Review: The Sound of Musicals

From stage to page with applause in every clause

By John Nathan, February 7, 2011
She could have danced all night

She could have danced all night

By Ruth Leon
Oberon £9.99

If there is a single lesson to take away from Ruth Leon's whirlwind tour through musical theatre history, it is that greatness and success are not the same thing. Take Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, and then take Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. One was great and flopped, one wasn't and didn't.

Leon is a writer whose great love (aside, that is, from her husband and fellow critic, the late Sheridan Morley) is musical theatre. And she conveys this with informative enthusiasm. There are no claims here that The Sound of Musicals is the definitive account of the Greatest Shows on Earth. How could it be? Art is subjective.

But in this breezy and authoritative investigation into what it is about a show that makes the heart quicken and swoon, Leon makes a convincing case for each of her chosen favourites - from the daddy of them all, Show Boat (1927), which revolutionised the form by having the songs serve the narrative instead of the other way round; via the rule-breaking Guys and Dolls, the songs for which the brilliant Frank Loesser wrote before he had a libretto; to Fiddler on the Roof, a show instantly understood by Leon's father who was born in a shtetl just like Anatevka; and the musicals of Stephen Sondheim whose lyrical and melodic sophistication is the bar against which every modern writer of musicals judges him- or herself - or certainly should.

Crammed into this pocket-sized compendium, Leon relates many of the conflicts that lay behind the sublime shows. Rex Harrison's tantrums, before going on stage for My Fair Lady, for example, and, most fascinatingly, the brilliant director George S. Kaufman's tone-deaf contempt for Loesser's songs in Guys and Dolls, which, in Kaufman's view, were little more than unwelcome interruptions in an otherwise perfectly fine play.

This book may be small but, like all the great shows about which Leon writes, it is perfectly formed.

John Nathan is the JC's theatre critic

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011