Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre

Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre

by Ethan Mordden

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Ethan Mordden has been hailed as "a sharp-eared listener and a discerning critic," by Opera News, which compares his books to "dinner with a knowledgeable, garrulous companion." The "preeminent historian of the American musical" (New York Times), he "brings boundless energy and enthusiasm buttressed by an arsenal of smart


Ethan Mordden has been hailed as "a sharp-eared listener and a discerning critic," by Opera News, which compares his books to "dinner with a knowledgeable, garrulous companion." The "preeminent historian of the American musical" (New York Times), he "brings boundless energy and enthusiasm buttressed by an arsenal of smart anecdotes" (Wall Street Journal). Now Mordden offers an entirely fresh and infectiously delightful history of American musical theatre.

Anything Goes stages a grand revue of the musical from the 1700s through to the present day, narrated in Mordden's famously witty, scholarly, and conversational style. He places us in a bare rehearsal room as the cast of Oklahoma! changes history by psychoanalyzing the plot in the greatest of the musical's many Dream Ballets. And he gives us tickets for orchestra seats on opening night-raising the curtain on the pleasures of Victor Herbert's The Red Mill and the thrill of Porgy and Bess. Mordden examines the music, of course, but also more neglected elements. Dance was once considered as crucial as song; he follows it from the nineteenth century's zany hoofing to tap "combinations" of the 1920s, from the injection of ballet and modern dance in the 1930s and '40s to the innovations of Bob Fosse. He also explores the changing structure of musical comedy and operetta, and the evolution of the role of the star. Fred Stone, the avuncular Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, seldom varied his acting from part to part; but the versatile Ethel Merman turned the headlining role inside out in Gypsy, playing a character who was selfish, fierce, and destructive.

From "ballad opera" to burlesque, from Fiddler on the Roof to Rent, the history and lore of the musical unfolds here in a performance worthy of a standing ovation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[T]he book takes us to present day, Mr. Mordden has a lot of ground to cover, but his high-energy style carries us along amiably, and it soon becomes obvious that he hasn't set out to write a reference work but... a survey of an art form seen through the eyes of a breathless and opinionated host." —The Wall Street Journal

"More journalistic than academic, Anything Goes has a relaxed spryness. ("Oklahoma!" in Mordden memorable formulation, "is a musical comedy undergoing psychoanalysis.") It's the work of an expert who is also an unabashed fan, an inveterate theatergoer who can deconstruct a score and reel off sparking backstage anecdotes all in the same paragraph." —Los Angeles Times

"Mordden remains an undisputed heavyweight in his field; his output is impressively comprehensive and his enthusiasm inexhaustible." —Washington Independent Review of Books

"[O]bviously the best-ever history of the musical and likely to remain so for a very long time. Individual shows and even numbers leap to life in Mordden's colorful prose, both in the main text and the hefty bibliographical and discographical essays that propel the volume to a hilarious final bon mot." —Booklist (starred review)

"For four decades he has been entertaining and enlightening readers with mind-boggling regularity and with perspective, perspicacity, and pizzazz. Now with Anything Goes Mordden miraculously manages to stylishly convey in an indispensable single volume, the uncanny and encyclopedic breadth of his knowledge-and the complexity of this enchanted American art form."—Geoffrey Block, author of Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from "Show Boat" to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, and Series Editor of Oxford's Broadway Legacies

"Simply the best one-volume cronicle of the art-form."

-Stage Direction Magazine

"Anything Goes offers the surest description of the musical, and represents Mordden's own revised conclusions after almost forty years of considering these issues."

—The Gay and Lesbian Review

"[A] treasure trove, enthusiastically recommended for all lovers and serious students of musicals." —Journal of American Culture

"[A] fun and significant contribution to the scholarly literature. Both casual and serious students of musical theater will benefit from Mordden's insightful analysis and criticism, and his unique opinions will surely shape the future of Broadway scholarship for years to come." —Notes

Kirkus Reviews
Prolific entertainment historian Mordden (Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, 2012, etc.) tracks the musical from its European origins to its current offerings on and off Broadway. The author has written a previous survey of the history of musical theater, but there have been a lot of developments since Better Foot Forward was published in 1976. Here, the author assesses the changes in the final three chapters. "The Sondheim Handbook" covers not just the late-20th-century musical theater's most influential artist, but also such fellow innovators as Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune. "Devolution" critically chronicles Broadway's increasing reliance on revivals (which "in effect admit that worthy new work has become…hard to find") and on jukebox musicals that use pre-existing songs. Yet "That Is the State of the Art" is a generally positive wrap-up, with enthusiastic comments on recent shows ranging from commercial hits (Wicked, The Book of Mormon) to more austere works staged in the noncommercial theater (Marie Christine, Parade). All but the most serious students of musical theater will likely be daunted by the book's opening 100 pages, devoted to the formative history that runs from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in 1728 through Victor Herbert and the Ziegfeld Follies of the 1910s. Yet Mordden makes a strong case for the crucial roles these relatively obscure works played in shaping the genre that came to full maturity in the art's golden age (1920–1980). Chapters covering that period will sound a tad familiar at times to those who have read Mordden's multivolume, decade-by-decade history, but they are nonetheless informative and enjoyable. An excellent discography and suggestions for further reading complete this stimulating survey. Mordden rambles some, as is his habit, but he's a formidably well-informed and bracingly opinionated guide to a quintessentially American art form.

Product Details

Oxford University Press
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Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Ethan Mordden is a recognized authority on the American musical, and the author of such books as Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s, Beautiful Mornin: The Broadway Musical in the 1940s, and Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s. He lives in Manhattan.

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