by Loren Noveck · January 7, 2014
Indie Theater Artist Loren Noveck reviews a new theater book Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre by Ethan Mordden Covering three hundred years and many different forms of staged shows containing music, from early forms such as ballad opera and the minstrel show, through burlesque and revue, and not stopping till it gets all the way to the present day with Wicked and The Book of Mormon, Ethan Mordden’s Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre is, perhaps inevitably, a whirlwind tour of highlights and lowlights, of broad-stroke trends and larger-than-life figures. Almost any paragraph in it could spawn a full-length feature article, and each chapter could potentially be expanded into a book of its own. It’s bursting at the seams with names and snippets of information about each show and sketches of writers and composers and director from the familiar to the long-lost-in-the-mists-of-time. It’s not particularly long (under 300 pages, plus a thoughtfully annotated bibliography and an indispensable discography), but it does at times feel breathlessly overstuffed.
In overview, the main narrative arc of the book tracks the progression from plays that contained incidental entertaining music drawn from other popular sources; to plays with original, albeit still incidental, music; to pieces built on integrated, narratively substantive music; to the music itself beginning to define the American standard, to become popular music--and then to what Mordden views as the apotheosis of the American musical: the Golden Age pieces of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, and other Perfect Musicals (his term) such as My Fair Lady and West Side Story. These pieces are the ones that fully integrate all their elements: story, music, dance, and production design, all used to build and limn character.
Mordden’s enthusiasm and the clarity of his narrative both weaken a little when we get past Sondheim; his overabundant affection for the Perfect Musicals and their general type of music can make him a little disdainful of modern musicals--and of modern music more generally. He has a tendency to use rock and roll as a shorthand scapegoat, a bully that comes along and ruins everything by ushering in an age of pop opera, unthinking spectacle, revivals (which, he argues, used to be seen as unnecessary because there was no shortage of new material--though one could convincingly argue that the rising costs of production and the multiplication of producing interests have as much to do with the popularity of revivals as a shortage of new material; the known quantity can be seen as a safer financial investment), jukebox musicals, and finally the current penchant for film adaptations. He does have some respect--sometimes slightly grudging respect--for certain new shows even when they fall into his less preferred categories, but his heart is clearly with the classic shows.
I found his analyses most interesting when most specific, in particular when Mordden discusses the musical structure of individual scores and tunes with precision and incisive detail (and with a vocabulary and set of critical tools that far outshine my own). I occasionally found his passion for taxonomy, his insistence on pigeonholing shows into stylistic categories, a little arbitrary; covering this much material without writing a massive tome does, of course, require certain forms of organizational shorthand, but some of his rubrics feel confining.
Still, it’s an enormously useful introduction to the most American of theatrical forms, and one that does the great service of describing in some detail shows that will likely not be revived (or will be so transformed in doing so, a trend he calls “revisals,” that one won’t get the experience of original). And as a reference book, it’s probably worth keeping on the shelf for the bibliography and discography alone.