Rick Hellman
KU News Service

Scholarship shows musical theatre alive and kicking

Mon, 01/08/2018

LAWRENCE — The third edition of The Cambridge Companion to the Musical (Cambridge University Press, 2017) features the cast of “Hamilton” on the cover, and that show’s smash-hit status informed the publisher’s demand for an update of the book.

Paul Laird, University of Kansas professor of musicology, and co-editor William Everett, University of Missouri-Kansas City Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Musicology, came out with the first edition in 2002, followed by a second edition in 2008. But “Hamilton,” among other things, is included in the new third edition.

“There is a core of articles that have been in it since the first edition, some of which have been updated more than others,” Laird said. “But we’ve had to keep expanding the later coverage, so each volume has had two or three new chapters, and we’ve had a couple of chapters recast because of later scholarship.

“The book has been well-received. It has sold a lot. There are Cambridge companions in a lot of different fields, but in the whole list of Cambridge companions having to do with music, there is no other with a second edition, let alone a third.”

Laird called the book a history of the Anglo-American musical, divided into chapters about important creators and particular periods. Laird himself wrote “two-and-a-half” chapters, he said, including a new opening chapter that is a case study of the musical “Wicked,” which opened on Broadway in 2003.

“It’s tearing the creation of that show apart; showing people what goes into writing a musical,” Laird said.

His other chapters are lightly reworked for the third edition: one on choreographers who are also directors and the other (half) chapter on Leonard Bernstein.

“As for new chapters, we had somebody write on the television musical. We also had a chapter on the British musical of the last 50 years, which really had not been covered in previous editions,” Laird said. “Then there were four chapters substantially updated, like 'Recent Developments in the Rock Musical,' and there’s a chapter called the 'Musical at the Dawn of the 21st Century,' the latter being where the 'Hamilton' phenomenon is mainly covered."

Post-modern musicals

Laird has become an expert on “Wicked” composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Laird wrote “Wicked: A Musical Biography” (Scarecrow Press, 2011) and “The Musical Theater of Stephen Schwartz: From Godspell to Wicked and Beyond” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). This past year he wrote a book chapter about the 2007 Disney musical film “Enchanted,” for which Schwartz served as lyricist.

Laird said the book’s editor, George Rodosthenous, invited him to write about “Enchanted” for “The Disney Musical on Stage and Screen: Critical Approaches from ‘Snow White’ to ‘Frozen’” (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Laird’s chapter is titled “Musicals in the Mirror: Enchanted, Self-Reflexivity and Disney’s Sudden Boldness.” He writes that the usually cautious House of (Mickey) Mouse allowed the makers of “Enchanted” to indulge in a sort of urban earthiness while working in many references to older Disney and even non-Disney cultural touchstones.

“They went for a sort of pop culture reality Disney does not usually do,” Laird said. “There is always that one sarcastic character in a Disney film, but here you have the working song, and in the midst of it you bring in all these vermin from New York City while you are cleaning the apartment. It’s a funny idea, and then you’ve got one scene of a bird eating a cockroach. Imagine in ‘Snow White’ one of the animals eating another one. The kids would go, ‘Aaaagh!’

“The point of the article was that Disney seemed to be trying to take their image in a slightly different direction, retooling this princess thing that they are always doing.”

If there was any risk in such an approach, it paid off, as the film was a commercial hit, Laird said.

Photo: Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of his musical “Hamilton,” April 20, 2016. Credit: Steve Jurvetson

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