Review from Arches alumni magazine, Winter 2010
Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber
Geoffrey Block, professor of music
480 pages, paperback
Oxford University Press
Review by Keith Ward
Are you a Broadway musicals fan? An aficionado? A casual listener who goes to a musical occasionally and afterwards wishes you went more often? Are you fascinated by the twists and turns of historical narrative? Someone who likes the backstory? Or are you a former student of Geoffrey Block’s who took his course on the Broadway musical, sold the text at the end of class, and now wish you hadn’t?
If any of the above apply, then a treasure awaits you in the second edition of Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, written by Distinguished Professor of Music History Geoffrey Block and released in October by Oxford University Press. Block explores more than 75 years of the Broadway musical as told through 17 works that include such great classics as Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story. With an expanded chapter on Stephen Sondheim, a new chapter on Andrew Lloyd Webber, even more new chapters delving into the world of film adaptations of musicals, and an online site, the second edition gives an insightful and illuminating look at a beloved musical genre, told by an author who is more than just keenly interested in the subject. He’s passionate about it.
Enchanted Evenings is organized like a musical itself, with an overture (“Setting the Stage”), a first act (“Before Rodgers and Hammerstein”), a second act (“The Broadway Musical After Oklahoma!”), and concluding with an epilogue (“The Age of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber”). Within each chapter is a detailed, often fascinating narrative on the subject musicals. Using letters, logs, notes on scores, sketches, interviews, libretto drafts, and manuscripts, Block shows how non-linear and unpredictable the creative process can be, with interesting, sometimes amusing, other times surprising digressions and revisions (and, on occasion, intrigue). He also delves into musical and character analysis, each musical’s reception, and reflections on the works’ value in the genre. Peppered throughout are photos from rehearsals and performances, musical examples, and caricatures of Broadway composers by Al Hirschfeld. The companion website offers a wealth of material that includes synopses, a discography and filmography, lists of changes from pre-Broadway tryouts through recent revivals, long and longest runs since 1920, published librettos and vocal scores, and extensive chapter notes that provide helpful information (what’s the difference between a book musical, an opera, an operetta, and a revue?), context (what are some of the musicals that set the stage before Show Boat’s opening in 1927?), sources (other recommended histories of the Broadway musical), and further commentary on characters, performers, writers, and musical structure.
So what, then, is this book? A history? A source book? A critical appraisal of the music and the drama? It is all of these. Put differently, Enchanted Evenings has something for everyone.
Why are musicals memorable? This question lies at the heart of the book. As Block shares in the preface, his affection for musicals began in childhood, when he was influenced by their ubiquity in the musical landscape at home. It was later that the scholar Geoffrey Block turned his critical eye to them, arguing—and as this book shows persuasively—that these works both deserve and stand up to critical musical analysis.
Block’s central claim is that the value in musicals comes from more than just a few good tunes. Instead, their significance, quality, and memorability lie in their success in drawing connections between music and meaning. Block’s analyses provide examples that help us understand the evolution of the integrated musical (that is, a musical in which songs—and, in some cases, dance—play roles in advancing the plot, and in which relationships between musical motives and their transformations in new contexts support character and plot development). We also learn how a concept musical (such as Sondheim’s Company or Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret), which integrates content around an image or idea instead of a plot, holds together. His assessments are not those of an uncritical fan. As often as he praises works, he cites what he or others view as shortcomings, such as Maria’s use of dialogue instead of song at the close of West Side Story, or why Lloyd Webber’s reuse of themes in blockbusters like Phantom of the Opera actually weakens the drama, despite the show’s other outstanding qualities.
This book teaches us to listen to musicals differently, and positively so. To use one example, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel can be enjoyed without critical commentary. However, Block’s explanation and analysis of how the characters are sketched musically to support thematic unity, of why the bench scene between Billy and Julie is more powerful because of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s success in integrating music and words, of using music to foreshadow underlying feelings, and of reprising a melody or motive for the sake of the drama (as opposed to bringing it back simply because it’s a great song), take us deeper into the work. In the end we are even more enriched and entertained.
Block’s book also takes us into the world of Broadway. He introduces important figures in the world of musicals (Harold Prince, for example), and we learn about the frequent, sometimes profound changes to musicals when they are adapted for film. There are digressions, like his sketch of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s career. We learn why the 1950s were so special for the American musical and what Hammerstein thought made a good lyric. And we learn colorful tidbits: That, for example, Richard Rodgers almost left composing musicals in the 1920s. Or that West Side Story began as East Side Story and as a conflict between Catholics and Jews. Or that Cole Porter added the song “Bianca” to Kiss Me, Kate when Harold Lang “pulled a snit” because his contract said he had to have a song in the second act. (Porter, according to Patricia Morison and Miles Kreuger, “decided to write something that is going to be so bad that they won’t keep it in.” They did.) Or that the film version of Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp, took cinematic tricks from MTV. Such passages and quips throughout the book bring us closer to the richness, intensity, and complexity of life surrounding the Broadway musical.
Anyone walking by a classroom in the music building when Professor Block is teaching knows of his intensity. This spirit you will find on every page of Enchanted Evenings—of an author thoroughly engrossed in the topic, well versed in the subject, and laudatory as well as critical of the content at hand. Whether one reads selected chapters of Enchanted Evenings or from cover to cover, it is a very satisfying, illuminating, and—dare I say?—enchanting read.
Keith Ward is a professor of music at Puget Sound and director of the School of Music.