Joseph P. Swain’s award-winning book The Broadway Musical is what some might call an exercise in overthinking. After all, what good is it to apply musical and operatic criticism to a popular musical form like Broadway? But Swain’s analysis gives many meaningful insights to music that has not generally been regarded as a high form of art, proving that the kinship between the musical and the opera is often closer than one might think. adparams.getadspec(‘c_billboard1’);
Each of the chapters in The Broadway Musical is illustrated by at least one show demonstrating a particular characteristic, such as “Morality Play as Musical,” “Religious Experience as Musical,” and, in the revised second edition, “Epic as Musical,” which explores both the French and English versions of Les Miserables. The book is filled with hundreds of musical examples showing how the music is used to express setting, plot, and character.
The highest praise is reserved for Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim in the chapter “Tragedy as Musical,” which analyzes in great depth the musical West Side Story. In particular, Swain explores the significance of the tritone, the dissonant interval used for the first two notes of the famous song “Maria.” Through musical examples, he shows that the tritone is used throughout the show, serving as a symbol for the tension in Maria and Tony’s relationship but also as a unification of the show’s separate numbers. Through this kind of analysis, West Side Story and other musicals are raised to a higher level of art, one in which the music is not merely functional, a way to get the lyrics across, but rather something that has its own power of expression and tells its own story.
Although Swain gives composers their due praise and reads the music more seriously than the average theatergoer might, he does not dispense with criticism when it is rightly deserved. His analysis of A Chorus Line, in particular, is so harsh that the publishers refused to allow him to print musical examples. He is also quick to point out when translations or other issues in a show’s production history have negatively affected the final product, as in Les Miserables and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.
The Broadway Musical is a wonderful book both for fans of Broadway shows and for students and listeners of opera and other classical music. It will help expand readers’ horizons and give them new appreciation for the musical not just as form of popular expression but as a work of art.