Monday, July 28, 2014

The Show's The Thing

Ethan Mordden is a busy guy. He's written numerous tomes on popular culture, including a book on the American Musical for every decade from the 20s through the 70s.  Which is why his latest, Anything Goes: A History Of The American Musical Theatre, seems superfluous.  He's already gone over this material and then some.

Still, it's nice to have something new from Mordden, and this whirlwind tour of 150+ years of musicals in under 350 pages has its moments.  As always, he knows his stuff, even if he's often quite subjective, occasionally putting down big names and fighting for forgotten classics.

As anyone who's read him already knows, he separates this history into four different eras.  There's the First Age, where prototypical musicals--operetta, burlesque, minstrel shows, etc.--were developed in the 19th century; the Second Age, where names like Cohan, Ziegfeld, Kern and Berlin created a form that would become so much more; the Third Age, about fifty years in the middle of the 20th century when the musical becomes a unique work of art as well as central to American entertainment; and finally the Fourth Age, after pop music has left Broadway behind, and the musical has become sometimes more intellectualized, sometimes more sung-through spectacle.  The divisions are reasonable, I suppose, though the problem is the Thrd Age has by far the most interesting songs and shows.

Overall, like much of Mordden's work, it's idiosyncratic enough that I'm not sure this would be a first-tier choice if you want a good overview of the subject.  And while he still has some good tales to tell, if you've read his earlier stuff, this seems too concentrated, with titles whizzing by in a page,or sometimes a sentence, that were given a more luxurious treatment when he had the time.  Still, if you like the subject, it's an enthusiastic work, better than a lot of the stuff out there.

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