THE BOOK SHELF: Checking Out A Library of Musicals, Going "Behind the Scenes" With Judi Dench and Visiting Madison County With Jason Robert Brown

News   THE BOOK SHELF: Checking Out A Library of Musicals, Going "Behind the Scenes" With Judi Dench and Visiting Madison County With Jason Robert Brown In this week's column, we discuss the Library of America collection of 16 American Musicals; Judi Dench's picture scrapbook of her life "Behind the Scenes"; and the vocal selections book of Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County.
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Since the advent of the original Broadway cast album, die-hard musical theatre fans have come to know their musicals not so much from seeing them as from listening to them. I would wager that there are at least some readers out there who could pretty much sing a fair amount of the scores of... well, you can list your own personal favorites, but you know who you are.

Without seeing productions of favorite shows, you can get a pretty good idea of what's going on plotwise; or perhaps you're lucky enough to see the shows in revival. But while you can memorize the music and lyrics, the books remain relatively elusive. Even when musicals are revived, nowadays, you don't necessarily get the show as written; the most recent productions of Kiss Me, Kate; Annie Get Your Gun; On the Town, The Pajama Game; and ; have all been tampered with — to say nothing of Porgy and Bess. And don't even think of judging a Broadway script by watching a motion picture adaptation.

Librettos of musicals are sometimes available. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, they were regularly published in book form; some were even included in show biz magazines like Theatre Arts. But most of these are long out of print and vanished. The librettos remain findable — either through libraries or used book dealers — but they are not readily accessible.

The Library of America, which exists to preserve and keep America's literary heritage in print, has done admirable service by providing authoritative collections of the plays of O'Neill, Wilder, Williams, Miller and even Kaufman. Now, bless them, they have turned their attention to the Broadway musical. "American Musicals: The Complete Book & Lyrics of Sixteen Broadway Classics," edited by Laurence Maslon, comes to us in a 1,400-page, two-volume set. (The books are also available separately, the first covering 1927-1949 and the second covering 1950-1969. But if you want librettos of favorite musicals, you will need them both.

This allows you to sit there with the libretto of one of these musicals, the corresponding original cast album and the pause button. Listen to the overture; turn to Act One, Scene One of the libretto; and go through the show in relatively complete form. (Cast albums rarely include the entire score and sometimes truncate individual numbers. Still, it's close enough.) This will give you a better understanding of what the authors were going for, and how it worked, than you can get elsewhere.

The librettos have been cleanly typeset and placed in handsome and durable volumes, complete with the Library of America's usual ribbon marker to keep your place. Maslon provides biographical notes on the authors, Broadway credits, extensive notes on the texts, and 30 or so illustrations (including color wherever possible). The 1927-1949 volume includes Show Boat, Pal Joey, On the Town, Oklahoma! South Pacific, Finian's Rainbow, As Thousands Cheer and Kiss Me, Kate. The 1950-1969 volume includes Cabaret, My Fair Lady, 1776, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Guys & Dolls, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof and The Pajama Game.

I can see at least a few eyebrows raising at some of the selections. As Thousands Cheer stands out, I suppose, as the musical least in need of being thus preserved. Not a musical, actually; it is a revue consisting of topical, non-plot related songs and independent (and dated) sketches. If musicals are said to tell a story through the combination of words and music, As Thousands Cheer does neither. It is hard to see what value the reader gets from reading sketches intermingled with lyrics for songs like "Easter Parade."

More to the point, let us consider the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — which while it is has sometimes been awarded controversially, is still the pre-eminent literary award given to theatre works. Initially, musicals weren't even considered eligible; play awards are for plays written by playwrights, frivolous musicals needn't apply. (Imagine what they would have made of the selection of a revue?) In time, the Pulitzer committee recognized that a musical could indeed be deemed the finest dramatic work of the season, so musicals began to slowly appear in the Pulitzer list.

In the first 50 years of the Pulitzers — which include the time covered by these two volumes — only four musicals were awarded the Pulitzer. This suggests that at least somebody found the literary quality of said musicals to be admirable. Yet, only one of the four (South Pacific) is included in the Library of America collection. Instead, we get not only As Thousands Cheer but musicals like Pal Joey and Cabaret which have enjoyed greater success in rewritten and revised versions. I can understand the Pulitzer-winning Fiorello! being eased off the list, as the libretto doesn't at this point seem compelling; but Of Thee I Sing and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying are marvelously contrived satires in which the score and the book combined to create musical theatre art in a then-new and ingenious manner. Let me add that while I have a long-time relationship with The Pajama Game, and am quite fond of it, fine literature it ain't. [After publication of this review, the editor of American Musicals assured me of his admiration for Of Thee I Sing but explained that it is already included in the Library of America's Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies — and thus ineligible for reprint in its deserved place in the new volume.]

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But these are exceedingly minor quibbles. The Library of America's American Musicals will provide musical theatre fans with hours of enjoyment, while at the same time instructing them what makes a (great) musical.

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Dame Judi Dench follows her 2011 memoir and furthermore with a delightful new volume, "Behind the Scenes" [St. Martin's Press]. As the actress turns 80 and struggles with macular degeneration, she has not given us a new memoir. This one is the equivalent of a scrapbook, except that the photographs — more than 230 of them, many in color — are especially well chosen. And instead of mere captions, Dench accompanies many with full anecdotes. Given her open, honest, no-nonsense nature, the effect is not of reading a book but of sitting across a table from the star, who willingly fills us in on (only) the interesting stuff. "Behind the Scenes" is not a weighty tome, nor does it intend to be; just a delightful addendum to and furthermore that makes Dench seem even more admirable and likable.

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On the sheet music front, Hal Leonard has now given us the prize Broadway musical score of the 2013-14 season. The vocal selections book from Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County contains 12 songs, and I'll list the titles (for a reason): "To Build a Home," "Temporarily Lost," "What Do You Call a Man Like That?" "Another Life," "Wondering," "The World Inside a Frame," "Falling into You," "Almost Real," "Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles," "When I'm Gone," "It All Fades Away" and "Always Better." I have written about this score extensively, repeatedly praising most of what I consider Brown's strongest score. But there is an Achilles heel here, which contributed to the show's disappointing Broadway adventure: the adaptation built up auxiliary characters which took away from the strength of what I consider the core score. Beginning with the second number in the show, in which the heroine's family tells her that they will be "Home Before You Know It," I found my attention wandering every time the husband or the musical comedy-style busybody neighbors intruded on the show. So much so that when I listen to the score (which I do frequently), I have my player programmed to skip the offending songs and only give me the dozen superb ones. And yes; this core score is superb, and if you don't yet have the CD, you really ought to get it.

Playing through the vocal selections, I was surprised to find that the book does not include all the songs; they have omitted the very same songs that I regularly skip when I'm listening to the show. That is, the ones that I feel detracted from the score's glories in performance. An interesting choice, but one that I thoroughly understand. Perhaps we'll see a chamber version of Madison County, someday, which reimagines the musical and removes the ensemble. One thing is for sure: there will be many fans hoping to hear a live performance of Brown's remarkable songs.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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