Stars and Songs
- Charles Foster (Author)
Once Upon a Time in Paradise: Canadians in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Dundurn Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Peter H. Riddle (Author)
The American Musical: History & Development. Mosaic Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Monique Tschofen
Charles Foster’s Once Upon a Time in Paradise uncovers 14 stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age who have Canadian origins and the value of the book is chiefly anecdotal: as the title promises, there is much story telling here. Foster’s heavy reliance on what I presume are a combination of personal interviews, and quotations excised from film histories, journalism, and studio press releases, means that the history more often follows the exigencies of narrative than of scholarship. Fifi D’Orsay’s reminiscences on the reasons for her standing ovations in vaudeville—her legs, which, she recalls “without any blushing, were very delectable”—is as charming as Ruby Keeler’s comment that if she could write her life story it would only be about the 28 wonderful years she spent with her second husband is touching. While these details contribute to engaging character studies, they do not by themselves further an understanding of the tricky territory between citizenship, identity, and national culture in the realm of the cinema. Because Foster does not distinguish between private and public, or past and present conversations, nor between studio propaganda and his subjects’ memories, the truth-value of the vast information gathered remains ambiguous, which will limit this text’s usefulness for future researchers.
Other texts such as Christopher Gittings’s Canadian National Cinema have sought to interrogate rigorously the significance of nation in our national cinema. In Foster’s Once Upon A Time, Canadianness is never problematized, never doubted; a Canadian origin suffices to warrant a star’s inclusion in the volume. And while scholars such as Michael Dorland and Ted Magder reveal the importance of policies that shape the relationship between these culture industries, Foster’s work depicts a world in which decisions hinge on charismatic personalities rather than on institutions, economics, or ideologies. Still, Foster offers an enjoyable reminder that there is so much more to understand about Canada’s relationship to American mass culture.
Like Foster’s, Riddle’s book The American Musical is intended for a non-specialist audience, and like Foster’s, Riddle’s book takes many of the categories scholarly researchers seek to examine critically, such as ‘nation,’ for granted. The starting place is Riddle’s observation that musical drama is inherently fantastic, but its content is often anything but trivial; musical theatre, Riddle argues, can tackle social issues at the same time as it promises to entertain. As he traces the major developments in the form, born from opera, operetta, vaudeville, burlesque, and the revue, Riddle is most interested in signaling breakthrough moments, such as when librettists sought to integrate song and story more closely, or when stage entertainment was elevated to the level of serious drama and social commentary. The book as a whole seems designed to convince readers to take this popular form seriously.
The American Musical offers biographical information about the composers, lyricists, and choreographers, outlines of the musicals’ plots, and details on runs. Far less discussion of the music, the lyrics, or the choreography appears than one would expect. More problematic still, in his attempts to frame social issues, Riddle misses opportunities to engage in contemporary debates about the politics of representation in the genre. His brief discussions of slavery, religious diversity, and sexism in America are simplistic, and he even hints that these systems may have evolved because they were essential to “survival” in the colonies. Slightly more subtle is his discussion of such musicals as Show Boat, The King and I, Flower Drum Song, South Pacific and Sound of Music. Riddle establishes that they emerged from a social back where racism and anti-Semitism were realities, and then argues that, by bringing attention to these issues, musicals about cultural difference make “powerful and effective statements against prejudice in America.” Perhaps they did at one time. But Riddle does not inquire into what happens when American musicals are exported into other national cultures nor the nature of their influence when they are still performed decades later to audiences with new sensibilities. It seems to me that a diachronic perspective is warranted, since, as the musical travels across geographical distances and through time, its ideological work and investments in the social becomes not only more visible but more contentious. Many Canadians will no doubt remember the calls for boycotts in 1994 of the Toronto productions of Show Boat and Miss Saigon instigated by writers such as M. Nourbese Philip and Richard Fung on the grounds that they perpetuated anachronistic and racist stereotypes. More recently, Canadian productions of American musicals have met fierce challenges on economic grounds by the Canadian Actors Equity . In making the case for the musical’s seriousness, Riddle might have done more to address its formal elements—lyrics, music, and choreography—as well as its ideological work within and beyond the nation.
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MLA: Tschofen, Monique. Stars and Songs. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #188 (Spring 2006). (pg. 145 - 146)
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