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SHOWTIME by Larry Stempel Kirkus Star


A History of the Broadway Musical Theater

by Larry Stempel

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-393-06715-6
Publisher: Norton

A comprehensive critical analysis of significant Broadway shows from the 18th century to The Lion King and beyond.

Stempel (Music/Fordham Univ.) realized he had a near-impossible task, since early documentation is fragmented and that establishing firm categories for shows is difficult, even foolish. Yet he persevered, producing a volume that is informative, enlightening and entertaining. In the beginning, all American productions came from England; not until the late 19th century did a distinctly American musical-theater tradition began to emerge. The author takes a close look at some early productions—e.g., Uncle Tom’s Cabin—then examines the transition from minstrel shows to vaudeville. He spotlights the careers of some significant partnerships, many of whose names are largely forgotten today—e.g., Edward Harrigan, Tony Hart, Joseph Weber and Lew Fields—and turns his attention to the twin influences of operettas and light opera on popular theater in America. Stempel lingers in the 20th century, an undoubtedly fecund period, revisiting Tin Pan Alley and the careers of the superstars, including Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Flo Ziegfeld, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe. The author establishes useful distinctions between the revue, the musical play, opera on Broadway and the Broadway opera, and he crowns Guys and Dolls (1950) as musical comedy’s “masterpiece.” He takes swift glances at Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway and alternative musicals, with particular attention to the record-setting The Fantasticks. He examines how Off Broadway productions began moving to Broadway and explores the careers and influences of Sondheim and the so-called “superdirectors” (like Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett). Ending with a consideration of the British invasion and with a category he calls the “movical” (Beauty and the Beast), Stempel stresses that Broadway still has a future.

Not just a catalog or reference book, but a highly astute, integrative cultural history.