Musical Theatre: A History

Book Review

by Christianne Roll 

In the second edition of Musical Theatre: A History, author John Kendrick takes readers from theatrical productions of ancient Greece to 2015’s Hamilton. Setting information about specific shows and specific performers in a historical context, this text is a comprehensive history of the birth and life of musical theatre. 

Kenrick organizes his book into twenty-eight chronological chapters, making it easily accessible for a fourteen-week semester of a Musical Theatre History course in the college or university setting. The text includes an in-depth Suggested Reading Bibliography, recommended web resources, and a foreword by Oscar Hammerstein III. Oscar Andrew Hammerstein’s foreword seems to set the tone for Kenrick’s book which suggests, citing centuries of evidence, that the audience is the “most important factor in creating a hit musical.”

Each chapter starts with a brief narrative that sets the tone about the time period and social norms of the day. These introductions, coupled with frequent references to major worldwide historical events, give the reader a detailed view of the climate from which that decade of musical theatre sprang. Kenrick goes into detail about the business and financial aspects of musical theatre productions, which could be new information to developing musical theatre scholars. Viewing the evolution of musical theatre through this clear, historical background may be the strongest attribute of the text.

Readers looking for a thorough lineage of musical productions will find ample information about major contributions to musical theatre, as well as examples of lesser known shows in America and abroad. Many chapters, especially those that “Start at the Very Beginning” of musical theatre history, include portions of scripts and lyrics to supplement the author’s narrative. Excerpts from shows, such as The Black Crook, A Trip to Chinatown, The Mikado, The Merry Widow, Little Johnny Jones, Babes in Toyland, Knickerbocker Holiday, and Yip, Yip, Yaphank! help to animate the content.

In addition to specific shows, entire chapters are devoted to influential musical theatre artists, showcasing how their lives and performances intertwined with other personalities of their respective time periods. These chapters, called Career in Profile, feature artists such as Al Jolson and Ethel Merman. The anecdotes and personal tidbits about these featured artists, and throughout the book, give an accessible, human perspective to these famous historical figures. 

Although the primarily focus of the book is the progression of musical theatre in New York City and across America, Kenrick also credits innovations from Europe and the United Kingdom. Detailed chapters on European operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan, and European/British influenced Mega-Musicals objectively illustrate their impact on the current trends of musical theatre.

Kenrick writes, "I think show business history is the most fascinating subject in the world. My goal is simple: to make it as entertaining and exciting for others as it is for me.” The author successfully accomplishes this goal through his informative and easy to read second edition of Musical Theatre: A History. This up-to-date text is an indispensable resource for musical theatre history courses and theatre faculty, and for seasoned musical theatre professionals who want to refresh their appreciation of the art form.

Musical Theatre: A History, Second Edition by John Kenrick. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017. pp. 338. $79.90 hardback, $24.95 paper, $18.99 eBook.

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