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The American Musical and
the Formation of National Identity

Book Review by Alan Gomberg

Also see Alan's review of Ethan Mordden's Sing For Your Supper

The American musical has at last become a respectable subject for an academic to write about. One recent example is Raymond Knapp's grandly titled The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (Princeton University Press; $35). Knapp, a professor of musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the author of two previous books: Symphonic Metamorphoses: Subjectivity and Alienation in Mahler's Re-Cycled Songs and Brahms and the Challenge of the Symphony.

Knapp discusses a limited number of musicals in moderate but not exhaustive detail, exploring those aspects that relate to his theme, which is how musicals "engage with central issues that concern us as Americans ... how [they] have helped us envision ourselves as a nation of disparate peoples, functioning within a world of even more extreme differences."

The book is in three parts, of which the first, "Introductions," may be the best, although it's possible I feel that way because it mostly deals with subjects about which I know relatively little.

This part includes an informative chapter on The Black Crook and H.M.S. Pinafore, discussing why "they appealed so strongly to American audiences, and how their success shaped later developments." Knapp covers the history of the creation of The Black Crook, and why its blend of spectacle, parody (with perhaps an element of what would later be thought of as camp), erotic titillation, high culture, and low culture was so successful and influential.

Regarding Pinafore's immense popularity in the United States, Knapp suggests that it may have been based in part on a misreading that "broaden[ed] the show's critique of class-based hierarchies." Where Gilbert and Sullivan were suggesting that too much egalitarianism was dangerous, Americans thought they were in favor of it.

Another chapter in Part One focuses on the "wide variety of staged entertainments involving some combination of costumed singing, dancing, instrumental music, humor, and drama" that were popular in late 19th-century America. There are sections on minstrelsy, extravaganza, pantomime, burlesque, and vaudeville. I found this chapter very interesting, to the point of wishing that Knapp had gone into more detail about some things. Indeed, sometimes when Knapp is at his most interesting, he moves on to something else rather than explore the topic further.

The final chapter in this part concerns the development of American popular song, with sections on minstrel songs, early Tin Pan Alley, and classic Tin Pan Alley. There are intelligent analyses of such songs as "Always" and "My Funny Valentine" and a somewhat provocative discussion of the "daring engagement with sexual innuendo and religious tropes" to be found in Anything Goes.

Part Two, "Defining America," starts with a chapter titled "Whose (Who's) America?" on Little Johnny Jones and The Cradle Will Rock. "American Mythologies" comes next, featuring sections on Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, and The Music Man. "Counter-mythologies" discusses Hair and Assassins.

The central chapter, especially the sections on Oklahoma! and The Music Man, is the best of the three in this part, with Knapp proposing that these musicals suggested a definition of America "that departed substantially from European concepts of nationhood and nationalism, which had been developed with increasing vehemence across the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, when they reached their horrific apex in two world wars, the Holocaust, and other images of ethnic cleansing."

Part Three, "Managing America's Others," follows. This has three chapters: "Race and Ethnicity" (focusing on Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof); "Dealing With the Second World War" (The Sound of Music and Cabaret); and "Exoticism" (The Mikado, The King and I, and Pacific Overtures). All three chapters mix insightful comments with shortsighted or insufficiently informed ones.

There are two appendixes. The first attempts, from a somewhat out-of-date perspective, to summarize "Art and Commerce: The Business of Making Musicals" in 2-1/2 pages. It's odd that this is the first time Knapp discusses what the author of the book, the lyricist, and the composer all do. This is followed by a listing of "Additional Resources" (books, audio recordings, films, videos, etc.). Though not exhaustive (it doesn't claim to be), it's reasonably extensive.

If what I've written so far suggests that the book is something of a mixed bag, that's because it is. On the positive side, it has some effective summaries of valuable historical information, some interesting musical analysis, and some insightful commentary.

Knapp frequently supplies historical information that offers relevant political and social context; in particular, his summary of the history of the Oklahoma Territory offers a startling and thought-provoking perspective on Oklahoma!

In his chapter on The Sound of Music and Cabaret, he compares the stage and film versions of both shows, fascinatingly noting that (as used in the film versions) "Edelweiss" and "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" are "seemingly innocuous nationalist folk anthems in the style of a slow waltz that create paired images of community from which only a very few are excluded. Except that those few are Nazis in The Sound of Music and (presumably) Jews in Cabaret."

Knapp's writing generally achieves an admirable standard of clarity, with only a few lapses. Some readers may wish for more flash or cleverness, qualities for which Knapp doesn't seem to be striving. If the book has a slightly dull feeling some of the time, it may not be because of Knapp's straightforward style, but because of a certain diffuseness of purpose.

