Red Hot & Blue

Amy Henderson, Author, A. Henderson, Author, Dwight Blocker Bowers, Joint Author Smithsonian Books $45 (288p) ISBN 978-1-56098-698-0
Coming as part of a Smithsonian triple-play that also includes an exhibition opening in Washington in October and a simultaneous audio release, this history of the American musical demonstrates that there are few trends easily available for fan or scholar to follow. While the 120 color and 167 black-and-white illustrations are suitably lavish, the text is somewhat kneecapped by truncated length and the sheer contrariness of the subject matter. The American musical seems to have been driven from the outset by bold ideas of showmanship and patriotism, and by a plethora of overblown egos, from Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson to Sophie Tucker and Fannie Brice. The authors (Bowers is a historian at the National Museum of American History, Henderson a cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery) slip well-worn lore and lesser-known trivia between the indelible images. Vaudeville grew up amid blackface and segregation. Porgy and Bess offered nice tunes and a mildly insulting tone to black audiences. Showboat hits several resonant sociological notes and all the right musical ones. Irving Berlin, by his own admission, never found a more complementary interpreter of his works than Fred Astaire. Agnes De Mille was an inspired choreographer before the term was coined. Readers are advised not to look for a thesis here on why the musical developed as it did but to linger instead on the arresting images and the revealing tidbits: George Gershwin, on hearing that others feared he wanted to write only ""serious"" music after Porgy, wired his agent: ""Rumors about highbrow music ridiculous. Am out to write hits."" (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 09/02/1996
Release date: 09/01/1996
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