Because I write about theater history and am a blogger, I often refer to resources that have helped me a lot over the years. As someone who has been researching musical theater history for most of her life, I have found that certain books have become my “go to” places to check facts and just enjoy the writings of people who are as excited about it as I am. This blog post is about those books.
Top-Ten Essential Books on Musical Theatre
Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum
If a show doesn’t work out on Broadway, we all love it! If a show dies soon after it comes out, it doesn’t bother me that much. It’s more interesting to me to figure out why they didn’t work out. Even the worst movies have interesting stories behind them, and Mandelbaum talks about them with a lot of love but also with a lot of honesty. The author gives a fair explanation for a lot of Broadway musicals that didn’t work. Even more special is that he looks for the good in each piece, realizing that a show isn’t always bad, but it just doesn’t work. This makes the book even more special.
Broadway Babies by Ethan Mordden
Ethan Mordden is the only person who writes about musical theater with as much passion and as much skill as he does. If you’re a theater historian, you should read his “by the decade” articles about musical theater. When you read his writing, it will make you feel like you’ve seen every single one of these shows. His details and imagery are so many. However, if you don’t have the time to read this beautiful series, settle for Broadway Babies, which is written in one book and tries to achieve the same effect. When I read Morrden’s book, I was enthralled by how he talked about musicals like Nine and Dreamgirls, which I couldn’t picture until I read his book. Before I read it, I couldn’t picture them on stage.
Off-Broadway Musicals Since 1919 by Thomas Hischak
Off-Broadway hasn’t been given enough attention when it comes to the history of American Musical Theater. Author Thomas Hischak changes that with his book, Off-Broadway Musicals Since 1919, which looks at Off-Broadway musicals by decade. Most musical theater history books will include the big shows like The Threepenny Opera, The Fantasticks, and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. This book is a little more comprehensive and gives you a sense of the wide range of material that has filled New York’s hole-in-the-wall theaters over the years.
The World of Musical Comedy by Stanley Green
It’s one of the best books for quick facts about Broadway musicals. Stanley Green’s Broadway Musicals: Show By Show. My first theater book was this one. It was so easy to read that I could almost read it backwards. Nonetheless, Stanley Green is the best person to read if you want to learn about early musical theater, from operetta and vaudeville to the development of musical comedy styles like those of Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Kurt Weill to the early work of Stephen Sondheim. He not only explains each show in great detail, but he also gives us a good sense of who the people who made the American musical theater were.
Finishing the Hat/Look, I Made a Hatby Stephen Sondheim
People who have read both of these books will agree that you can’t have one without the other. This is a two-book set.
Show: Stephen Sondheim sits down with his lyrics and talks about how they were written. He talks about his thoughts and how he came up with them. Anyone who likes Mr. Sondheim will enjoy this book. It’s a fascinating look into the mind of a musical theater genius.
Sondheim & Co. by Craig Zadan
Because it’s so well-made and easy to use, I choose this book over the more detailed ones more often. Zadan is clearly a fan of Sondheim, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of telling the truth (and sometimes blunt honesty). The book ends with appendices that are very well-organized and give a lot of information about major productions of Sondheim’s work. There are also a lot of great pictures from Sondheim shows that are worth mentioning.
On the Street Where I Live by Alan Jay Lerner
Alan Jay Lerner wrote a biography about his work as a lyricist and book writer. It talks about his career, with a lot of attention paid to the Broadway shows My Fair Lady and Camelot. You can find out everything you need to know about making a Broadway musical from Lerner. He puts down his cards and shows you everything. It is a great study of how great musicals used to be made.
Rodgers and Hammerstein by Ethan Mordden
You already know that I love Ethan Mordden and how much he talks about theater in his writing. His book about Rodgers and Hammerstein, one of the most important people in the history of the American musical theater, is a real treat. Step by step, Mordden tells us how their best musicals and their worst ones came to be. He also talks about how each piece has had an effect on people. People thought shows like Oklahoma! and Carousel were very different for their time. They opened the door to more mature, more complex musical theater.
The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations by Steven Suskin
There is no one who has done a Broadway orchestrator’s job as well as Steven Suskin. Suskin, on the other hand, goes into so much detail that he makes the orchestrator’s job a celebration of both intelligence and art. The orchestrations of a Broadway show are just as important to how the story is told as the music, book, direction, and design are to how the story is told. This book will help anyone who likes musical theater better understand how to make a composer’s music come to life through careful instrumentation, which is what this book is about.
American Musical Revue by Gerald Bordman
Gerald Bordman is thought to be the best person to write about musical theater, and so many of his books are great, in-depth reads about it. American Musical Revue, on the other hand, is a detailed history of musical revues from The Passing Show to Sugar Babies. The musical revue is a type of Broadway show that needs its own study to understand how they are put together. Bordman is always precise and colorful when he talks about things in this world. When it comes to musical revues, there has been very little written about them. This book, which isn’t very easy to get your hands on, fills in an important hole in musical theater history.