Collins Guide to Musicals
By Rexton S. Bunnett, Michael Patrick Kennedy, and John Muir
Glasgow/New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 448p. index. $check. ISBN 0-00-712268-3.
This is an alphabetical listing of mostly famous and some not-so-famous musicals from Broadway and the West End. Entries range from Annie to Zorba and from 1879 (The Pirates of Penzance) to 2001 (The Producers). An entry contains title; lyricist, composer, and book writer; first performances in New York (if any) and London (if any); principal characters; original New York cast (if any); original London cast (if any); a plot summary; a brief paragraph that provides the authors' opinions of the music (e.g., "Tuneful, catchy and vibrant contemporary score" for Hair) and lists the best-known songs from the show; a "Did You Know?" section that lists a few bits of interesting trivia about the show (e.g., "Hair's opening in London celebrated the end of stage censorship in the United Kingdom"); a scattering of quotes from critics, both positive and negative, American and British; a recommended recording (CDs whenever possible); and brief info about any film or TV version that exists.
In addition, the book starts with an Introduction that traces the history of musical theatre in London and New York; a section on "Forms of Musical" that defines such categories as "the operetta musical" and "the disguised rock concert"; composer and lyricist biographies (with teams discussed in the same entries) that list the creators' best-known works and sometimes a few of their flops and film scores; "A Short Glossary"; a musical title index; and a song title index.
This book is a fairly substantial update of 1997's edition. The authors (except Kennedy, who died in 1998) added both new musicals that opened since the original book's publication and a substantial number of older shows they omitted from the first book. It's not comprehensive, though. Absent are such titles as Falsettos (though there is a biography for William Finn), 110 in the Shade, Aida, Titanic, Ragtime, and Grand Hotel. On the other hand, the book covers a substantial number of older London productions that are all but unknown across the Big Pond: Mr. Cinders, Valmouth, The Dancing Years, and Nymph Errant among others. And there are a handful of treasured flop shows listed as well: The Golden Apple, Mack & Mabel, and Merrily We Roll Along, to name a few. So while this book wouldn't be a first choice for a general overview of musicals, it fills a niche with this information and is something you would want to have on hand in a collection.
The authors clearly love musical theatre--their glossary definition of "Musical Theatre" is "The two most glorious words in the English language!"--and this love shines through in the musical entries. One could, however, wish for a few improvements to the format. The principal characters and the actors who played them are listed separately, so it's hard to figure out who played who unless a cast is very small. A table format would have been much more helpful. Sometimes the character list omits important minor characters; for example, the list for Gypsy mentions Tessie Tura but leaves out Mazeppa and Electra (and the actresses who played them). An index to players would have been helpful, and full song lists would have been very nice but were probably not possible given the format (two pages per musical). Finally, the typos are a bit too noticeable (e.g., calling Dorothy Reynolds "Dorothy Fields" at one point in Salad Days); this seems to be a problem common to this sort of Broadway book, as witness the similar kinds of typos in Broadway Musicals Show by Show.
On the other hand, the recording recommendations are extremely helpful, especially when an OBR or OLR doesn't exist and the authors point you toward a substitute, such as the off-Broadway revival cast of Cabin in the Sky or an Ivor Novello recording that includes a few songs from his musicals (apparently no Novello musical has ever had a real cast recording; what a shame). The authors often indicate when alternate versions of a score are available, and when London (or New York) casts did not get recorded. There are only a couple of instances where a score only exists on LP or doesn't exist in any form. The "Did You Know" tidbits are also valuable. They can deal with awards, personalities, a show's troubles, a show's genesis, lengths of runs, and much more. I wish more had been included for each show!
There's so much good cheer in this book that it's hard to resist even when one disagrees with the authors' assessment of a show or laments that a particular show doesn't appear in the book. Recommended for this and for its coverage of musicals and trivia not dealt with in other such books; there's enough unique material here (especially the West End stuff) that it would be a useful adjunct to more American-centered titles.
Review copyright 2002, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved
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