Gerald Bordman altered the scope of American musical theatre history — and the weight of the American musical theatre history bookshelf — in 1978 with his 750-page "American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle." Here was a book that attempted to tell us something about each and every musical produced over the course of more than 100 years. That's right; Bordman went back to the 1866-67 season — who knew there was an 1866-67 Broadway season? — and gave us at least some information about each and every musical he could find. New York shows, as well as major musicals produced elsewhere across the country. He didn't find everything; once in a while you might be looking for a show that "wasn't in Bordman," but most of them were in the book.
The information included the date of the opening, the theatre, and a brief (or not so brief) discussion of the plot and people involved. Length of discussion ranged from a short paragraph to more than two pages, depending on the importance of the show. Or the importance Bordman ascribed to the show. Anyone writing such a book, inevitably, is likely to be influenced by their personal preferences. Bordman's can be inferred by a glance at the table of contents. What he called Act Four, being his fourth main section of the book, was called "The Golden Age of the American Musical, 1924-1937."
Gee, that seems mighty early to me for the "Golden Age." Before Rodgers & Hammerstein, before Lerner or Loewe, before the arrival of Styne, Bernstein, Loesser, Sondheim, Bock, Kander, Coleman, Herman and more. Bordman's chapter covering 1951-1965 — the years of The King and I, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, West Side Story, Gypsy, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, She Loves Me, Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof — is subtitled "Lowering Standards."
Bordman went on to prepare a second edition in 1992 and a third in 2001; while the American musical theatre admittedly led a problematic existence through the past decades, one can only surmise that Bordman was happiest when writing about the musicals of the golden age. His golden age, that is, the mid-year of which was 1930. This did not negatively affect the importance of "American Musical Theatre"; it remained the only book of its kind, and an invaluable one. But it did put kind of a filter on the discussion of the modern-day American musical. For the new Fourth Edition, Bordman and his publishers have seen fit to bring in a new voice. Richard Norton, author of the three-volume "Chronology of American Musical Theater," has provided the updated material, encompassing the first ten years of the 21st century. This new decade, extending through (fittingly) The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, encompasses 56 pages — which is almost more than Bordman spent on the '80s and '90s combined. Norton considers the current-day musical in the same manner that Bordman considered his golden age, putting the book back on track. "American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle [Fourth Edition] by Gerald Bordman with updates by Richard Norton" [Oxford] now runs over 1,000 pages, and has something of a textbook feel to it. Happily, it seems to be crisper and cleaner than the earlier editions, easier to read and easier for browsing.
Applause Books has for some time now been refurbishing the book shelf with librettos of musicals, mixing new hits with reprints of older titles. They have just published three selections in fresh new softcover editions: "Oklahoma!: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical" by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; "The Sound of Music: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical" by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse; and "Avenue Q The Musical: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical" by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty. Oklahoma! (which has a new introduction by Ted Chapin) and Sound of Music (with a new introduction by Timothy Crouse) are old standards, if recently out-of-print. Avenue Q (without introduction) is the new kid on the block; as fans of the show are aware, the book and lyrics are both filled with rude and explosive laughs. Each book includes a section of photographs of the original and subsequent companies. *
Chronicles of the international artistic life of the first quarter of the twentieth century are frequented by the larger-than-life personality of Serge Diaghilev and his revolutionary work with the Ballets Russes. Born into a wealthy Russian family — albeit one that lost all its money before he turned 20 — Diaghilev had champagne tastes. After flitting through the arts, he eventually settled on the world of ballet, which he more or less revitalized and recreated with a little help from his friends. You can do that when your friends are named Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Balanchine, Matisse, Picasso and more.
Yes, Serge turns up in numerous studies and biographies, but Dutch art scholar Sjeng Scheijen has rewritten the book on Diaghilev, if you will. "Diaghilev: A Life" by Sjeng Scheijen [Oxford] (and translated by Jane Hedley-Prole and S.J. Leinbach) recreates the world Diaghilev inhabited, in many cases presenting "new" information and revised interpretations that have the ring of truth to them. Yes, it's a fascinating story; the dramatis personae above almost guarantee that. But in Scheijen's hands, this is quite a read, quite a life, and quite a book.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released 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" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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