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The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity

The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity

Raymond Knapp
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 488
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  • Book Info
    The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity
    Book Description:

    The American musical has long provided an important vehicle through which writers, performers, and audiences reimagine who they are and how they might best interact with the world around them. Musicals are especially good at this because they provide not only an opportunity for us to enact dramatic versions of alternative identities, but also the material for performing such alternatives in the real world, through songs and the characters and attitudes those songs project.

    This book addresses a variety of specific themes in musicals that serve this general function: fairy tale and fantasy, idealism and inspiration, gender and sexuality, and relationships, among others. It also considers three overlapping genres that are central, in quite different ways, to the projection of personal identity: operetta, movie musicals, and operatic musicals.

    Among the musicals discussed areCamelot, Candide; Chicago; Company; Evita; Gypsy; Into the Woods; Kiss Me, Kate; A Little Night Music; Man of La Mancha; Meet Me in St. Louis; The Merry Widow; Moulin Rouge; My Fair Lady; Passion; The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Singin' in the Rain; Stormy Weather; Sweeney Todd;andThe Wizard of Oz.

    Complementing the author's earlier work,The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity, this book completes a two-volume thematic history of the genre, designed for general audiences and specialists alike.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3268-2
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-14)

    This is the second volume of my two-part thematic history of the American musical. Subdividing my subject in this way has allowed me to treat with approximately equal weight both the work the American musical has done in helping Americans shape their collective identity (volume 1)¹ and the role it has played for many people, whether Americans or not, as they develop and perform their own personal identities (volume 2). But this deceptively simple structure cloaks an important difference between these two thematic emphases. As categories, “national identity” and “personal identity” tend in opposite directions, the former toward a single,...


    • 1 The Viennese Connection: Franz Lehár and American Operetta
      (pp. 17-64)

      The American Musical has sometimes been understood as the American answer to European operetta, or as an extension of the European tradition. A good case for these and similar claims is easy enough to make, given the impact of Gilbert and Sullivan on late nineteenth-century American musical comedy and of Franz Lehár a few decades later. Moreover, the case need not be overwhelming in order to be fairly convincing. Thus, divergences from these formative influences may be readily accounted for; after all, important differences also evolved between and among the principal European forms, so that one might simply argue that...

    • 2 The Movie Musical
      (pp. 65-118)

      The American Musical has maintained a double life, between Broadway and Hollywood, ever since it reached its full “maturity” withShow Boatin 1927. That very year,The Jazz Singerintroduced the era of the “talkies” (movies with synchronized sound),¹ which from the beginning were often as much “singies” as “talkies” (to borrow Andrew Sarris’s distinction)² and have remained partial to musicals ever since, whether through re-creating staged musical numbers or shows or through exploring ways in which film musicals could and should differ substantially from staged musicals. Overall, the interaction between stage musicals and film musicals, between Broadway and...


    • 3 Fairy Tales and Fantasy
      (pp. 121-163)

      The American Musical has, throughout its history, provided a realm of fantasy, and has thus seemed eminently suitable for the retelling of familiar fairy tales or inventing new ones.¹ Already withThe Black Crook(1866), often described as the first American musical, European fairy tales were being refashioned for American sensibilities.² Generally, however, operetta has proven a more reliable vehicle for fairy tales than the more mainstream American musical, since operetta is less concerned with the here and now than with the past and far away, and is thus already one step closer to the reimagined kingdoms of “once upon...

    • 4 Idealism and Inspiration
      (pp. 164-204)

      The American Musical has long offered inspiring and idealistic perspectives to its audiences, most often within song and/or dance numbers that seek to project and embody qualities of courage, heroic resolve, and the capacity to do the right thing and overcome difficulties. Almost always, these perspectives form an essential part of what makes good outcomes possible and bad outcomes more emotionally wrenching; in the latter case, they help make it clear that such outcomes are first of all failures of personal aspirations.

      Because inspiring and idealistic perspectives are set to music in musicals, they are eminently exportable from their immediate...

    • 5 Gender and Sexuality
      (pp. 205-263)

      The American Musical—both inherently and because of the genre’s historical development—has proven to be an especially fruitful venue for exploring the dynamic interplay of gender roles and sexuality. Thus, for example, to ground larger themes within personal relationships, a musical might “gender” those themes according to audience expectations and preexisting stereotypes; in chapter 4, I discussed how that has tended to work with the theme of idealism, especially in alliance with codes of chivalry. And, only slightly less often, musicals have deliberately challenged audience expectations in one way or another, making a space for exploring alternative formulations. In...

    • 6 Relationships
      (pp. 264-310)

      The American Musical has been most consistently successful when its stories and themes resolve through the formation of conventional romantic relationships. Nor has that success been merely commercial. The project of reconciling opposites has long provided narrative drama a reliable means to generate and sustain dramatic tension and has also served the more abstract dramas of instrumental music as a fundamental organizing principle (especially within what is usually called sonata form). The presentational logic, for musical theater, is persuasive. To present opposites in human terms, one tries, “naturally,” to embody those opposites within fundamental existing differences, which come ready-made in...

  5. Epilogue

    • 7 Operatic Ambitions and Beyond
      (pp. 313-356)

      The American Musical has long suffered from a kind of inferiority complex, with many of its critics and practitioners decrying a perceived gap in value between musicals and opera, its “high-art” counterpart. Ironically, in the last few decades, many shows that bring operatic sensibilities to the American-musical stage—quite often as part of the so-called British invasion—have contributed to a widespread belief that the heyday of the American musical is over (or, perhaps, “over for good,” for those who believe Broadway’s “Golden Age” ended long ago, in the mid-1960s). In this final chapter, I will first consider three shows...

  6. APPENDIX Additional Resources
    (pp. 357-376)