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date: 20 September 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This article provides an overview of the evolution of the American musicals covered in this book. It focuses on how the study of the American musical might proceed, either by historiography, history, media, identity, the various elements of performance (how a musical is put together), and by the audience (how the commercialism of the musical organizes its production and its reception). The self-reflexive structure means that some descriptions in the book mention the same musical in different analytical contexts, and some traverse the same historical moment from different interpretive perspectives. The studies focusing on a single musical relying on archival research to unearth details about the production process are also presented in the book. The book promotes scholarship supporting the study of musicals that is gradually attracting students, as more dissertations are written and books published on musicals each year.

Keywords: American musicals, musical history, production process, musical play or film, elements of performance, media studies

The American musical is a paradox. On stage or screen, musicals at once hold a dominant and a contested place in the worlds of entertainment, art, and scholarship. Born from a mélange of performance forms that included opera and operetta, vaudeville and burlesque, minstrelsy and jazz, musicals have always sought to amuse more than instruct, and to make money more than make political change. In spite of their unapologetic commercialism, though, musicals have achieved supreme artistry and have influenced culture as much as if not more than any other art form in America, including avant-garde and high art on the one hand, and the full range of popular and commercial art on the other. Reflecting, refracting, and shaping U.S. culture since the early twentieth century, musicals converse with shifting dynamics of gender and sexuality, ethnicity and race, and the very question of what it means to be American and to be human. The musical explores identity, self-determination, and the American dream.

The form of the musical—the combination of music, dance, speech, and design—is paradoxical, too. By the middle of the twentieth century, spoken scenes in musicals were expected to conform to the style of nonmusical plays, with characters psychologized and realistically portrayed. When characters burst into song or dance, a different expressive mode took over, one that scholars like Richard Dyer have seen as utopian.1 Even as artists aimed for “integration” among the musical's disparate parts, in emulation of Wagner's “total artwork,” the pieces required different skills of creation, presentation, and interpretation. As Scott McMillin argues in The Musical as Drama, “When a musical is working well, I feel the crackle of difference … between the book and the numbers, between songs and dances, between dance and spoken dialogue.”2 In part because of its hybrid form and its commercial aspirations, the musical failed to register as a legitimate topic for scholarly study in either music or theater programs in universities until near the end of the twentieth century. Although audiences flocked to see The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway (p. 4) to the tune of 100 million people worldwide since its opening year on Broadway (1987), and the film of The Sound of Music (1965) held its place as the most popular movie musical of all time well into the twenty-first century, few college courses taught the history or criticism of musicals. And while young composers, lyricists, librettists, designers, and performers honed their craft and enrolled in professional training programs, they gained knowledge of the musical's history and theory through practice rather than through college classes that emphasized a scholarly approach to musicals.

Beginning in the 1990s, and gaining considerable momentum across the first decade of the new millennium, the study of American musicals on stage and on film has grown rapidly into a legitimate field. Many universities now offer surveys of musical theater or film history; or build a course focused on a composer, a subgenre, or a period in U.S. history; or include musicals in other courses, from American drama to popular culture to African American studies.3 In departments of music and musicology, theater, film, media studies, and literature, more courses are taught each year about musicals or include the study of a musical play or film as an example of cultural or performance history. Increasingly, musical theater and musical film are seen as viable objects of scholarly inquiry.

Scholarship to support the study of musicals is gradually catching up to the enthusiastic reception of students, as more dissertations are written and books published on musicals each year. Where there were formerly only encyclopedic lists of musicals and their creators, coffee-table tomes, or hagiographies, there is now a growing field of academic studies of musicals. Some explicate and analyze a range of musicals; others trace a chronological history. Some authors stress context over analysis, locating musicals historically, and some books consider musicals from specific identity positions. Increasingly, studies focus on a single musical, often relying on archival research to unearth details about the production process. Finally, books take a biographical approach and center on a director, composer, choreographer, producer, performer, or another member of the creative team. (See bibliography.)

