Book Review by George Reddick
Book Review by George Reddick
Howard Kissel's "Updated & Revised" edition of Lehman Engel's seminal 1972 book, Words With Music was released in January. Though the book was worthy of a new edition, unfortunately, the edition at hand is somewhat less than worthy of its author. Engel himself had many controversial opinions about what did and did not work in a musical. Particularly now, with thirty years hindsight, some of Engel's likes and dislikes seem surprising, such as distaste for Man of La Mancha, which is now considered something of a classic. Kissel's contribution, however, fails to engage with the subject matter with the totality of vision and deeply thought out explanations that mark Engel's portion of the book. The original book is separated by topic, and Kissel's comments follow each section, the effect being something like listening to the audio commentary of a contemporary critic on a classic movie on DVD.
There are several inherent problems with the project of updating and revising this text. First, Engel's book is directed toward writers, composers, and creators of future musical theatre works. Engel came from a successful career as a conductor and composer on Broadway and had worked on many seminal recordings of Broadway scores before starting the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in the 1960s. Words With Music came after a life's work in theatre and was a crystallization of theories and techniques developed through a decade of teaching fledgling composers and writers. Kissel's background as a theatre critic for a daily publication gives him the benefit of professional exposure to an entire era of Broadway musicals, but it also has given him a style of writing which seems dashed off and perfunctory.
Kissel has provided a simplistic continuation of Engel's book in the form of a brief history of the last thirty years of musicals. Engel, however, was only ostensibly writing a history of the first thirty years of musicals. Kissel only roughly engages with Engel's arguments. He alternately refutes, supports, and ignores Engel, often ruminating on the same topic as Engel without commenting specifically on even some of the most rich and controversial of ideas. Engel's in depth discussion of the relation between opera and musicals, for instance, is almost wholly ignored by Kissel who chooses, instead, to write on only a tangentially related subject. (He relates how he once heard someone complain in the Majestic men's room, during the intermission of The Phantom of the Opera, about being dragged to a dreaded opera).
Kissel's comments are not without worth. As a critic who has decades of Broadway-going behind him, he can comment upon a wide range of musicals seen in the thirty years after Engel. However, his arguments continue to have the feeling that he wrote them hurriedly, without a great deal of consideration, in contrast to Engel. Though frequent readers of books about musicals have come to accept that such works have limited resources for fact-checking and editing, Kissel's factual errors seem particularly egregious, such as when he misquotes lyrics while discussing the importance of specifics in lyric-writing. (Kissel quotes a lyric from Evita, for instance, this way: "I come from the people./They need to adore me./So Christian Dior me ... /It's my turn to sell me./So Machiavel me ... /I'm their symbol./That's what they call me./So Lauren Bacall me ...")
Engel's work is, in fact, somewhat outdated, and it is too bad that it has not been updated by a writer with a vision more in line with Engel's own. Given the fact that Words With Music is over thirty years old, the state of the Broadway musical has changed drastically since the time it was written. Engel complains, for instance, of contemporary critics who insisted that rock music take over as Broadway's main voice. Today, Broadway exists separately from popular culture — splintered off into a small niche of culture. This is one fact of which Kissel seems aware, but his own ability to relate this to Engel's ideas are largely unsatisfactory.
In summary, the new publication of a classic text for the lovers and writers of musicals is a welcomed edition. Lehman Engel's overall knowledge of theatre and world drama informed his teaching and writing about the creation of musicals to a brilliant effect, but it is unfortunate that so much of the new text is devoted to so unworthy a successor.
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