Friday, November 30

How Does the Show Go On?

An Introduction to the Theater
by Thomas Schumacher
with Jeff Kurtti
Disney Editions 2007

This one is killing me.

This handsome book provides a fantastic window into the production of a modern Broadway musical with a solid background in theatre production aimed at the middle grade and early teen set. The book starts at the front of the house explaining how the theatre staff keep things running, then goes on stage, back stage, through rehearsals, all the way through opening night explaining how it all comes together. Throughout there's lots of interactive materials to study; a facsimile copy of Playbill; a reproduction of an actual ticket (detailing how to read your seat assignment); there's an envelope containing a section of a script and later on another bit of script with the lighting cues delineated; there's even a quarter-sized facsimile folder containing a director's production sketches with a photos that follow showing how they were executed.

But it's Disney, and being Disney means that no musical theatre on Broadway existed before The Lion King. The author, being the producer of most of Disney's Broadway shows (it says so twice on the cover!), is more than happy to share this knowledge but every photo is Disney. The enclosed Playbill and ticket are from The Lion King, as are the facsimiles of Julie Taymor's production sketches. Sections of script are from Tarzan and much of the behind the scenes includes images from Mary Poppins. While it was nice of them to explain the differences between theatre types -- a thrust stage from a black box from an amphitheatre -- it seems a bit presumptuous to call the book "an introduction to the theater" and conveniently ignore the world outside the sphere of all things Disney.

Granted, a kid who is into musical theatre might have come to it through Disney originally but what if they didn't? Does it matter that Disney basically turned a bit of self-promotion into an introduction to an art form?

This is what tears me. You see, I've got two girls in the house who have this thing for musical theatre. Their school puts on a musical every year (two actually, a 7th and 8th grade production in the fall, a 2nd through 6th grade production in the spring) and they have elected to participate every year. They are also part of an after-school musical theatre group and perform in those shows in the fall and spring. And then there are the movie musicals we watch at home which, fortunately, they continue to enjoy. Their favorite movie musical is Singin' In the Rain. They recently watched My Fair Lady and Little Shop of Horrors. We took them to see Wicked in October. They sing show tunes in the shower. They know there's a world of musicals that isn't Disney and they also know High School Musical (which to me is like a cross between an 80's sitcom and an Afterschool Special with pop songs grafted onto it).

I really think they might like this book but I don't like the narrow focus. I'm not so rabidly anti-Disney that I would refuse it on those grounds alone -- it would look hypocritical considering we own a number of classic Disney cartoon collections -- but the total pro-Disney aspect of the book leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Open question for the people at Disney Editions, and their publishing family: Are you so threatened by the entire history of Broadway that you felt the need to exclude all mention of it from your book? Are you so insecure about your right to be on The Great White Way that you had to buy the New Amsterdam Theatre in order to assure yourself a home? Or is it, as with Time Square, you simply want to replace what's out there with good old fashioned family values?

Did you have to produce such an attractively biased book?

As an introduction to theatre I guess I would have hoped for more of an historical perspective. I would feel a lot more comfortable introducing this book to kids if I knew they had something just as good -- and less Disney -- to move on to afterward.


Tricia said...

Oh, David, I'm with you. I grew up on Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Fred Astaire movies. My first Broadway musical was 42nd. Street. Most of the modern stuff isn't what comes to mind when I think of musical theatre, though I loved Wicked and Spamalot. For sure, these Disney productions wouldn't even come to mind if you asked me to name a famous Broadway musical.

Thanks so much for the thoughtful review.

fusenumber8 said...

Good call and amen to all of that.

Becky said...

Oh my stars.

Your kids and my kids could get together and put on a show. Most likely "Singin' in the Rain". They sing all the time too, so much so that I finally bowed and bought the six CD "That's Entertaiment" soundtrack set for them for Christmas. If my daughter woke up as Julie Andrews tomorrow she'd be a happy girl...

The Disney musicals aren't too popular around here. My kids have found they just can't compare to the old songs and stories, whether it's L&L, R&H, or Gilbert & Sullivan. Maybe the folks at Disney do realize that...

As for a more inclusive Broadway history, one thing we've borrowed from the library quite enjoyed is the PBS series, "Broadway: The American Musical" on DVD and accompanying book by Kantor and Maslon. Not specifically for kids, but great fun for all ages.

Anonymous said...

Come on, people! Relax. It this is an awesome book, just enjoy it and forget it's made by Disney (if it is such a problem to you). But it's fine if this is what you want. It will not stop the book from being awesome. I was raised in Brasil loving all Disney stuff and I am grateful that they produced Lion King and all the others.
Oh, well!
Marcia Monteiro

david elzey said...

I'm curious... is there a tradition of musical theater in Brasil? I can't help but think that if there was a book about Carnival that ignored the Brasilian tradition would you still feel the same way?