Without any particular viewpoint or consistent theme, Mast (English/U. of Chicago) sets out to chronicle the history of both...


CAN'T HELP SINGIN': The American Musical on Stage and Screen

Without any particular viewpoint or consistent theme, Mast (English/U. of Chicago) sets out to chronicle the history of both the Broadway stage musical and the Hollywood ""filmusical"" in a single volume. The result is a disjointed hodgepodge of essays, profiles, appreciations, and critiques--often recycling familiar material and echoing previous commentators, sometimes indulging in academic overkill, occasionally providing fresh (if not always convincing) insights. Introductory chapters briefly sketch in the musical's early days and emphasize--with some glib over-simplification--the role of ""minority sensibilities, whether gay or Jewish,"" in bringing on Broadway's heyday, ""a celebration of both social coherence and diversity."" Berlin, Kern, and the Gershwins then receive close-up, song-by-song tributes--similar but inferior to those in Alec Wilder's American Popular Song, marred by dubious biotidbits. (Kern was ""a musical monster who may well have killed himself by flying"" into rages.) The focus next jumps to Hollywood for three chapters: early landmarks from Jazz Singer to Love Me Tonight (""transcending space, time, and social rigidities on a magic carpet of American song""); the Busby Berkeley oeuvre, treated to the now-customary Freudian/sociological analysis; and the Fred-and-Ginger miracle, with dance-as-metaphor à la Arlene Croce. Then: back to Broadway with happy-gay Cole Porter, sadgay Lorenz Hart (Mast contrasts, psychosexually, their lyrics), and Rodgers/Hammer-stein--whose ""musical-verbal mirrors of dramatic emotion"" receive high, if qualified, praise. Mast is at his best, perhaps, in the Hollywood chapters that follow--on the fast, cheap 1940's musicals (star-vehicles, revues) and on the subsequent golden age (Arthur Freed, V. Minnelli, Gene Kelly), though the serious-art approach gets out-of-hand with Singin' in the Rain. (""The film's moral journey, like its musical numbers, moves from public lie to performance myth. . ."") And two final chapters cram in Broadway's last 40 years, along with the movie-musical's virtual demise: ""After 1957 Broadway and Hollywood slid downhill together."" The stage/film split-focus here remains a problem and a distraction throughout--despite Mast's sporadic attempts to analyze the inter-relation of the two media. Other themes (e.g., the musical as subversive, populist art) remain similarly ragged, undeveloped. And the assessments of individual works range from humdrum to quirky to faintly illuminating. Still, while those in search of coherent cultural history will stick with the many narrower studies, aficionados may want to browse through this dense, richly detailed, fitfully provocative assemblage.

Pub Date: Oct. 12, 1987

ISBN: 0879513624

Page Count: -

Publisher: Overlook--dist. by Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1987