Friday, October 30, 2009

Music in German Immigrant Theater: New York City, 1840-1940.

By John Koegel.

Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, June 2009. Cloth with CD: ISBN 9781580462150, $80.00. 620 pages.

Review by Reba Wissner, Brandeis University

Of all of the academic treatment in the area of cultural and immigration studies, one area that has largely been ignored is musical theater during the height of immigration to the United States. Although recently this has been remedied somewhat in the form of conferences and articles on related topics regarding various immigrant groups, there is still a large gap in this area of study. John Koegel’s book, Music in German Immigrant Theater: New York City, 1840-1940, chronicles the performances of German-language theater in New York City’s Klein Deutschland (Little Germany) at the height of German immigration, when New York City was a hub for the newly-immigrated gentry from Germany.

The book forms an inventory of the musical plays, farces, operas, and operettas performed in New York’s Kleine Deutschland, as well as the different theaters in which they were performed. It allows us to examine this output in the context of the larger history of the American musical theater. The scope of this study is broad, as much as it focuses on specific case studies. Koegel did a fantastic job with this study, considering the abundance of primary public source material and lack of private documents of the actors, musicians, composers, authors, and impresarios of the German American stage. Much of the discussion focuses on the background of the various musical plays, often with a synopsis, and paired with primary source reviews of the performances. The book abounds with statistical data, both performance-wise and monetary. A variety of photographs and reproduced programs and advertisements allow the reader to contextualize these performances into the time and environment in which they occurred.

Koegel’s study is divided into eleven chapters with thirteen appendices representing the core of the author’s thorough research. The book is further divided into three parts. Part I presents a chronological history of the German American theater from its inception in 1840 to 1918, examining the various performance spaces, impresarios, repertory, and audiences. Part II closely examines the careers of some of the principal performers on the German immigrant stage, as well as the portrayal of German Americans in literary, theatrical, and popular musical culture and how these portrayals affected the German American immigrant stage. Part III is almost solely dedicated to Adolf Philipp, his career and his contributions to German American musical theater. The book’s conclusion discusses the German American Musical Stage of the 1920s and 1930s, post-Adolf Philipp, and its subsequent decline. Koegel’s copious translations allow the non-German speaker to understand the titles and texts. A CD accompanies the book and is filled with much of the music described in the book.

The author’s main goal is to depict the German American theater in the United States as a method of acculturation for immigrants. More than 80 American cities and towns had German stages, and many of these were of a professional or semi-professional nature. While his study focuses on New York, he peripherally discusses equivalent examples from German American theater in other cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, which is helpful for putting the performances in New York City into a larger cultural context. The book shows the versatility of each of the theater companies, each having the ability to stage operas, operettas, farces, and musical plays, all within the same season. Copious reconstruction of extant archival sources and documents allow the reader to see the bigger picture. Additionally, the book contains biographical profiles of the various theater owners relevant to the study, but the main biography that the book contains is that of Adolf Philipp.

Some of the songs are described using musical terminology, but for those who have had no musical training, this method is not detrimental to understanding the author’s point since it is these pieces that are found on the book’s accompanying CD. Koegel includes musical examples beginning in Chapter 8 (Part III), when he delves specifically into the works related to Adolf Philipp. These examples printed in piano and vocal transcription would be handy for the musicologist or music theorist intending on performing an in-depth analytical examination of the songs, but are not necessary for the non-music reader to understand the author’s point. They are also all included on the CD.

My main critique of the book is that it is almost exclusively about Adolf Philipp and his German American theatrical career, so much so that nearly half the book focuses on this subject. It is almost as if Parts I and II combined and Part III could have formed two separate books since there is virtually no overlap between the former two parts and the latter part. Additionally, the author spends most of his time on the historical and contextual elements of the plays rather than on the actual music; the music then almost seems a minimal component of the book and disproportionate to the discussion in the rest of the book, besides contrary to the title. The only music discussed is that of Philipp, and it is only found in Part III of the book. John Koegel’s book fills the gap in studies of music, theater, and immigration. This book will be of interest to readers interested in music and theater history and cultural studies. Scholars exploring the significance of turn-of-the-century immigration from Europe to the United States, its implications, and its resulting cultural creations will find much of interest in this study. Koegel’s study is as comprehensive a treatment as you’ll find on this little-studied subject and is a starting point for more involved and focused work on the subject. Hopefully it will form a gateway to similar studies of the contributions to musical theater of other immigrant groups.

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