Reviewed Elsewhere: Elizabeth L. Wollman, A Critical Companion to the American Stage Musical.

Lars Fischer's picture

Elizabeth L. Wollman. A Critical Companion to the American Stage Musical. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. 292 pp. $94.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-47251-338-0; $29.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-47251-325-0.

Given the number of books written about musical theatre in the last few decades, from overviews to studies of one specific show, at first it may seem there is no need for yet another book on American musical theatre. Indeed, in the introduction to her new book, Elizabeth Wollman acknowledges that her monograph serves as a “companion” (as its very title implies), meant to “complement, not compete with, the extant musical theater histories” and other monographs currently available (ix). Although it certainly covers familiar territory, already considered in works such as Knapp’s The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity or John Bush Jones’s Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theater, Wollman deliberately seeks to “fill in the gaps” by focusing on the external forces—“whether cultural, political, social or economic”—that influenced the development of the American musical (xiii).

Certainly the strength of Wollman’s book is this “bird’s eye view” (xii) that demonstrates how demographics and mobility, specific audience preferences, or even changes in state or federal laws impacted the theatre, sometimes in large ways, other times in a trickle-down effect that she traces. Clearly, Wollman has read deeply and widely across a variety of sources, from musical theatre surveys to cultural histories to create such an overview. At times her suggestions of how a certain moment affected musical theatre are tantalizing, yet also frustratingly brief ...

Other times her analysis seems self-evident and obvious, yet no one else has quite managed to put it in such succinct terms before. ...

The book is organized chronologically, from the Colonial Era to Hamilton. ... Wollman consistently reminds the reader that the American musical in its long history, has tended to cater to the dominant audience: white, middle-class, heterosexual Americans, reflecting their concerns, aspirations, and unspoken assumptions and outlooks. Musicals have often tried to be groundbreaking, but the author notes that many never quite broke free from their era’s constraints ...

The last section of the book, “Critical Perspectives,” features short essays by noted musical theatre scholars Robert Meffe, Stacy Wolf, Laura MacDonald, Jessica Sternfield, Elizabeth Titrington Craft, and Joanna Dee Das....

In sum, Wollman’s book accomplishes what it sets out to do. It provides an overview of the American musical, situating the form in the historical and social contexts of its development, tracing how external forces shaped the material, subject matter, audiences, venue, and even music styles. It is written in an enthusiastic and accessible style, and engages seamlessly with earlier foundational studies, with endnotes and a useful bibliography. In particular, it may be useful as a text for an undergraduate musical theatre history class, but will also appeal to musical theatre aficionados, who will find it a welcome addition to their shelves.

Jenna L. Kubly. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 33, 1 (2018), 138–140.