Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Review: What Would Barbra Do? How Musicals Changed My Life

Musicals, for most people, are a polarizing force. They are either something you love or completely despise (perhaps with the exception of shows such as Rent and Spring Awakening). What Would Barbra Do? How Musicals Changed My Life takes a look at both sides of the debate by tackling Emma Brockes's love-hate relationship with musical theatre. Part criticism, part theatre history, and part memoir, Brockes offers a refreshingly tart and (usually) unsentimental look at musicals and her evolving relationship with them. Although Brockes espouses some admittedly controversial views (at least for the average musical theatre lover), such as her dislike of both Rent and Grease, she presents her arguments in such a passionate and well-thought-out manner that it is hard to disagree with her logic even if you disagree with her sentiments.

While Brockes grew up in England (which has a richer theatrical history than the US), her views on musical theatre (a decidedly American art form) are understandable and probably familiar to most people. Brockes's introduction to musicals came from her mother, a person who figures prominently in areas of the book. Despite her initial dislike of musicals, she eventually realizes her affinity for them even as she mocks their inanities. For instance, she does a fabulous job showing just how ridiculous the average musical plot is; in one case, she notes that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is about how "the women of a nineteenth-century town in Oregon respond to being kidnapped by hillbillies by singing."

What is particularly compelling about this book is that Brockes is able to simultaneously show the foibles musicals while illustrating how many of these shows are much deeper and less sentimental than many recognize. Her discussion on Mary Poppins is very nuanced and filled with some notable ideas in terms of the movie's adaptation of the P. L. Travers's story. However, Brockes's gift for showing her affection for her subject while pointing out the faults is at its peak when she discusses Barbra Streisand. Despite her admiration for Barbra, Brockes is quick to note some of Streisand's excesses, such as her self-aggrandizing turn in Yentl or the fact that Streisand sometimes sings trios with herself (by bringing in a child to play her younger self and having a playback on a screen) in concert.

What Would Barbra Do? is not perfect; some of the chapters seem repetitive and the organization is often fast and loose (to say the least). However, it is an enjoyable, entertaining, and often thoughtful look into musical theatre. By circumventing the adoring-fan route in favor of a more critical and sometimes satirical tone, Brockes allows readers to gain a greater understanding of musicals while also laughing at her trenchant remarks. I sincerely hope that Brockes writes a follow-up, if only to hear her insight into Legally Blonde the Musical and Spring Awakening.