Books on Broadway: Yale series celebrates the maestros of musical theatre
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical South Pacific opened this week at the Barbican Theatre in London. We take a look at the Yale Broadway Masters series, a collection of books devoted to celebrating the major figures in Broadway theatre, including such luminaries as George Gershwin, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Rogers.
On Monday the lavish Lincoln Theater production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific made its long-awaited London and European debut at the Barbican in London, after gaining widespread acclaim in the US (winning the 2008 Tony Awards, playing to sold-out houses on Broadway for two years and being broadcast across the country).
Famous for tackling themes of racial prejudice, South Pacific is considered to be one of the greatest Broadway musicals ever written, premiering in 1949 and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. The source material, James A. Michener’s 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific also won a Pulitzer Prize, and the musical succeeds in weaving together elements from several of its stories into a single plotline about an American nurse at a U.S. World War II Naval base who falls in love with an expatriate French plantation owner with a dark past.
The writing process behind South Pacific is dealt with in detail in Yale’s biography of Richard Rogers, one half of the famous Rogers and Hammerstein songwriting duo. Richard Rodgers was an icon of the musical theatre, a prolific composer whose career spanned six decades and who wrote more than 1000 songs and 40 shows for the American stage. In Geoffrey Block’s biography, he examines Rodgers’s entire career, providing rich details about the creation, staging, and critical reception of some of his most popular musicals. Block traces Rodgers’s musical education, early work, and the development of his musical and dramatic language. He focuses on shows by Rodgers and Hart such as A Connecticut Yankee and The Boys from Syracuse, as well as famous works by Rodgers and Hammerstein, of which South Pacific is one. Block also provides the first serious look at the five neglected and often maligned musicals that Rodgers composed in the 1960s and 1970s, after the death of Hammerstein.
Richard Rogers is part of the Yale Broadway Masters series, which aims to introduce both general readers and students to major figures in Broadway theater. Each volume is short, amply illustrated, and written in a lively, non-technical manner – serious scholarly books that wear their scholarship lightly. Each reflects the individuality of its subject and author, but certain elements are consistent, including a biographical survey, at least one chapter devoted to a single show, an assessment of each subject’s historical and artistic legacy, an authoritative work-list and a selected discography. In short, everything a budding aficionado of musical theatre could ask for.
Other books in the Broadway Masters series…
By Larry Starr
In this welcome addition to the Yale Broadway Masters series, Larry Starr focuses fresh attention on George Gershwin’s Broadway contributions and examines their centrality to the composer’s entire career. Starr presents Gershwin as a composer with a unified musical vision – a vision developed on Broadway and used as a source of strength in his well-known concert music. In turn, Gershwin’s concert-hall experience enriched and strengthened his musicals, leading eventually to his great ‘Broadway opera’, Porgy and Bess. Through the prism of three major shows – Lady Be Good (1924), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and Porgy and Bess (1935) – Starr highlights Gershwin’s distinctive contributions to the evolution of the Broadway musical. In addition, the author considers Gershwin’s musical language, his compositions for the concert hall, and his movie scores for Hollywood in the light of his Broadway experience. More
Andrew Lloyd Webber
By John Snelson
Andrew Lloyd Webber is the most famous – and most controversial – composer of musical theatre alive today. Hundreds of millions of people have seen his musicals, which include Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Sunset Boulevard. Even more know his songs. Lloyd Webber’s many awards include seven Tonys and three Grammys, but he has nonetheless been the subject of greater critical vitriol than any of his artistic peers. Why have both the man and his work provoked such extreme responses? Does he challenge his audiences, or merely recycle the comfortable and familiar?
In this sustained examination of Lloyd Webber’s creative career, the music scholar John Snelson explores the vast range of influences that have informed Lloyd Webber’s work, from film, rock, and pop music to Lloyd Webber’s own life story. This rigorous and sympathetic survey will be essential reading for anyone interested in Lloyd Webber’s musicals and the world of modern musical theatre that he has been so instrumental in shaping. This work received a rating of ‘Outstanding’ from 2005 University Press Books Committee. More
Kander and Ebb
By James Leve
Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb collaborated for more than forty years, longer than any such partnership in Broadway history. Together they wrote over twenty musicals. Their two most successful works, Cabaret and Chicago, had critically acclaimed Broadway revivals and were made into Oscar-winning films. This book, the first study of Kander and Ebb, examines their artistic accomplishments as individuals and as a team. Drawing on personal papers and on numerous interviews, James Leve analyzes the unique nature of this collaboration. Leve discusses their contribution to the concept musical; he examines some of their most popular works including Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman; and, he reassesses their ‘flops’ as well as their incomplete and abandoned projects. Filled with fascinating information, the book is a resource for students of musical theatre and lovers of Kander and Ebb’s songs and shows. More
Books in the Yale Broadway Masters Series are available from Yale University Press