Book Reviews

The Musical as Drama
by Scott McMillin

Book Review by Alan Gomberg

The Musical as DramaIn The Musical as Drama, the late Scott McMillin, who was an English professor at Cornell University, examines what he calls "the definable conventions around which one can think about the musical as a form of art." He writes, "My chapters are not primarily about Kern or Rodgers and Hammerstein or the Gershwins. They are primarily about the orchestra, or the book and the numbers, or the chorus line - elements one takes for granted as the conventions of the show."

McMillin seems to have taken inspiration (as well as his title) from Joseph Kerman's famous, somewhat controversial book Opera as Drama. McMillin contrasts Wagner's ideal of integration, in which all the elements work together to create a seamless work of art, with Brecht's belief in "radically separating the elements."

McMillin believes that most good musicals are closer in spirit to Brecht's methods than Wagner's in that the songs stand apart from the book as non-naturalistic, highly structured expansions of the drama that, through the use of repetition-based song forms, achieve things that would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to accomplish in dialogue. McMillin writes, "It takes things different from one another to be thought of as integrated in the first place, and I find that the musical depends more on the differences that make the close fit interesting than on the suppression of difference in a seamless whole." In a good musical, McMillin suggests, the contrasting elements work together to create a coherent effect.

I wish that McMillin's ambitious book itself achieved coherence more consistently. It is generally strong in the early chapters, when McMillin lays out his most important ideas. In the middle sections, he has some interesting things to say about individual shows, as well as a few silly things. For example, he takes it as a given that Sally Bowles really did share four sordid rooms in Chelsea with a girlfriend known as Elsie, and he seems to think it's long been common for productions of The Music Man to have the entire cast play "76 Trombones" during the curtain call. Unfortunately, in the later sections McMillin goes off in too many unrewarding directions, sometimes because his ideas are half-baked and at other times because he simply hasn't studied certain shows in sufficient depth to write about them with reliability. It may be that this book presents us with what was a working draft and that McMillin might have made some significant changes and fixed some of its problems had he lived longer. Still, he conveys such enthusiasm that the book as we have it usually remains engaging.

I found McMillin particularly intriguing on the subject of what he calls the "two orders of time" in the musical - the "progressive time" of the book and the "repetitive time" of the songs and dances. This leads to an illuminating discussion of the song forms used in musicals, in which he clarifies what he means by "repetitive time."

There are some interesting ideas hinted at on the subject of what separates musicals from operas, but they are not developed. I'm guessing that McMillin didn't want to spend too much time discussing opera in a book about musicals, but he might have been able to define the special qualities of the musical as a genre even more effectively by contrasting its conventions with those of opera.

He also has some thoughtful things to say on how musical motifs are generally used in musicals, a subject that is overdue for discussion. (Raymond Knapp dealt with the subject to some degree in his recent The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity, in his discussions of Into the Woods and Evita.) In a chapter titled "Character and the Voice of the Musical," McMillin posits that when "the convention of the shared tune" is employed, often "[i]t is not so much that the characters learn from one another's musical motifs as that they sing their way into 'the voice of the musical' ... A well-composed show has a style of its own, a voice for its own range of character and incident, which works its way into the voice of many characters."

This is a chapter in which fine and probing sections (for instance, a very insightful analysis of "Tonight" from West Side Story) alternate with places where McMillin's surmises and conclusions are not as well-informed as they should have been, particularly in what he writes about My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls (two of the shows he discusses in most detail).

When McMillin observes that "Miss Adelaide's 'note' as a character is to project her energy and volubility through triplets" or analyzes how "One" in A Chorus Line is "strung out along a series of chromatic harmonies that refuse to deliver a conclusive cadence until the end of the thirty-two bar structure of the song," he raises your hopes that he will consistently use apt examples, accompanied by astute commentary, to make his points.

Not long after he reaches the halfway point, though, McMillin starts to go in less fruitful directions, while also increasingly trying to make points through the use of examples that backfire on him. He too often seems to assume that whatever production he saw of a show is the show and this leads him to some highly inaccurate and occasionally ridiculous statements, particularly about Cabaret and Follies. There are also too many times when he doesn't acknowledge elements of the text that might contradict his analysis of a show, a song, or a character.

McMillin is prone to making cryptic statements with neither setup nor explication, as well as saying simple things in unnecessarily complicated ways. Here's part of a passage comparing stage musicals with the film versions:

"Gone is the concentration of all locations onto one stage. This is a difference, not a loss. The result is that anywhere can be projected by the film and the audience will be there to receive it, for the audience assumes it is anywhere, too. In the theatre, the audience is somewhere, often somewhere a bit uncomfortable, looking at a stage, which is sometimes said to be 'all the world,' but there it is anyhow, a stage. Everything happens on it. The stage version of My Fair Lady places the Alfred Doolittle numbers like 'I'm Getting Married in the Morning' on the same stage as the Henry Higgins numbers like 'The Rain in Spain,' creating a repetition of space (the set changes, of course) that underlies differences of class (in this case) and that corresponds to what we have called 'the voice of the musical.' The film of My Fair Lady sets up different locations for those numbers."

Surely, what McMillin was saying in that passage could have been conveyed more clearly and in fewer words.

Despite its problems, The Musical as Drama is an absorbing read and sometimes a truly illuminating one. Although it's unfortunate that McMillin did not fully realize the promise suggested in the first half of the book, he did have some original and insightful ideas that make his book well worth a read.

Stop the Show!The Musical as Drama
By Scott McMillin
Hardcover. 248 pages
Princeton University Press
Publishing date: October 2006
List Price: $24.95
ISBN-13: # 978-0691127309