Is it possible for one person to write a first-rate large-scale reference book? Of course–if he’s Samuel Johnson. But even Dr. Johnson found it famously difficult to bring his Dictionary into being, and though there have been any number of noble successors to that great work, most of the significant reference books to be published in modern and postmodern times have been group efforts. The principal exceptions to this rule are books which, like H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations, or David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, intentionally reflect the idiosyncratic personalities of their authors, and one normally turns to books such as these in search of illumination or amusement, not information.
When it comes to works of pure reference, the opposite rule holds true, and the wider the field of interest, the harder it is for an individual author, no matter how well informed he may be, to produce a book that is both comprehensive and trustworthy. Hence I was more than a little bit surprised to discover that The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television (Oxford, 923 pp., $39.95) is the work of a single scholar, Thomas Hischak, and not surprised at all that it isn’t nearly as good as it ought to be.
Unearthing mistakes in a reference book is the sport of pedants, but the whole point of such tomes is that they should be scrupulously accurate, and I regret to say that I didn’t have to dig too deeply in the new Oxford Companion to pick nits, starting with an unacceptably high number of misspelled names (Sherie Rene Scott, Michel Legrand, Casey Nicolaw), missing persons (Conrad Salinger, Twyla Tharp) and mangled song titles (“Public Melody No. 1″). Nor does Hischak have the gift of writing the crisp, informative definitional prose that is indispensable to the lexicographer’s craft. Far more often than not he settles for flabby, anodyne boilerplate, especially when musical matters are involved. Here, for instance, is what he has to say about Leonard Bernstein’s compositional style: “His theatre music uses a variety of forms, from jazz to Latin to classical, and can be explosive and thrilling as well as tender and reflective.” True enough, I suppose, but does it tell you anything about Bernstein’s music beyond the immediately obvious? Another glaring example of his limp descriptive powers is the first sentence of his entry on Cabaret: “Arguably the most innovative, hard-hitting, and uncompromising musical of the 1960s, the powerful music-drama made few concessions to escapist entertainment, yet it was and remains very popular.” Again, this is true as far as it goes, but it is neither notably insightful nor memorably written.
In recent years Oxford University Press has acquired a reputation for publishing ill-edited books, and this one is-to put it very, very mildly-no exception. Somebody really should have stopped Hischak from describing Irving Caesar’s lyrics as “simple, direct, and sometimes contagious,” or referring to An American in Paris as a “symphonic suite.” At times his syntax comes totally unstuck: “Baxter’s career fell apart in the 1940s, suffered a nervous breakdown, and underwent a lobotomy before dying of pneumonia.” Poor career!
All these problems notwithstanding, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical is for the most part a reliable, fact-crammed reference tool, and I expect to keep my copy handy for some time to come. But it isn’t the vade mecum I’d hoped for, not by a long shot.