Thursday, December 10, 2015

Stuff a Theater Lover's Stocking With "Musicals": The Coffee Table Book

Posted By on Thu, Dec 10, 2015 at 1:16 PM

Or don't, it's entirely up to you.

click to enlarge Upside: You can snap a picture with your phone, in the dark.
  • Upside: You can snap a picture with your phone, in the dark.

I'm not sure that at Musicals lives up to its subtitle, The Definitive Illustrated Story. It's an ambitious, nicely illustrated guide to modern musical theater. But "definitive?" Maybe not.

The only thing I learned from the short, five-paragraph forward by original Evita, Elaine Paige, was that West Side Story inspired her to act, and that she enjoyed turning the pages of this newly compiled book. I'm not certain that musical theater diehards will discover anything in the collected show histories they don't already know. But, then again, detail has never really been a goal for this kind of publication. It's all, quite literally, about the big picture. And to that end, this collection is wildly successful. It would make an especially nice gift for the young person in your life who's only just beginning to show a love for the form. 

click to enlarge No business like show business.
  • No business like show business.

Like Paige, I too enjoyed turning the pages, although I thought the gaudy, gold sequin-inspired cover might cause an epileptic fit. A lot of effort obviously went into essaying the 200 + musicals covered here, even if the selection process seems entirely arbitrary. There are stinkers and throwaways that get two page spreads, while more substantial works get only a paragraph.

As one might expect from a coffee table book, there are no deep historical dives to be found between the glistening, golden covers, but there's plenty of trivia embedded in the book's concise histories and timelines.  Also, as one might expect, there are tons of fantastic photos, playbills, and posters from a variety of stage and film musicals.

The last 19-page chapter is titled "Other Musicals," with capsule histories of movies and stage shows ranging from Memphis, and Once Upon a Mattress, to Willy Wonka and Hamilton, that were either too new, or too whatever for prime real estate. 

Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story comes to us by way of UK publishing house DK, in partnership with Penguin, Random House. But for its hard-to-look-at cover, it's a delightful primer touching on everything from Showboat to Rocky Horror, and beyond, and spotlighting important personalities like Richard Rodgers, Fred Astaire, and Ethyl Merman along the way. A mostly glorious effort, if a little grandiose.  

You can buy it here. And, in spite of all my complaints, if there's a younger theater person on your list his holiday season, it's $40 well spent. 

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