Prolific entertainment historian Mordden (Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, 2012, etc.) tracks the musical from its European origins to its current offerings on and off Broadway.
The author has written a previous survey of the history of musical theater, but there have been a lot of developments since Better Foot Forward was published in 1976. Here, the author assesses the changes in the final three chapters. “The Sondheim Handbook” covers not just the late-20th-century musical theater’s most influential artist, but also such fellow innovators as Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune. “Devolution” critically chronicles Broadway’s increasing reliance on revivals (which “in effect admit that worthy new work has become…hard to find”) and on jukebox musicals that use pre-existing songs. Yet “That Is the State of the Art” is a generally positive wrap-up, with enthusiastic comments on recent shows ranging from commercial hits (Wicked, The Book of Mormon) to more austere works staged in the noncommercial theater (Marie Christine, Parade). All but the most serious students of musical theater will likely be daunted by the book’s opening 100 pages, devoted to the formative history that runs from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 through Victor Herbert and the Ziegfeld Follies of the 1910s. Yet Mordden makes a strong case for the crucial roles these relatively obscure works played in shaping the genre that came to full maturity in the art’s golden age (1920–1980). Chapters covering that period will sound a tad familiar at times to those who have read Mordden’s multivolume, decade-by-decade history, but they are nonetheless informative and enjoyable. An excellent discography and suggestions for further reading complete this stimulating survey.
Mordden rambles some, as is his habit, but he’s a formidably well-informed and bracingly opinionated guide to a quintessentially American art form.