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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: confrontation between art and technology

McNeely, Jerry
[Book reviews: a view from the pit],   pp. [244]-248 PDF (4.7 MB)

Page 245

k  a  I  a~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
It was one of New York's top play
agents, long experienced in handling
musicals, who recently told me: "I wouldn't
handle another score team if a young
Richard Rodgers walked in with
Hammerstein on one arm and Hart on
the other! You can't cough in Times
Square without giving your virus
to 36 composers and 28 lyricists - and
all of them talented! What the
theater needs is book-writers!"
Lehman Engel would probably agree.
To him, it is a tragedy that so much of the
theater's fine music now
survives only in isolation: that
shoddy playwriting has rendered the
shows, from which the music came
all but unproduceable. For all his
impeccable credentials as a musician,
Mr. Engel is, first, a man of the theater;
and his goal has always been the
thriving of musical theater, rather than
just music.
The work of Herbert, Friml and Romberg
still has the power to charm us, but
the librettos of their shows are
silly, soporific and, for the most part,
totally unendurable. To a lesser,
but increasing degree, so are the books for
shows by Gershwin, Kern, Porter and
the Rodgers-Hart team. In the case of
Porter, only Kiss Me, Kate maintains its
vitality today. Porgy and Bess is the
intact survivor of Gershwin's career in the
theater. For Kern, there is only
Show Boat - and even its book has
become a painful thing to watch. If it were
not for Pal Joey, the Rodgers and Hart
collaboration would be known
only by its glorious ASCAP catalogue.
Mr. Engel is now in his fourth decade
as a conductor of Broadway musicals; and
he knows, as do most theater
people, that the importance of the book
cannot be overrated. There should
be no mystery to the fact that
West Side Story was a vastly more successful
work than Mr. Bernstein's musically
superior Candide. Some of Richard Rodgers'
very best writing is to be heard in his
collaboration with Stephen Sondheim on
Do I Hear A Waltz?; but the show
appears firmly assigned to oblivion. There
are many who find Camelot at least the
musical equal of My Fair Lady, and many
who feel the best Lerner and Loewe
work is to be found in neither of these,
but rather in the relatively unsuccessful
Paint Your Wagon. In each case, the
answer is primarily the book.
A prime purpose of Mr. Engel's
The American Musical Theater is to attack
this problem. He proposes to "examine,
to attempt certain conclusions about,
and to help impart what I believe exists by
now as a body of basic principles in
the art of musical theater." Further, he
implies that most musicals have

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