One of my idle pastimes is what might be called a geography of aesthetics: matching art forms to the countries in which they flourished best. For drama, it would be England; for painting, France; for opera, Italy; for lyric poetry, Germany; for ballet, Russia. And the United States? Jazz, of course, but ranking just behind is musical theater, now honored by the Library of America in a two-volume boxed set of sixteen plays, American Musicals.

Like jazz, musicals resulted from the leavening of an Old World tradition with the vulgar vitality of the New, in this case, the operetta with the minstrel-cum-vaudeville revue. Above all, the new form embraced America: familiar locales instead of the Ruritanian fantasy lands of, say, Babes in Toyland or The Merry Widow; the exuberance of Florenz Ziegfeld’s annual Follies (and its many imitators, like George White’s Scandals...


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