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The cover of the Cambridge Companion to the Musical

The Cambridge Companion to the Musical

Edited by William A Everett and Paul R Laird
Cambridge University Pree
310 Pages
£16.00
Dateline: 10th May, 2004

The Cambridge Companion to the Musical is part of a series entitled Cambridge Companions to..., which includes books on instruments, composers and topics such as Blues and Rock. It describes itself as "an accessible introduction to one of the liveliest and most popular forms of musical performance".

It is certainly very comprehensive: it begins with the pre-twentieth century influences which together lead up to the genre and ends with the megamusicals of the end of the twentieth century and the first years of the 21st. It is divided into three sections - Adaptations and transformations: before 1940, Maturations and formulations: 1940 to 1970, and Evolutions and integrations: after 1970 - and each section is divided into four or five chapters. Each chapter is written by an academic whose specialism it is; all except one are Americans.

Because of this division and sub-division and the use of different authors for each chapter, there is, inevitably, a bit of repetition, but since the points being repeated are generally important events or developments in the field, this can be quite useful as it keeps the milestones clear in the reader's mind.

This is not, however, a book to sit and enjoy as a bit of light reading. It is very much a book for the academic: each chapter is densely packed and the writers make no concessions to a more general readership. There is no attempt at being entertaining: each writer has a topic to cover and is determined to provide as much detail as possible in the space allowed. It does demand a lot of concentration on the part of the reader.

Like much academic work, it is descriptive: A happened, then B happened, which resulted in C. It also spends a lot of time classifying - is X an operetta, a musical comedy or a musical? - and attempting to draw boundaries between the myriad genres it identifies. And, typically, it has eleven pages of endnotes, an eleven-page bibliography and a twenty-page index.

The very long and comprehensive index is essential if the book is to be used as a work of reference: there are, for example, thirteen references to Sondheim, scattered from page 61 to page 274.

The narrative format of the book does militate against ease of use as a reference, but at the same time it isn't an easy continuous read. To this extent is falls between two stools, being neither popular study nor quick reference. On the other hand, it is a very complete and insightful look at the subject, and mercifully does not suffer from the automatic dismissal of any non-American musical that so many US-based critics indulge in!

Your can buy The Cambridge Companion to the Musical from our Bookshop for £11.89

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©Peter Lathan 2004