Three new releases offer three different ways to fill the slot on your theatre shelf for a reference work on musical theatre – inexpensive, expensive, very expensive. Which way to go? It depends on your needs.
If you are like me, you want to know something about a lot of different musicals either when you are listening to their scores, attending performances or following up on favorite performers, composers, writers or directors. A well stocked theatre shelf must, therefore, include some reference work (or works) on the subject. There are many research volumes out there, some of which we’ve covered before (see Theatre Shelf for February 15, 2011 on “Broadway – The American Musical,” December 21, 2010 on “Showtime: A History of the American Musical Theater,” October 26, 2010 on “Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & The Biggest Flop of the Season – 1959 – 2009,” August 17, 2010 on “Blumenfeld’s Dictionary of Musical Theater,” and May 11, 2010 on “Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture“).
Now there are three new choices. The best value for the buck is the fourth edition of the classic “American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle” that Gerald Bordman began and Richard Norton is now continuing. At the list price of $125 it may exceed what many are willing to spend for a compendium covering the most important shows. For those, Stanley Green’s widow has just published an updated sixth edition of his valuable “Broadway Musicals: Show by Show” which, for a list price of $18.95 can give you much of what you want to know on most of the shows of interest. For the compulsive completist (like me), McFarland & Company has just published an Off Broadway volume which, when paired with their Broadway volume provides great satisfaction. The price, however, may be off putting for the individual theatre lover. The Off Broadway volume is priced at $295 while the Broadway volume has a list price of $195. Big bucks for great gobs of detail and minutiae.
AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATRE: A CHRONICLE
As to the mid-priced comprehensive “Chronicle,” theatre addicts can be grateful to Richard Norton. He is the author of an even more expensive multi-volume work, the landmark three thousand page “Chronology of American Musical Theater” which was issued in 2002 by the Oxford University Press. (It carries a $450 price tag.) Norton’s updating of Bordman’s “Chronicle” adds the first decade of the 21st century to this compendium of discussions of musicals that begins with an uncertain report of an import of a London ballad opera to Charleston, South Carolina in the first decade of the 18th century. Thus, the fourth edition of the “Chronicle” is as comprehensive as the authors could make it for the period 1735 to 2010.
Bordman had set out in the 1970s to gather information on and give his readers a comprehensive chronicle of the American Musical Theatre. In the preface to the first edition he set out his incredible goal: “Since there is no sense in doing things by halves, I decided to start with the first musical done in America and cover everything up to the moment the printer required the last page of typescript.” Of course, with a second and then a third edition, he just kept getting new deadlines. As a result, the index to shows by titles now lists over 3,600 shows discussed in the 887 pages of text. That’s not the number of discussions, however, for many of those shows have had multiple revivals, each separately discussed.
The book proceeds to discuss every musical the authors could find that played New York City up through Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson which was the last musical to open before the cutoff date for the 2010 Tony Awards. They include some important musicals that never made it into New York and Norton comments on the emergence of a nationwide American musical theatre community. Still the book remains excessively New York-centric.
Bordman’s encapsulations of shows draw heavily from the reviews of the day as, of course, he couldn’t have actually seen most of the shows about which he wrote. When he writes about shows he did see, or of which he’s personally familiar with script and score, he adds his own view. He is still careful to give a sense of the critical reception a show received. Norton’s evaluations are more personal which is understandable since he did have the opportunity to personally attend each one of the productions about which he writes. His evaluations are fair, perceptive and interesting reading. I was able to see thirteen of the shows he discusses during the final season about which he writes, and while his opinions don’t always reflect my judgements, I was impressed with the way he was able to encapsulate each relatively objectively while giving the reader a real feel for what the show was like.
BROADWAY MUSICALS SHOW BY SHOW
Moving to the least expensive option, there is a welcome new edition of one book that sits prominently on many theatre fans’ shelves. Stanley Green’s “Broadway Musicals Show by Show” has been updated by his widow and she’s kept it a valuable resource. It isn’t as comprehensive as many of us would want. It features entries of a paragraph or two with tabular data on only those shows the Greens believe are most important. But, that’s almost 400 shows! They are arranged chronologically for fascinating browsing or quick reference with a complete set of indexes so you can look up entries by title, director, composer, lyricist, choreographer or star. It begins its survey with 1866’s The Black Crook which is often marked as the beginning of the evolution of the art form we now call the American Musical. (Bordman was already up to page 19, having discussed 39 productions, before he got to this show.)
This new volume carries its coverage through 2007’s Young Frankenstein. Unlike the other volumes in this troika of new releases, this one includes photos. There are almost 250 black and white photos. Even if you have the previous edition, you may want to spring for this new one. But be careful. Amazon still has the 1990 version available so make sure you get the latest update: its the “Sixth Edition.”
BROADWAY MUSICALS / OFF BROADWAY MUSICALS
The most expensive of the new options is actually one of two volumes that together would provide practically any specific fact, credit or account of a musical’s history. The volumes are published by McFarland & Company, a firm specializing in reference volumes for libraries and specialists.
In 2006, the company published John Stewart’s astonishingly complete “Broadway Musicals, 1943 – 2004” with entries for every Broadway musical between Oklahoma! (March 31, 1943) and the first revival of La Cage aux Folles (December 9, 2004). Each entry provides a synopsis of the plot, the scenes and songs in the order performed on opening night, a discussion of how the show got to Broadway, its Broadway run and important productions subsequent to its closing on Broadway. Complete casts are listed as well, including replacement and creative team credits and even the musicians in the pit when available.
This amounts to 772 shows. For another nearly three thousand shows that for one reason or another didn’t meet the author’s criteria for being a bonafide “Broadway Musical,” but which the author believes constitute a significant part of the heritage of the musical theatre, an appendix offers abbreviated entries.
This is probably the only volume that would let you find out that Marvin Roth was one of the four reed players in the pit when A Chorus Line opened at the Shubert Theatre on October 19, 1975, that rehearsals for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying began on August 3, 1961, that Dorothy Aull understudied Carol Burnett in the original Once Upon a Mattress or that the original Damn Yankees returned 263 percent on its investment.If you need or even want this kind of detail, the list price of $195 may not stop you.
But what about the Off Broadway portion of the heritage of the American musical theatre? For that, McFarland has just published an almost equally astonishing compilation of material. “Off Broadway Musicals, 1910 – 2007” by Dan Dietz of Arlington. Despite the title, the book doesn’t really confine itself to just Off Broadway. Its 1,800+ listings include Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway, showcase and workshop productions and Dietz even reaches across the East River to include shows in Brooklyn such as those at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The figure 1,800 may be a bit misleading because different titles for the same show are sometimes given separate entries. (Entry # 1799 is for Womit Haben wir das Verdient? but it simply says “see entry for Why Do I Deserve This?” which is entry # 1775.)
Both volumes benefit from a fine job of providing indexes (called “appendices” in the Off Broadway volume) that are a handy way to find what you are looking for. In the Broadway volume, Stewart includes indexes of songs and personnel as well as a chronology of openings. Dietz includes a chronology, as well as listings of shows that have recordings, published scripts, movie versions, and listings by topic or nature such as black musicals, children’s shows, gay musicals, jewish musicals and women’s musicals (and revues) and other compilations. In all there are appendices A through U before a complete song index and name index.
McFarland & Company has a website at www.mcfarlandpub.com and orders can be made by phone at 800-253-2187.