Book Reviews

Strike up the Band:
A New History of Musical Theatre

by Scott Miller

Book Review by Bob Gutowski

Strike Up the BandEnthusiasm. Without it, there would be no fun, no obsession and, of course, no chat boards! Scott Miller's recent Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre has enthusiasm in spades - enough to carry a reader through quite a few rough patches.

Mr. Miller is the founder and artistic director of New Line Theatre, an alternative (whatever that phrase means these days) musical theatre company in St. Louis. His previous books on musical theatre are From Assassins to West Side Story (2000), Deconstructing Harold Hill (2000), Rebels with Applause (2001), and Let the Sunshine In (2003). Miller has also been writing, performing in, and directing musicals since 1981 clearly, this is a man who lives, eats and breathes musicals. You can feel his excitement from the first page of the introductory chapter, which he's entitled "Overture:"

The best musicals have everything the best plays have great words, great characters, great emotions, great drama and comedy, timeless themes, universal truths. But musicals also have music. And no matter how you slice it, words alone can never have the dramatic power or intensity of emotion that music possesses.

What follows is a decade by decade survey of the history of the American musical, with well-chosen song titles, such as "Anything Goes," "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," and "Let the Sunshine In," used as chapter titles. In Miller's favor, he is especially informative about shows which often get short shrift in these histories, namely, musicals written by African-Americans. He's made a special effort to be inclusive, and I have to applaud him. Here's a lengthy but informative excerpt from his chapter on the 1920s:

Some history books declare that Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's 1921 musical Shuffle Along doesn't really qualify as a musical because it was only a revue of songs. True, it was based on a vaudeville sketch, but it was expanded into a full-blown musical comedy, with a book by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles (both also starred in the show). The show told the story of a mayoral race in Jimtown, somewhere in the American South, between the corrupt Steve Jenkins and the virtuous Harry Walton (inspiration for the show's biggest hit song, "I'm Just Wild About Harry"). Although no black musicals had opened in years, partly because Broadway producers were sure white audiences wouldn't buy tickets, Shuffle Along ran 504 performances, and a survey by Variety found that the Shuffle Along audience was about ninety percent white. Also, the show offered midnight shows on Wednesday nights, when all the theatre folks from other shows would come ... it also became the time for gawkers and stargazers to come not only for the performance, but for the celebrity sightings. Shuffle Along proved that black shows were commercial and it paved the way for many more, although most of them were plotless revues rather than genuine musicals. Evidence of this movement can be found in the title of a song from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1922 "It's Getting Dark on Old Broadway."

If only the entire book were as sure-footed as that! Miller's writing is, however, often maddeningly inconsistent. Here's a passage with a "po-mo" touch; no, not "post-modern," but "post-Mordden:"

Perhaps worst of all, people see lousy movie versions of shows like Carousel or Annie or A Chorus Line or the unfortunate television remake of The Music Man, assume they are accurate representations of their source material, and therefore assume the source material sucks.

"Sucks?" "Sucks?" Now, while I'm accustomed to (and even amused by) Mr. Mordden's well-known dips into vulgarity, it didn't feel to me that Mr. Miller quite pulls this off, or ought to even try, though I certainly agree with his sentiments. Elsewhere, he is guilty of overstatement:

A musical revue of Cohan's songs that also told his life story was created in 1968 called George M, and it gave many of his songs new life, introducing his legacy to a whole new generation.

I scribbled "Oh, come now!" in the margin of my copy upon reading this, and I stand by it. I think this is quite a claim for that little show, which ran just over a year, from April of 1968 to April of 1969. I also feel Miller is naive when he sums up Harold Prince's extensive restructuring of Show Boat with:

... he even gave the non-singing character Parthy Ann a song.

I'm just baffled that such an otherwise savvy writer as Miller didn't see fit to mention that this idea of Prince's was not, shall we say, a universally celebrated decision! Elsewhere, there is simply awkwardness:

And so in 1943 Broadway welcomed what was perhaps one of the most important accidents to happen in the history of musical theatre, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, with choreography by Agnes de Mille and direction by Rouben Mamoulian, the first director to be given, contractually, entire control over the entire production in all its details."

I respond with "And whatever you do, keep breathing," until the emergency copy-editor gets here with the commas and periods. And while we're on the subject of Oklahoma!, let me present one final, related example of murky writing:

The show won a special Pulitzer citation for excellence, two Oscars (the Tony Awards weren't around yet), then a special Tony Award in 1993, and four Olivier Awards (the British Tony Awards) in 1999.

Now, am I being churlish, or doesn't this seem to suggest that the Oscars were given in place of and/or before the not-as-yet in existence Tony Awards? The show did open in 1943, four years too early for Tony consideration, but those Oscars were awarded to the 1955 film version. This is just needlessly confusing.

Should such stumbling blocks as these keep you from reading Strike Up the Band? I'd say, emphatically, no. Mr. Miller's enthusiasm, as I noted at the beginning of this review, is admirable and inspiring. His discussion of some of the more recent musicals, which I have to confess I had let slip by unseen (including Bat Boy and Floyd Collins, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!) sent me right to the Internet to order the cast recordings of those shows. So, even if the book is not as consistently clear or as accurate as it should have been, there is much to enjoy here.

Stop the Show!Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
By Scott Miller
Trade paperback. 264 pages with index.
Heinmann Drama
Publishing date: November 2006
List Price: $23.95
ISBN-13: # 978-0325006420