Knapp writes that the book grew out of a course on musical theatre that he teaches at UCLA, and that he hopes it will "reach three somewhat distinct readerships: students (as a textbook), lovers of musicals more generally, and academics." He tells us that his students enter the class with widely varying degrees of knowledge about musicals and even about America (some are relatively new arrivals here). Perhaps it's because Knapp is writing to too many audiences (and may not want to alienate any readers or reduce salability as a textbook) that he has come up with something a little bland. He communicates no strong point of view, except for an occasional excess of political correctness.

When it comes to accuracy, Knapp achieves a higher standard than can be found in many recent books on musical theatre, but there are still errors to be found.

Some errors may just be the result of a sloppiness in phrasing, as when Knapp writes that "Anatevka" ends Fiddler on the Roof. Sometimes he seems to have done insufficient research, as when he ascribes an overriding Brecht-Weill influence on the score of Cabaret, which suggests that he hasn't read John Kander's statements regarding the musical influences on his score and that he doesn't know the German cabaret music of the period.

A bit odder is that Knapp thinks that "Something Just Broke" is usually placed as the opening number in Assassins. While the song was placed there in one regional production in England, in the vast majority of productions that have included it (starting with the first, at London's Donmar Warehouse), it has been placed after the Oswald scene, near the end of the show.

As far as I know, he is wrong when he states that "Black cast members in the first production of Show Boat refused to sing the very first word, 'Niggers.' " (He may be thinking of the black chorus hired for John McGlinn's 1988 recording of the score.)

There are a fair number of other errors, of which some are important and some minor.

The choice to illustrate the book with (in most cases) stills from the film versions of the shows, rather than stage productions, is puzzling. Even more so are several places where Knapp references staging details from the film versions of the shows as if they were part of the stage scripts. This is most troublesome. in the section on Guys and Dolls, where he bases parts of his analysis on plot elements and lines from the film that are not in the stage version (and that in some cases differ greatly from what is). It seems that he was unable to locate a copy of the stage script for Guys and Dolls, though he appears to have done so for the other shows.

As mentioned above, Knapp has a tendency to view things with an excess of political correctness. This may be the cause of some of the problems, especially in the later parts of the book.

A good example of the strengths and weaknesses of the later sections is his discussion of Pacific Overtures. On the positive side, Knapp is one of the few commentators I've read who has a clue as to what "Someone in a Tree" is about, and his musical analysis of the song is excellent and not overly complex.

On the negative side, Knapp gets a couple of major plot points wrong. One of these is his description of the encounter between the English sailors and the Older Swordsman's daughter as a rape. Even more strangely, he then writes that "the British sailors do not intend harm." It's hard to fathom how they could have raped her and also have intended no harm.

In the same paragraph, though, he provides a simple and effective musical analysis of their song, "Pretty Lady," the first such commentary I've read to explicate the dramatic effect of the counterpoint in the song.

Similarly, his subsequent commentary on "Next!" is wrongheaded in part (the song is really not about "conformity"), but insightful when describing how the music "lurches, barely in control as it builds up momentum," and when noting an interesting thematic connection with Manjiro's lines "Washing yesterday away, / As my lady does, / America" in "Poems."

Elsewhere, he makes some good points in his section on Show Boat, but his statements regarding the relationship of Julie and Steve - that Steve suspects Julie of infidelity and that this is "partially driven by his inability fully to trust the love of a woman who is part black" - are unsupported by anything in the text.

Also odd is his citing the use of repeated-note "Orientalist" motives in The King and I as an example of the show's "patronizing attitude" toward the Siamese. With all his knowledge, Knapp should be aware that repeated-note motives were a frequent Rodgers device throughout his career (not to mention useful in a show in which the leading roles were played by Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, both of whom had limited vocal ranges).

Finally, Knapp makes some statements on factual matters for which sources should have been provided but are not.

Despite the problems, there is a great deal of value here. For the most part, the musical analyses are interesting and clearly written. (Knapp, Princeton University Press and the UCLA Library have helpfully provided a huge number of audio clips that can be heard online.) Much of the historical information is well-presented, and Knapp's dramatic analyses are sometimes illuminating.

(It should also be mentioned that Knapp is planning a second volume that will explore the "more personal aspects of the American musical," which sounds promising.)

There is much here that is interesting. Sometimes you just have to wade through some dull or questionable stuff to get to it. I found it worth the wade, but I'm not positive that everyone will.

The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity
Raymond Knapp
Hardcover. 392 pages
Princeton University Press
Publishing date: October 2004
ISBN: # 0691118647

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