American Musical Theater. James Leve. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; Pp. 448.
American Musical Theater by James Leve provides instructors and students with an interdisciplinary approach to the history of the musical from Reconstruction to the contemporary period. From burlesque, the minstrel show, operetta, and vaudeville to the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and those of Stephen Sondheim, Leve presents the musical as a narrative genre that shapes and is shaped by national themes of cross-cultural encounter. Leve argues that the musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, II were and remain the standard by which all musicals are judged, a standard to which he does not capitulate unconditionally but resists throughout. Leve’s stated purpose for the textbook is to track and explain “the evolution of musical comedy from a popular entertainment to a popular art form as well as to measure the impact of Rodgers and Hammerstein on musical theater” (xvii). He accomplishes this by presenting thirteen case studies of stage works from Oklahoma! to The Light in the Piazza alongside artists’ biographical information, relevant criticism from scholars, a script’s production history, and the social and historical values a stage work reflects and embodies. Leve’s remaining case studies of the “black musical” (The Wiz, adapted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum), musical theatre off-Broadway (The Fantasticks), rock on Broadway (Hair), and the star (Gypsy) allow him to synthesize the breadth and depth of American musical theatre.
American Musical Theater rises out of the school of thought that a well-made musical, quintessentially American in origin, is integrated, having a book and a score of lyrics and music that work together as a unit, and as a result Leve adds to our knowledge of musical theatre and relates to current debates in our field. By beginning chapter one with a case study of Oklahoma!, Leve shows the extent to which integration theory is as much a construction of the artists who created Oklahoma! as it is a construction of the scholars who study musicals. Leve weaves a literature review of scholarly works by Geoffrey Block, Scott McMillin, Andrea Most, and James O’Leary into the case study of Oklahoma! to show that artists and scholars have not reached agreement and likely never will. Leve notes, “It is therefore helpful to consider integration as an overarching artistic attitude, a frame of mind, a basic aesthetic of coherency, rather than as a strictly observed dramaturgical approach” (5). Leve reads closely Lemuel Ayers’s sets and Miles White’s costumes, Agnes de Mille’s choreography, Hammerstein’s book and lyrics, and Rodgers’s music to support his claims, all of which are complemented by “And Bear in Mind,” a section that presents Kiss Me, Kate as a counterpoint to Oklahoma! and includes discussion questions, key names, terms, and concepts.
Leve is at his best when he describes the nature of racial formation in the archive and the repertoire of American musical theatre. Even though it is widely accepted by artists and scholars that Oklahoma! is a musical about the wants of the community taking primacy over the wants of the individual, Leve makes a case for taking Oklahoma! seriously as a grim reminder that an individual becomes part of a community but at a cost: either assimilation in the case of the Jewish (Ali Hakim) or elimination in the case of the black (Jud Fry). Recent textbooks on American musical theatre prior to Leve’s omit several black major authors and musicals and subscribe to a history of the musical as the province of white people. Chapter fifteen, “The ‘Black Musical,’” provides a genealogy from A Trip to Coontown to The Scottsboro Boys in spite of cultural barriers that make it hard for musicals by and about black people to climb to the top and make it on Broadway. Leve intervenes in the fields of theatre and performance studies by suturing the black origin of the musical to the organization of the textbook.
There are few if any weaknesses at the level of argumentative coherence, formal analysis, and textual evidence when judging the textbook by its intentions. However, Leve’s use of musical examples presumes technical knowledge of music on the part of the reader, and this forms a particular challenge for some to understand his analyses of lesser-known stage works like Little Johnny Jones and Very Good Eddie. It would also have been helpful if Leve’s content on greater-known stage works like Anything Goes and In Dahomey were not beholden to a racial binary of black and white so that artists, black and white, who participated in the practice of yellowface in those very musicals could have been held to account for stereotypes of Asian American people. American Musical Theater is a textbook about just that, American musical theatre, and yet Leve lacks a chapter on musicals by and about Asian Americans.
Instructors who are teaching in fields like African American studies, American studies, digital humanities, English, music, and theatre can use Leve’s textbook. Educators and students would benefit from this work in courses about not only the history of the musical, but also popular culture, race, and sex. Leve’s textbook is well-written, its argument and evidence are clear, and its large number of illustrations in black-and-white and color are helpful. Moreover, its free, open-access companion Web site, complete with annotated bibliographies and unit quizzes, is easy to navigate. Given the fact that interdisciplinary approaches to American musical theatre are hard to find, Leve’s own in which a musical like The Phantom of the Opera sits comfortably with a musical like Company is a great boon to instructors and students, in that it demonstrates a way of discussing Lloyd Webber and Sondheim together and apart without putting down the former to uplift the latter. Leve’s textbook is recommended to anyone who counts among their teaching interests the place of American musical theatre in the production of cultural knowledge.
Eric M. Glover