They don't make 'em like they used to, and Mark N. Grant knows why. Actually, they made 'em badly once before, back when musicals were slapdash vaudeville shows. Yet now, as Grant explains in The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (Northeastern University Press), after the golden era of a half-century ago, musicals are back to being an "inconsequential enter-tainment genre." String together a bunch of songs and gags and you've got a "jukeboxical." It's the New Vaudeville.
But why did the American musical rise with Show Boat only to sink around the time of Fiddler? Singers chose expressiveness over the classically trained voice -- which worked fine for awhile, until microphones projected voices, which led to amplified musical instruments, which only cranked up the volume still more. The transition from the four-beat foxtrot to the less versatile rock groove elevated rhythm over melody, making lyrics louder but less expressive. The rise of choreographers and designers relegated writers to a secondary role, emphasizing spectacle over story. Hypervisual directors seek out spectacle because we live in a visual and oral rather than written culture; modernism is skeptical of narrative, anyway. Serious dramatists have abandoned musical comedy.
But words, narrative and character, as Grant emphasizes, are the heart of musical theater. And Broadway's golden era boasted a synergy among composers, lyricists, writers, choreographers and designers that led to gems like Guys and Dolls.
Rise and Fall has the weakness of a thesis-driven book: everything from 1927-66, good; everything before or after, bad. Interestingly, Grant doesn't locate the breakdown in Jesus Christ Superstar or Cats (which are more like concerts than plays). Instead, the downfall came ... in the title song of Hello, Dolly! There's no reason for those waiters to get all hysterical about Dolly's return; the scene doesn't tell us anything about her. It's just spectacle for its own sake: the beginning of the Disney and Euro-Pop McMusical.
Grant can get overly technical about musical theory; he disparages sung-through "poperettas" without really saying why; and he offers few solutions. But he clearly denotes what's right and wrong about musical theater, just as his book's cover juxtaposes the original Laurey in Oklahoma! with a character from Mamma Mia! (Just kidding! That's Boy George in Taboo. Nobody thinks Broadway is in decline just because there's a musical based on the works of ABBA. Do they?)