a treasure trove of information on a broad range of theatrical genres that tell their stories at least in part through music. He defines the area as “Opera, Operetta and Musical Comedy.” He doesn’t include non-lyric forms of ballet or modern dance, but he does define many terms from those worlds because of their relevance to the his defined area of “Musical Theater.” He also does not include information on movie musicals except when discussing musicals that are based on or have been made into films.
Thousands of entries cover the topic alphabetically from ABBA to Zarzuella and a bit beyond. For the record: ABBA is the “Swedish rock band” on whose songs the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! is based and Zarzuella is “the musically and dramatically sophisticated Spanish form of operetta or comic opera.”
The book is particularly useful for its definition of a great number of foreign words or phrases that have become part of the jargon of either music or theater. Barcarole (“originally a boatman’s song”), couplet (“a set of two rhymed lines”), fourth position (“in dance, the placement of the feet so that one is in front of the other, a foot’s length apart and more or less open, i.e., crossed or in a more parallel line”), jitterbug (“a kind of swing dance, originating in the 1930s; the partners hold one or both hands briefly, often letting go while swinging away from and then toward each other, in time to a lively jazz beat”) and pastiche (“a piece in imitation of some work or style”) are all words that a theatre lover may come across from time to time and find it useful to check the meaning.
The book is really valuable in collaboration with last year’s “Blumenfeld’s Dictionary of Acting and Show Business.” That volume was more concerned with the jargon of those working in the business, but so many of those terms creep into our conversations on theatrical subjects that we all need a handy reference. That volume doesn’t cover plays, people or places so much as it digs into the technical terms and slang of the field. Of the 212 entries beginning with the letter “b” only 6 are biographical entries while, in the Musical Theater volume, of 183 entries beginning with “b” there are 45 biographical notes. All together, the “Dictionary of Acting and Show Business” has 320 pages of definitions and the cover blurb claims that there are “over 4,000 definitions.” Since the “Musical Theater” volume has nearly 360 pages of definitions, I think it is safe to say that together there must be over 8,000 terms defined.
Here you can find that “alarums and excursions” is an Elizabethan stage direction where alarums are “offstage sounds of trumpet fanfares, drums and shouts calling to arms” while excursions are “choreographed movement of soldiers.” You can check to see that “nut” is “the minimum cost of running a show” or look up the elements that make up the kabuki style. And, yes, you can make sure that “phone it in” does, in fact, mean what you always thought it meant.
While he doesn’t let his personal opinions distort his definitions or references, Blumenfeld doesn’t try to hide his personal views. When he liked a show or a score you can tell. Apparently, he really liked In the Heights because he says “The compelling Latin rhythms and harmonic variations of the brilliant score for this show … perfectly and joyously tell the story…”
Alternatively, his scorn can scorch: The Black Crook, he writes, “boasts the lamest lyrics and one of the worst written, most stilted, stupidest books ever penned for a musical.”
Still, he devotes almost two pages to it, the longest single entry in either volume, longer than those for Show Boat, Oklahoma! or My Fair Lady. It is an entry that is worth reading before the premiere of the new musical Wheatley’s Folly at Signature Theatre in Virginia next year because it is based on the story of that landmark show’s creation.
Blumenfeld also feels free to add an interesting side note when he has something that doesn’t quite fit but he wants to share. To his fairly dry (and fair) entry on The Phantom of the Opera he offhandedly mentions: “Incidentally, none of the versions of this much adapted novel is particularly faithful to the book, which is very much worth reading.” In this judgement, I happen to agree.
Whenever an author tries to be the definitive authority on thousands of individual items, a few questionable judgements are bound to slip through. I, for one, don’t quite understand why he has an entry on Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and one on Sir Elton John but his entry on Tim Rice neglects to use the title to which Queen Elizabeth’s knighting in 1994 entitles him.
Why, I wonder, is there an entry for Nick Blaemire based on his work on the one-performance flop Glory Days but not one for his book writer, James Gardiner. Why David Henry Hwang makes the cut on the basis of Aida and the lamentable rework of Flower Drum Song but Joe DiPietro doesn’t, despite his credits for I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, All Shook Up and the re-write of Allegro, or even Memphis, for which he won this year’s Tony.
The two volumes, taken together, constitute a formidable resource. They are instantaneously receiving space on my desk’s reference shelf.