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150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre

Was musical theater really invented by Americans? Charles Wright reviews a new book on the subject. logo

In the course of the nearly 60 years since Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II first worked their magic with Oklahoma!, Americans have concocted the grandiose view that musical theater is our native contribution to world culture. British musicologist Andrew Lamb's beautifully-written 150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre (Yale, 400 pages, $39.95) is a tonic for that kind of intellectual isolationism. Lamb acknowledges Broadway's colossal role in the development of the art form--in fact, he celebrates it. But his well-reasoned arguments demonstrate what a "global phenomenon" the musical theater really is.

Lamb's survey starts in France with the operettas of Jacques Offenbach and proceeds to Vienna, where comic opera reached a high point in Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss. After that, the story becomes ensconced in Habsburg twilight with Hungarian composer Franz Lehár, who wrote Das Fürstenkind and Der Graf von Luxemburg as well as Die Lustige Witwe. In 1905, that masterpiece--The Merry Widow in English--created an almost insatiable market worldwide for sentimental Viennese operetta. In response, Vienna served up confections such as Oscar Straus' The Chocolate Soldier, and the public clamored for more right through the First World War and beyond.

After Vienna, Lamb turns to Britain where, from 1875 to the turn of the century, Gilbert and Sullivan held sway with their lightly operatic satires. The innovations of musical burlesques at London's Gaiety Theatre beginning in 1885 and extravaganzas at Daly's Theatre a little later challenge the widespread assumption that English-speaking operetta first morphed into "musical comedy" in America. As between the United States and Britain, it's difficult to tally national contributions with any precision; English-language musical theater was subject to lots of cross-pollination, with British operettas (especially those by Gilbert and Sullivan) and musicals like Floradora (with its famous "Tell Me, Pretty Maid, Are There More at Home Like You?") crossing the Atlantic, while American works such as The Red Mill by Victor Herbert (who was born in Dublin and reared in Stuttgart) became favorites in Britain. Lamb balances the oft-told story of the ascendance and maturation of American musical theater in the era of Jerome Kern and Rodgers and Hart with little-known details of what was happening simultaneously in other parts of the world: the perpetuation of operetta in German-speaking countries; the forward-looking creations of Kurt Weill's Berlin career; the revival of classical-style opéra comique in France; Soviet exports for the Eastern bloc; and the isolated phenomenon of zarzuela in Spain and Latin America.

Lamb acknowledges the influence on his work of authorities such as Antonio de Almeida, Gerald Bordman, Alexander Faris, Kurt Gänzl, Robert Pourvoyeur, Max Schönherr, and Richard Traubner. But 150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre is neither your garden variety historical survey nor an idiosyncratic slant on old material. There's no shortage of entertaining critics tilling this field of musical theater, but the liveliest writing--Mark Steyn's, for instance--is often tendentious enough to count as provocation rather than commentary. Lamb's strongest quality is his ability to write an account that's both balanced and compelling. What's more, he brings an artistic touch to scholarly narrative. Handsomely illustrated with 89 black and white photographs and theater posters, 150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre is accessible to general readers, yet comprehensive enough to command attention from the author's fellow scholars. Bound to be useful as a textbook, it also offers pleasurable browsing to those seeking a little exposure to the subject.

The greatest pleasure of 150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre, though, is that familiar works shine anew when refracted through Lamb's keen critical intelligence. Writing about The Merry Widow, for instance, he looks beyond Lehár's oh-so-familiar melodies to "the emotional depth of [the operetta's] love music" and "the colour and harmonic sophistication of the orchestral writing," which were "unprecedented." Lamb reminds us that The Merry Widow--"perhaps the most famous, most perfect operetta ever composed"--was a product of the age of Freud. His argument that it "penetrates deeply into human psychology" ought to stimulate a great many readers to take a further look at both Lehár's score and the libretto by Victor Léon and Leo Stein.

Lamb recaptures, almost rhapsodically, what Lehár's contemporaries found to be so fresh in The Merry Widow: "It begins not with a conventional overture but with a brief prelude that immediately evokes a Parisian embassy party. The rakish Danilo then arrives to a number that is no conventional set of verses but just a single verse and chorus that say all that is needed. Hanna in turn enters to music that immediately conveys her glamour and the complete captivation of the men of the embassy. The sheer eroticism of the love music is noteworthy not just in the writing for the leading characters but also in that for the secondary couple, the ambassador's wife Valencienne and her lover Camille de Rosillon, which scales almost Wagnerian heights in the summerhouse scene in Act 2. The principal march is no 'Forward into Battle!' stereotype but an expression of male bafflement over the ways of women. Lehár also includes what was a very up-to-date acknowledgement of the dance trends of the time with the introduction of a cakewalk into Act 3."

Lamb isn't always so thorough or insightful. As a counterbalancing example, he dismisses Side Show, the complex, controversial musical by Henry Krieger and Bill Russell, with a glancing blow. "[T]he show suffered," he says, from focusing on the Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton "as freaks rather than exploring their personal feelings." This brute assessment is the full extent of Lamb's discussion of the musical. Admirers of Krieger and Russell's 1997 work will find his unsupported remark insupportable, and are likely to wonder whether Lamb has seen the entire libretto or merely heard the opening number, which invites the audience to "Come Look at the Freaks."

Critical cavils aside, 150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre is a noteworthy accomplishment. Lamb's historical account, comprehensive as a desktop encyclopedia, is succinct and engaging. Appropriately for one consumed by a generally "up-tempo" art form, the author offers a hopeful view of what's ahead. He acknowledges that "the economics of getting new works staged present an obvious source of concern" and concedes that "the sheer volume of new works must inevitably be restricted compared with the past." He believes, nonetheless, that "one can scarcely be anything but optimistic about the future" when there are "some forty theatres" in New York and London alone dedicated to musical works. "The pattern of musical theatre must inevitably change in the future," he writes, "as it so gratifyingly has in the past; but there is no reason to doubt that the incalculably rich heritage of [the last] 150 years will be rewardingly developed well into the twenty-first century."

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