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REFERENCE SOURCES SPOTLIGHT: Oxford Companion to the American Musical

The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film and Television, by Thomas Hischak (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, xxxiv, 923 pp.), was published in 2008 and, according to WorldCat, is found at nearly 1200 libraries. New York Public Library cited it as an “outstanding reference work” that year. There is a good chance you already have this book on your shelf. So why am I blogging about it?  

Because I couldn’t find another print resource that succinctly brings together theater, film and television musicals in one place. And with the decreasing number of print reference books being published each year, we may never see another one. If you do want it in digital form, it is available as part of the Oxford Reference database and as an ebook.

A typical entry of a musical provides all you would expect: plot, key personnel, history of the show, number of performances, how it was received, etc. For shows that have been performed in multiple settings, there is often an inset box listing the performers in the different settings. For example, in the entry for Grease, we learn that Adrienne Barbeau originated the role of Rizzo in the 1972 Broadway show, Stockard Channing played her in the 1978 film, Rosie O’Donnell in 1994 Broadway and Jenny Powers in 2007 Broadway.  And there are entries on notable actors, composers, directors, etc. and relevant subjects (awards, stage and film sequels, Shakespeare musicals and so forth).  

We also learn about changes in plot, songs and other facets when making the transition from stage to screen. Hischak describes the stage version of Pal Joey as “(p)ossibly the first adult musical because of its uncompromising look at its seedy and cynical characters,” whereas the film version is “sanitized, watered down, and reconfigured.” He says that almost half the original songs were replaced with more famous Rodgers and Hart songs from other shows “even though they did not fit the characters or plot.” 

Hischak provides succinct descriptions of his subjects (a typical entry is 100-400 words), offering insightful opinions that help place subjects in their larger context. For example, in his entry on Brigadoon, Hischak describes Alan Jay Lerner’s libretto as “more akin to a fantastical European operetta, yet it has the solid structure of a Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical.” Hischak has made his mark as a writer on theater, film and popular music, with over thirty nonfiction books on the topics, including The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia and The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopedia. He has published over fifty plays.  

These days, you can find reliable lists for opening night casts on the Internet Broadway Database, film and television personnel on IMDB, and history and criticism of musicals in a variety of print and online sources. But if you want to find them all in one reliable source, you may want to start with the Oxford Companion to the American Musical.  

David M. King 

Librarian, Music, Film & Audio 

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh 

Pittsburgh, PA