The Sound of Musicals
This short book with the ingenious title by musicals aficionado Ruth Leon encapsulates and conveys her passionate love for the form.
In the first couple of chapters, it offers a brief overview of musical theatre from its origins the best part of a century ago to date. They also pose the question as to what are the greatest musicals of all time.
The remaining eight chapters offer some answers, choosing musicals that have not only sold tickets and entertained but endured thanks to a unique holistic quality that made them ground-breaking not only when they were first seen but ever after.
In most cases, having picked on a creator or team of creators, the author then provides an essay not only about their greatest work but also other highlights of sparkling careers.
Ruth Leon has the ability to capture much of the essence of each musical, which is the real strength of pocket-sized hardback. She also has the knack of making you want to see these shows, although inevitably the only available short-term solution in most cases will be on TV/DVD/Blu-ray.
Each chapter borrows its title from a song in the musical, beginning with "Only Make Believe" from Show Boat, the first true musical in which Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II created a unified piece of art rather than a play with songs or songs with a loose story attached.
In each succeeding essay, more than anything else it is this desire to combine story, music, lyrics, dance and spectacle into a whole that distinguishes seminal musicals from also-rans.
Without wishing to give away all of the selections that readers will relish, most of the obvious favourites are here. The book includes Gypsy, West Side Story and My Fair Lady and the collection ends with what initially appears to be a homage to Company but turns out to be a letter of love to its composer, Stephen Sondheim, who had already figured large in earlier sections as a lyricist.
Readers could reasonably wonder why the most recent of the selected works is over forty years old as they may question whether somebody outside the United States might have been deemed fit to grace these pages. As a Brit herself, the writer might have supported the brand with at least one home-grown mini masterpiece.
Even so, Ruth Leon has written a lovely little volume that will delight any devotee of this genre, helping them to relive the pleasures of their favourite musicals as well as putting them into historical context and offering lots of juicy gossip to keep the pages turning.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher