A self-styled “manifesto with an agenda,” rather than a comprehensive history or an academic study, Mel Atkey’s third book (following When We Both Got to Heaven and Broadway North: The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre) is very much a generalist fan’s book. As he relates, Atkey grew up in Vancouver, B.C., where his early experience with musical theatre was with local amateur productions, movies, and the odd touring show. Because he saw musical theatre at a distance of 3,000 miles from New York, Broadway might as well have been a million miles from where he dwelled. This fact did not deter him from writing musicals in high school, going on to be finalist for the Musical of the Year competition in Aarhus, Denmark, short-listed for the Vivian Ellis Prize, the Ken Hill Prize, and others. His first musical, Shikara, was produced on Canadian radio, and he spent two years as a theatre critic in Vancouver, before moving to Toronto to pursue his career as a musical theatre writer. He won commissions from the CBC, became a member of the Guild of Canadian Musical Theatre Writers, created an off-off-Broadway musical showcase, and went on to more prestigious things in New York and Chicago. He also continued to lecture internationally on musical theatre, so his credentials are impressive and help bolster his attempts to puncture several myths about musical theatre. Atkey’s manifesto-agenda takes to heart Alan Jay Lerner’s dictum: “Broadway cannot live without musical theatre, but the musical theatre can live without Broadway.” And Atkey also seems to subscribe to playwright Steven Berkoff’s view that the contemporary musical knocks spots off modern drama.
To help the reader understand his fervour for the musical genre, he divides his book into two acts with an intermission or entr’acte, the first being a quick survey of The Parents, i.e. Europe, showing how vaudeville started to sing with Mozart’s anonymous contributions to Emanuel Schikaneder’s productions and thereby raise standards of popular taste. Mozart eventually created a full-scale opera with The Magic Flute, but Europe had other musical geniuses in addition to him: Offenbach, Bizet, Johan Strauss, jr., Franz Lehar, Gilbert and Sullivan, Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, etc, who all enriched the musical theatre repertoire, changing its contours and textures with their distinctive styles. Useful as this information is, it is not exactly new, and Atkey’s piecemeal menu approach dilutes the material. And yet, this section is useful as a potted summary, with some interesting sidelights on Spain’s Zarzuela and Stalinist Russia’s incongruous musical comedies. Cabaret, of course, makes a strong entrance in Act 1, especially with a survey of German and French manifestations, though the preponderance of names without substantial analyses of their contributions is once again a flaw.
As for the central argument, Atkey contends that the American musical is not a separate art form from its European parent, any more than American English is a separate language from British English (whatever this is!). He argues that the Broadway sound established by Jewish and Irish immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century (Cohan, Herbert, Kern, etc) was different from the European operetta sound of Friml and Romberg. True enough, but it would take a scholar to distinguish between these sounds more profitably than Atkey does.
However, my criticisms (encompassing the lack of editorial supervision and guidance that result in spelling and punctuation errors, as well as a lack of literary finesse) do not preclude my admiration for his enthusiasm and purpose. Of course, Atkey is enlightening on various topics with a Broadway connection—such as why The King and I, while a landmark in musical theatre, is a travesty as a representation of history; how Grease turned from an ensemble piece into a romance about Sandy and Danny; how The Sound of Music radically altered the facts about Maria von Trapp; and how The Drowsy Chaperone, a modest little offbeat Canadian musical morphed into a big Broadway hit. But these sections are but part of an overall structure aimed beyond Broadway. A Million Miles from Broadway is not for scholars or academics; it is for musical theatre fans (which is to say Broadway enthusiasts), those who should know something of international musical theatre. In this regard, Atkey does yeoman service. Beyond offering evidence that disputes other critics’ complaints about the “emptiness” in French musical theatre, Atkey is particularly informative about musical theatre in South Africa, Latin America, Australia, and Asia, introducing us to many shows and creative figures who are undoubtedly unfamiliar to most readers. And there are interesting tidbits, such as the absence of any great Irish musical; why Evita has never been staged professionally in Buenos Aires; how Argentina suffered a loss of artistic momentum under Fascism; why Sarafina! was heavily criticized in South Africa; how musicals are big business in Korea in Japan; or how Singaporean librettists are able to escape censorship.
Atkey’s agenda is pointed. It is aimed squarely at the middle-aged “dinosaurs” in universities and the theatre profession who keep resisting change and evolution in the arts and who think of musical theatre as being rather frivolous or empty in contrast, no doubt, to the mediocre documentary plays or tarted-up soap operas they so frequently present with generous arts funding. As a Canadian, he is on firm ground, for I cannot think of a first-rate or even second-rate Canadian university that offers a specialist’s degree in musical theatre. In fact, most artistic directors (certainly in Toronto, the mausoleum of nationalist theatre) cringe at the very mention of musical theatre, thereby showing themselves to be out of step, artistically and commercially, with one of the greatest art forms of their profession. I have to date produced six production histories of classic Broadway musicals—many of which have won accolades from American scholars and theatre professionals (including Hal Prince, whose international reputation far exceeds that of any Canadian’s)—but only two or three of these books have ever earned serious reviews in my country. So I appreciate the mountain of indifference and ignorance that stands in the way of anyone attempting to create Canadian musical theatre or advance Canadian musical theatre scholarship. While Canada is still deciding what it is culturally, the rest of the civilized world—especially Asia—is miles ahead of us in musical theatre. The Shaw Festival, under Jackie Maxwell, is a valuable exception to the rule—with interesting, though flawed, new work by Jay Turvey and Morwyn Brebner in particular, but generally speaking, Canadian fans of musical theatre can draw little musical theatre inspiration or exhilaration from their national librettists and composers. I, therefore, salute Atkey for this book that attempt to open eyes and minds in Canada and elsewhere to one of the greatest art-forms in theatre.