REVIEW: “Show Time! The First 100 Years of the American Musical”
“Show Time! The First 100 Years of the American Musical” is the first of a trilogy of “documentary musicals” produced by Unsung Musicals Co. Inc. in partnership with the York Theatre Company at their home at the Theatre at St. Peter’s in the East 50s.
Conceived, written, and performed by Ben West—backed by a superb four piece band—this tightly staged, one-man survey presentation offers a crash course in the history of the American Musical, from its roots in the pernicious but uniquely American form of entertainment known as minstrelsy, to the rise of vaudeville, revues, operetta, folk opera, serious musicals, musical comedy, and the contemporary formations that often borrow from many of these categories.
At some point, early on, I had the strange sense memory sensation of being in a lecture hall as an undergraduate, furiously writing (or else typing) notes to ensure I caught the major points from my professor. It doesn’t help that as a critic I do that anyway, but this show often has the feel of a slick TedTalk with the added benefit of songs. It is didactic, but that is the nature of the enterprise, and Mr. West is a poised and polished performer who delivers the material well—at least for the first half.
Broken into a prologue and seven scenes, each covering a distinctly demarcated time period, Mr. West moves chronologically (see his timeline here) from the premiere of “The Black Crook” in 1866—considered by many to be the first musical—to the emergence of a new generation of musical theatre composers—Jason Robert Brown, Jeanine Tesori, and Adam Guettel—in the late-1990s—offering stories and songs interspliced with the writings of critics, dramatists, and composers.
However, once he enters the 1940s, and song licenses become costly due to copyright or restricted due to the wishes of living composers (notably: Stephen Sondheim), the music of the time largely fades, and the presentation becomes rushed, less commanding, and more clearly opinionated. Indeed, Mr. West’s show is most effective in instructing its audience through the 19th and early 20th centuries, for which he holds a clear reverence and mastery, but is belied by the wink of derision hiding behind his telling of the rise of rock and pop music in musicals, and the emergence of concept musicals where theatre is metaphor.
Serious musical theatre history buffs and those genuinely seeking a lively academic instruction on the roots and evolution of the art form should definitely not miss “Show Time!”. Mr. West is on to something with this unique show, and while this production may be too long for its own good—clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours—he might consider contacting the likes of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns for a film series collaboration to share this well-researched and important slice of Americana with an even larger audience.
Bottom Line: “Show Time! The First 100 Years of the American Musical”, a one-man presentation of the history of the American Musical, has the feel of a slick TedTalk with the added benefit of songs. Serious musical theatre history buffs and those genuinely seeking a lively academic instruction on the roots and evolution of the art form should definitely not miss this show.
“Show Time! The First 100 Years of the American Musical”
Unsung Musicals Co. Inc. and York Theatre Company
Theatre at St. Peter’s
619 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10022
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: September 13, 2018
Final Performance: September 16, 2018