The Ten Essential Musical Theatre Books

The Ten Essential Musical Theatre Books

As a blogger and a theatre historian, I often refer to resources that have proven invaluable to me over the years. Having spent the better part of my life (I started researching at age eleven) delving into musical theatre history, certain books have presented themselves, again and again, as my "go to" places to fact check and to just enjoy the writings of people who are as passionate as I am about this glorious genre. This blog entry is a celebration of those books. 

Top-Ten Essential Books on Musical Theatre

 Betty Buckley and Linzi Hateley perform "And Eve Was Weak" from  Carrie the Musical .

Betty Buckley and Linzi Hateley perform "And Eve Was Weak" from Carrie the Musical.

Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum

We all love our Broadway musical flops. I know that, for me, it has nothing to do with enjoying shows that died upon arrival, but rather, the mystery behind why they failed. Even the worst flop has an interesting story behind its creation and Mandelbaum affectionately (but honestly) explores that history. The author conveys a balanced explanation for dozens of Broadway musicals that failed. What makes the book even more special is that he finds the positives in each piece, realizing that a show is seldom just awful, it just doesn't work.    

Broadway Babies by Ethan Mordden

No one, and I mean NO ONE writes about musical theatre more passionately and more eloquently than Ethan Mordden. In fact, any theatre historian should devote themselves to reading his "by the decade" installments that explore musical theatre. His writing will make you feel like you have seen every single one of these shows; his details and his imagery are so plentiful. However, if you haven't the time to invest in this glorious series, settle for Broadway Babies which strives for the same effect, but is compactly written in one book. This was my introduction to Morrden's writing and I was hypnotized by how he described musicals such as Nine and Dreamgirls, which until I read his book, I had a hard time envisioning onstage.       

Off-Broadway Musicals Since 1919 by Thomas Hischak

Off-Broadway has been given short-shrift where the chronicling of American Musical Theatre is concerned, but author Thomas Hischak remedies that in Off-Broadway Musicals Since 1919, an ambitious tome that explores Off-Broadway musicals by decade. Most musical theatre history books will include the biggies like Threepenny Opera, The Fantasticks, and You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, but this book is pretty comprehensive and gives one a good sense of the wide range of material that has inhabited New York's hole-in-the-wall theatres.    

The World of Musical Comedy by Stanley Green

One of the best books for shorthand details on Broadway musicals is Stanley Green's Broadway Musicals: Show By Show. It was one of my first theatre books and I practically memorized it. However, if you want a comprehensive introduction to early musical theatre, from operetta an vaudeville, to the evolution of the musical comedy styles of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, Lerner and Loewe, Bock and Harnick, Jerry Herman Comden and Green, and early Stephen Sondheim, Stanley Green does it the best. Not only does he convey each show in detail, but he manages to give us a healthy understanding of the men and women were who created the American musical theatre.

Finishing the Hat/Look, I Made a Hat by Stephen Sondheim

Technically, this is two books, but I think that those who have read both will agree that you really cannot have one without the other. Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim sits down with his lyrics (by show) and explains his thought process and technique behind how they were written. Anyone who admires Mr. Sondheim will find this a compelling study and a fascinating journey inside the mind of a musical theatre genius.   

Sondheim & Co. by Craig Zadan

It may not be the best book documenting the works of Stephen Sondheim, but it is so lovingly assembled and user friendly that I opt to pull this one off the shelf more often than the more detailed books. Zadan clearly loves Sondheim, but doesn't let that get in the way of his factual storytelling (and sometimes blunt honesty). The book concludes with a wonderfully organized appendices that offers great detail about major productions of Sondheim's works. Also, of important note, are the fantastic array of pictures from Sondheim productions.

On the Street Where I Live by Alan Jay Lerner

This is a biography written by lyricist and book writer Alan Jay Lerner that details the ins and outs of his career, with a major focus on the Broadway musicals My Fair Lady and Camelot. If you ever want to know the details behind the struggle of creating a Broadway musical, Lerner lays down his cards and shows you everything. It is a terrific study in how great musical theatre used to be made.  

Rodgers and Hammerstein by Ethan Mordden

You already know my love for Ethan Mordden and the detail with which he writes about theatre. His book about Rodgers and Hammerstein, arguably the most influential duo in the evolution of the American Musical Theatre, is a treasure to behold. Mordden guides us, step by step, through the story of how their classic musicals (and their flops) came about. He also explores the influence each piece has had. Shows like Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific were radical for their day and opened up the door for a more mature, more complex musical theatre.

The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations by Steven Suskin

No one has captured the work of the Broadway musical orchestrator quite like Steven Suskin. Suskin, in fact, goes into such careful detail that he makes the job of the oft-underappreciated orchestrator a celebration of intelligence and artistry. The orchestrations of a Broadway show  are as much a part of how the story is told as the music, book, direction and design. This book will help anyone who loves musical theatre to better understand just what it takes to bring a composer's music to life through careful instrumentation.   

American Musical Revue by Gerald Bordman

Gerald Bordman is considered by many to be the king of documenting musical theatre and so many of his books are wonderful, detailed reads on the genre. Invaluable, however, is American Musical Revue, a detailed chronicle of musical revues from The Passing Show to Sugar Babies. The musical revue is a special brand of Broadway entertainment and it requires its own separate  study to understand how they are assembled. Bordman navigates this world with his usual precision and colorful explanations. Since very little has been written on the subject of musical revues, this book (which is not easy to get a hold of) fill is an important gap in musical theatre history.

That's my Top-Ten. What book do you find essential to your understanding and ongoing appreciation of musical theatre?

The Bewitching Betty Buckley

The Bewitching Betty Buckley

An American in Paris and Gigi Cast Recordings: Are They “Magnifique”?

An American in Paris and Gigi Cast Recordings: Are They “Magnifique”?