Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Many books on musicals aspire to be entertaining. That doesn't seem to be one of Raymond Knapp's objectives in his far-ranging The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity, the second volume of his two-part study of the American musical. This may limit the book's audience. Since the author intends it, at least in part, as a textbook for his class at UCLA, that may not concern him. This is a book for the patient reader, one who can accept its periodic longueurs in exchange for its insights.
Knapp had announced at the end of volume one that a second volume would be coming. (The earlier book, The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity, was reviewed on this site last year.) He wrote that the second book would explore the "more personal aspects of the American musical." I hoped this meant he would reveal a more personal vision than he had in the first. Instead, he seems to have been referring to his theme for this book, which is "the role [the American musical] has played for many people, whether Americans or not, as they develop and perform their own personal identities." This theme is both huge and a bit vague, and Knapp sometimes loses sight of it. One arguable oddity, given the theme, is that Knapp doesn't discuss Follies.
Despite Knapp's intelligence, diligence, and occasional willingness to be a bit provocative, this book does not feel especially personal. Parts of it feel somewhat dutiful, as if Knapp had to complete an assignment. Still, readers who don't need quips and gossip to keep them interested will probably find a good deal of the book engrossing. Knapp usually focuses on one show or film at a time, in clearly defined subsections within each chapter, so if you don't find him interesting on Camelot, for example, you can easily move on to Man of La Mancha.
One difference from the earlier book is that Knapp discusses several film musicals written directly for the screen, whereas in the first he focused only on musicals written for the stage (although with references to the film versions in a couple of cases). There is also much greater emphasis on the musical in modern popular culture, as well as more frequent discussion of gay men as crucial to the American musical, a theme that was present in the earlier book but not to as great a degree.
This book, like the first, is in two parts, each made up of several chapters.
Part One is titled "Personal Genres." The first chapter, "The Viennese Connection: Franz Lehár and American Operetta" has sections on The Merry Widow, Naughty Marietta, Little Mary Sunshine, and A Little Night Music. The second chapter, "The Movie Musical," has sections on Singin' in the Rain, Stormy Weather, Bamboozled, Meet Me in St. Louis, Moulin Rouge, and the film version of Chicago.
Part Two, "Personal Themes," contains four chapters: "Fairy Tales and Fantasy," "Idealism and Inspiration," "Gender and Sexuality," and "Relationships." The shows and films covered are Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, Into the Woods, Camelot, Man of La Mancha, The Scarlet Pimpernel, the "Once More, With Feeling" episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy, Sweet Charity, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hedwig and the Angry Itch, Lady in the Dark, My Fair Lady, Company, Passion and Kiss Me, Kate.
An epilogue, "Operatic Ambitions and Beyond," focuses on Candide, Sweeney Todd, and Evita.
One of the book's strongest sections is the one on Into the Woods. Knapp does an excellent job of analyzing how Sondheim's songs and musical structures help to create drama and to clarify the show's themes, though he occasionally becomes somewhat opaque or states the obvious. Along the way he discusses Sondheim's untraditional uses of musical motives in this show, which don't follow Wagnerian concepts of how such themes should function. It is a little odd that James Lapine is barely mentioned.
Another excellent section is the one on Mary Poppins. Knapp gives the score more respect than you might expect, exploring in detail the Sherman Brothers' craftsmanship in writing songs that heighten the drama, deepen the characters, and lay out the themes.
Elsewhere, Knapp sometimes resorts to oversimplification, for example, in his discussion of the American Indian characters in Annie Get Your Gun.
The section on Kiss Me, Kate is full of cogent observations on both the characters and on Porter's musical devices, but is marred a bit by remarks about The Taming of the Shrew that reveal a shortsighted view of the play. Knapp seems unwilling to apply the same level of sophisticated analysis to Shakespeare's play as he does to the work of Porter and the Spewacks.
Knapp is often at his best when making small observations. At these times he can be insightful and probing. He occasionally falls into academic-speak, but for the most part his writing is professional and literate, if never flashy or witty. Perhaps he knows his own limitations and doesn't want to strive for what he may not achieve.
There is much that is informative here, especially since few readers are likely to be well-acquainted with every work that Knapp explores. After all, how many books discuss both Naughty Marietta and Hedwig and the Angry Inch? This is one of the book's strengths, but perhaps also the source of one of its weaknesses. There are places where, for all of Knapp's research, his knowledge seems incomplete, which may be because he tries to cover so many works from different eras in a wide range of styles.
There are other times, not just when dealing with sexual or racial politics, when Knapp doesn't think things through fully. About some shows — for example, Company — he just doesn't have anything of great interest to say.
Still, if a book that contains a serious exploration of how the songs in Mary Poppins support the development of the characters, plot, and themes, including musical analysis of the devices the Sherman Brothers used to accomplish this, sounds appealing to you, then you will probably find this book worth your time. I did, and I expect that there are sections I will return to in the future.
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