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A Chronology of American Musical Theater

Filichia joyfully pores through a 3,000-page-plus history of the art form that is dearest to his heart. logo

How many pages would it take to really do justice to the American musical theater? Richard C. Norton says 3,046 -- for that's how many pages are stuffed into his A Chronology of American Musical Theater, a three-volume set just published by Oxford University Press ($395).

It takes Norton 991 pages just to get to 1912, where Volume One concludes. Norton starts at the year 1750 but he gets to 1850 in just 14 pages. Understandable: Back then, few were chronicling what was going on in the American musical theater, so it's a wonder Norton could somehow discover that The Beggar's Opera opened on December 10, 1750, at The Theatre in Nassau Street and played a bunch of performances in rep until July 8, 1751.

Those who expected The Black Crook to be the first entry in Norton's tomes are in for an awakening. Before that groundbreaker there was not only The Beggar's Opera but also The Bohemian Girl (1844), remembered today as the impetus for a Laurel and Hardy movie. There are more than 100 other light operas, operettas, and opera bouffes before that black crook came along--obscurities with titles like Met-a-Moraand La Musquitoe. En route, we also find that, in 1840, there was a futuristic musical called 1940!-- apparently, the first musical to add an exclamation point to its title. By 1848, there was the topical revue, as is witnessed by A Glance at New York in 1848. Today, The Saw Mill is just a parkway to Westchester county commuters, but to musical theater enthusiasts living in 1834 it was a five-performance flop.

Indeed, a full 75 pages pass before Norton finally gets to The Black Crook--adding its official description, "an original, grand, romantic, magical, and special drama in four acts." Norton gives the names of the show's librettist, composer, lyricist, director, ballet director (we wouldn't see the word "choreographer" for many moons yet), conductor, set and costume designers, and producers. (He does that for all the shows in the book.) But heirs of S. Wallis, Charles Murray, and Charles Seward are going to be tickled to see that their great-great-great-great grandfathers get respective credit for props, "gas contrivances," and "calcium lights" on The Black Crook. That's how thorough Norton has been.

Volume Two--which runs from 1912-13 to 1951-52 and is 1,001 pages long--starts with a picture of Vernon and Irene Castle mid-dance. A flip-through shows that the vast majority of pictures included (a single one introduces each season) have seldom, if ever, been seen before. There's a fascinating one of Paul Stone and David Montgomery that introduces the 1914-15 semester. Only their heads are shown nestling next to each other, and each looks as if he's being hanged by a rope--until a closer look reveals that the show they were in was Chin-Chin or A Modern Aladdin and those "ropes" are actually their long, Asian-styled pigtails. Al Jolson is shown in blackface for Robinson Crusoe, Jr. caressing a goat--which might suggest that Edward Albee got the idea for his Tony-winning play from this very picture. After all, if you were stranded on a desert island with no human beings around...

Fred and Adele Astaire
Never mind. Let's concentrate instead on some of the other pictures in Volume Two: Will Rogers (looking unlike Keith Carradine) in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1922; an impossibly young and beautiful Elisabeth Welch in Runnin' Wild; an androgynous Beatrice Lillie in Charlot's Revue of 1924; William Gaxton in A Connecticut Yankee (and what a handsome drop behind him!); Fred and Adele Astaire in Smiles (the latter was so pretty, no wonder that Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish fell in love with her); Bert Lahr with a mustache stranger than Hitler's (or is that a cold sore?) in Life Begins at 8:40; Jimmy Durante with "What elephant?" in Jumbo; Jack Haley holding a plunger (rather than the usual axe to which we've become accustomed) in Higher and Higher; Gertrude Lawrence talking to a much taller mannequin in Lady in the Dark; a pre-Lucy Vivian Vance glaring down at Danny Kaye in Let's Face It; Mary Martin looking sexy as hell in One Touch of Venus; a prim and proper Lisa Kirk as the nurse in Allegro; and Nanette Fabray and Ray Middleton in a fourposter, 18 seasons before I Do! I Do!, in Love Life.