Even as scholarship has grown in diverse and wide-ranging ways, the teaching of musicals continues to be extremely challenging. This book grew out of our mutual passion for teaching musicals and our mutual frustration with available pedagogically oriented materials. When the three of us first met to talk about musicals, we complained—as most professors do—about the lack of a textbook for teaching musicals that adequately covered the wide range of possible approaches to the subject. Each of us had solved the problem in our own way, using a combination of texts and articles and our own expertise. From that start, we found common goals as instructors: first, to situate the musical historically; second, to locate the ideological work of the musical as “American”; and third, to practice a variety of methods and techniques to analyze musicals. Moreover, each of us was well aware of the strengths and weaknesses in our training, of the stubborn disciplinarity of each of our fields, and of the tendency to privilege one element of the musical over another based on our comfort level. We knew that a useful textbook for the study of the American musical needed more than our three voices to write it.

(p. 5) Although we designed this book as a teaching tool, we mean “teaching” in the broadest possible way for students, instructors, and the general reader. We intend this book not (necessarily) to be read cover to cover, nor (necessarily) assigned in order, but as a resource for instructors, students, and aficionados of the musical and as a complement to other studies currently available. As well, scholars expert in one area of the musical can use this book as a first resource in coming to terms with other aspects of the art form less familiar to them and as an additional resource for courses on related topics, such as Tin Pan Alley or Popular Song.

Any textbook defines its object of study by its choice of specific subjects, by its organization, and by its range. The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical consists of twenty-nine chapters written by scholars trained in music, musicology, ethnomusicology, theater, drama, dance studies, English, film, and media studies, among others. Rather than chart a clear and coherent narrative, or delineate distinct topics, we (the editors) asked each author to consider a “keyword” of the musical, to historicize the term, and to analyze it through several examples.4 Even within these parameters for coherence and consistency, the essays gathered here are spectacularly eclectic, impressively wide-ranging, and appropriately unique, and we are profoundly grateful to our authors for the enthusiasm, knowledge, and insight they brought to their writing.

Each section of the book reopens the very question of how the study of the American musical might proceed, either by historiography (how one goes about writing a history of the musical); by history (how the events that took place construct a chronological narrative based on an unfolding process of transformation); by media (how distinctive are the formats in which the musical thrives); by identity (how creators’ or audiences’ social locations influence the form, and how the form has contributed to understanding and processes of identity formation); by the various elements of performance (how a musical is put together); and by the audience (how the commercialism of the musical organizes its production and its reception). This self-reflexive structure means that some essays mention the same musical in different analytical contexts, and some traverse the same historical moment from different interpretive perspectives. As a whole, then, the book is intentionally multifaceted and perhaps even contradictory. Without claiming comprehensiveness, the book considers the American musical prismatically.

Any book this complex—like the musical itself—has innumerable contributors beyond those headlined as editors and authors. The editors are extremely grateful for the abudant and varied support their scholarly communities have provided. On the institutional level, this included support, at UCLA, from the Office of Instructional Development, the Department of Musicology, and the Council on Research, along with a rich field of interactions among students and other faculty; we are especially grateful for insights that have found their way into this book from Juliana Gondek, Peter Kazaras, Elijah Wald, Sam Baltimore, Sarah Ellis, and Holley Replogle-Wong, and for Holley's exemplary work preparing and organizing materials for the book's Web site. At Princeton, we thank the Lewis Center for the Arts, especially Director Paul Muldoon; Director of the Program in Theater, Michael (p. 6) Cadden; and Dean of the Faculty, David Dobkin. At Oxford University Press, we thank Senior Production Editor Joellyn Ausanka for guiding us through the copyediting and proofing stages of the book, Laura Mahoney and Linda Roppolo for their work designing the website and cover, Patterson Lamb for judicious copyediting, and Michael Philo Antonie for meticulous work on the page proofs. And most of all we thank Norm Hirschy, who has been unfailingly, even brilliantly helpful, at every step of the process.


(1.) Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Genre: The Musical, ed. Rick Altman (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981; originally published in Movie 2 [Spring 1977]: 2–13).

(2.) Scott McMillin, The Musical as Drama: A Study of the Principles and Conventions behind Musical Shows from Kern to Sondheim (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 2.

(3.) See Stacy Wolf, “In Defense of Pleasure: Musical Theatre History in the Liberal Arts [A Manifesto],” Theatre Topics 17.1 (March 2007): 51–60.

(4.) Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin's important and influential book Critical Terms for Literary Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) was our inspiration for this book.