This luxuriant coffee table book is packed with photos, posters, design sketches and drawings that accompanied American musicals from 1866 to the present. The book was published to coincide with the Washington, DC, exhibition of the same name running through July 1997 at the National Portrait Gallery, which co-created both exhibition and book with the National Museum of American History. The book has two main strengths: One, it treats the musicals of Broadway and Hollywood as part of the same phenomenon, which makes sense, since there was so much crossover of creative personnel. Two, it traces the influence of ethnicity and economics on the art form, showing especially how deeply Jewish immigrants and northward-fleeing African-American former slaves poured their experiences and culture into America's greatest contribution to the history of world theater.
From Publishers Weekly
Coming as part of a Smithsonian triple-play that also includes an exhibition opening in Washington in October and a simultaneous audio release, this history of the American musical demonstrates that there are few trends easily available for fan or scholar to follow. While the 120 color and 167 black-and-white illustrations are suitably lavish, the text is somewhat kneecapped by truncated length and the sheer contrariness of the subject matter. The American musical seems to have been driven from the outset by bold ideas of showmanship and patriotism, and by a plethora of overblown egos, from Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson to Sophie Tucker and Fannie Brice. The authors (Bowers is a historian at the National Museum of American History, Henderson a cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery) slip well-worn lore and lesser-known trivia between the indelible images. Vaudeville grew up amid blackface and segregation. Porgy and Bess offered nice tunes and a mildly insulting tone to black audiences. Showboat hits several resonant sociological notes and all the right musical ones. Irving Berlin, by his own admission, never found a more complementary interpreter of his works than Fred Astaire. Agnes De Mille was an inspired choreographer before the term was coined. Readers are advised not to look for a thesis here on why the musical developed as it did but to linger instead on the arresting images and the revealing tidbits: George Gershwin, on hearing that others feared he wanted to write only "serious" music after Porgy, wired his agent: "Rumors about highbrow music ridiculous. Am out to write hits."
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.