Of course, most of us are going to spend an inordinate amount of time with Volume Three, which runs from 1952-53 to 2000-2001, for those are the seasons with which we can most identify. The 1,054-page tome begins with a picture of a wary Rosalind Russell being held aloft by two happy-go-lucky naval officers in Wonderful Town before launching into the 1952-53 season with Wish You Were Here. Norton shrewdly includes the tongue-in-cheek notation that was originally printed in the program: that the show is set "in the heart of Vacationland. It could be the Berkshires, the Adirondacks, the Poconos, the White Mountain--or even the Catskills." Of course, it was precisely the last-named site that the authors had in mind.

Here's where we can learn, too, that Wish You Were Here included a song called "Bright College Days," sung by the Waiters, that didn't make the RCA Victor cast album. Unlike so many musical theater encyclopedias, Norton tells who sang what song in each show, though he usually lists a performer's first initial and surname rather than the character's name. Thus, we learn that S.A. Howes and D. Eagan sang the reprise of "When, Lovely Lady" in James Joyce's The Dead.

And on through the seasons Norton sails. Is there any fact that escapes his attention? He lets you know that, in Grease, the Pink Ladies consist of Rizzo, Frenchy, Marty, and Jan, while the Burger Palace Boys are Kenickie, Doody, Roger, and Sonny. For The Robber Bridegroom, he notes that the show played without an intermission--but that, "for the subsequent national tour, an intermission was added after 'Love Stolen.'" For A Class Act, he names the two songs that didn't transfer with the show from the Manhattan Theatre Club to the Ambassador. And for Me and Juliet, there's mention of a Rodgers and Hammerstein song, "The Baby You Love," cut after the opening. May we have a recording during this centennial year of Rodgers' birth?

But--and here is an enormous caveat--the book is actually misnamed, for it is less a chronology of American musical theater than a chronology of Broadway musicals, in that Norton completely eschews Off-Broadway. "Consequently," he admits in his introduction, "The Fantasticks, the longest-running musical in American history from Off-Broadway, perversely does not appear in this book." But had it transferred to Broadway, it would have, for Norton does include shows that made the leap--like Let My People Come (and its hit songs, "Give It to Me," "Fellatio

101," and "Come in My Mouth") because it played the now-razed Morosco for 106 performances in 1976 after an Off-Broadway run that lasted 1,167 showings. He does go as far as the Madison Square Garden shows--literally and figuratively, for the book ends with the production of Cinderella that opened on May 3, 2001 (The Fantasticks' 41st birthday, by the way) at the 34th Street barn.

If you feel that 1,054 pages sounds overly plentiful for the musicals we've had since 1952, you're right--the entire volume is not devoted to productions from 1952-53 to 2000-01. Those end at page 649, and the rest of the book is devoted to indices. "Index of Shows," formatted in three columns per page, lasts through page 670. That's followed by, in much smaller type, "Index of Songs" (70 pages worth of three-columns) and "Selected Index of Persons"--now four columns' worth of principals but drawing the line at ensemble and chorus members. Thus, you'll just have to know in advance that Marilu Henner was one of the "boys and girls" in the 1976 revival of Pal Joey--or you can, of course, happen upon the information as I did in my first foray through the tomes).

Finally, after 210 pages of names of principals, A Chronology of American Musical Theater comes to an end. Its front cover, by the way, is bisected, with Tilly Losch in The Band Wagon taking the entire left side while Mary Martin as Peter Pan, making her very own shadow, shares the right side with the ensemble of Fosse. These three pictures are not on a dust-jacket but are printed directly onto the hard, laminated cover. The editors at Oxford University Press knew that mere dust-jackets would never survive the many, many instances when we'd all be picking up this book, sometimes to answer a question but, most of the time, just for fun.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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