With decades of theatre reviewing behind her, Playbill’s critic Ruth Leon is better placed than most to offer insight into musical theatre, and The Sound of Musicals is an informed and entertaining look at the origins of those standout musicals that have stood the test of time to truly become classics.
Be warned – if you’re looking for a comprehensive history of musical theatre, you’ve come to the wrong place: at a mere 128 pages long, this slight book is instead a breakneck gallop through a handful of shows. Each short essay gives us the background of how a musical came to be: the personalities and circumstances and, more often than not, strokes of wild luck that went into creating some of the world’s most beloved shows. From Showboat to Sondheim (she likes him so much she can’t pick just one of his works); from Gypsy to Guys and Dolls, familiar names are lent new colour with tales of their sometimes troubled and always interesting origins.
Leon is immersed in the world she writes about – anyone who is comfortable calling Sondheim “Steve” is obviously fairly well-connected – and it shows. Well-researched and astutely critical, the book is also delightfully gossipy, packed with stories of behind the scenes tantrums, inflated egos and bad behaviour. Personally, I defy anyone not love a book that contains a story about Julie Andrews smacking Rex Harrison in the face with a pair of slippers.
There will undoubtedly be those for whom the selection is flawed or too limited – after all, rather cheekily, the book doesn’t even feature the show from which it takes its title. However, it would be hard to argue with the validity of her choices and the fact that this is an unashamedly personal list just makes it all the more engaging.
The text could have done with more thorough editing: the punctuation is almost distractingly haphazard (I found myself regularly having to re-read sentences); and a sharper eye would have picked up the occasional contradiction (it’s hard to argue convincingly that My Fair Lady was ground-breaking in tackling serious issues in a musical, when you’ve just said the same for Showboat). The essay format also lends itself to repetition, so if you devour it in one sitting – and it’s such a deliciously fast read it’s hard not to – there are odd flashes of déjà vu where you’re left thinking, “Didn’t I just read that?”
But these are minor quibbles. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Leon is that, when reading this book, the songs from the musicals she was writing about kept floating into my head; as soon as I put it down, I had an urge to go and watch them all again. I think she’d be pleased with that.