Book review: 'Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre', by Ethan Mordden

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:17pm

Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre
by Ethan Mordden
3.5 stars

Charles McNulty

Ethan Mordden's chronicle of the American musical is divided into four eras: the first concentrates on the European prehistory, the second on the American pond out of which Jerome Kern crawled, the third on the glory days that stretched from Oscar Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim, and the fourth on its decline.

Anything Goes corrects many false assumptions, including the notion that the American musical is a purely homegrown invention. It's true it discovered its potential in the polyglot churn of the immigrant communities in New York. But the operettas of the British duo Gilbert & Sullivan and the continental offerings of Jacques Offenbach were formatively influential.

The Irish-born, German-raised American composer Victor Herbert, a figure usually given cursory treatment, is credited here with being the D.W. Griffith of the American musical. In addition to his role as "grammarian, innovator and debate-club coach", he is said to have "reshaped the very structure of the American song, shortening the verse and lengthening the chorus until his heirs, from Irving Berlin and Kern to Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins, had a more dramatically protean format to work with".

One section stands out: "The Rodgers and Hammerstein Handbook" magnificently distills what made this composer-lyricist/book-writer team so groundbreaking - chiefly, the central importance they placed on "character traction" in the score and the way they proved to everyone that the musical could pursue tragic or "romantically inconclusive" stories without sacrificing broad audience appeal.

Anything Goes reads too much like an almanac in its final chapters. Mordden singles out shows for advancing a development in the musical's history or enshrining a trend. But the inventory begins to crowd out insight. Still, overzealousness is a pardonable offence from an author who never runs out of interesting things to say about his lifelong passion.