Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, my favorite part of the week was visiting the Florissant Valley Public Library and checking out cast recordings. I remember flipping through the bins of LPs, staring down at the big black album with glowing cat eyes, and wondering what in the world that show might be about. It was always a little disappointing when the liner notes were missing or the plot summaries were particularly sparse. In such cases, I would make up a story to fit between the songs (which led to some surprises when I finally saw these shows in their entirety). Sometimes I would go to the shelves to try to find a libretto, but, with the exception of the titles in Stanley Richard's excellent Great Musicals of the American Theater anthologies, I was usually unsuccessful.
Now I work in a library that has the text (often in multiple versions) of nearly every Broadway show produced in the last 100 years. We have audio recordings of shows I've never heard of and the Theater on Film and Tape Archive preserves a large portion of the last 30 years of professional New York (and some regional) theater. I can't help but think, though, about the new versions of my younger self, who live in places with libraries perhaps even less well-stocked than the one of my childhood. I'm also struck by the number of times I have received a mass email to theater scholars with a plea from a University professor asking "Does anybody know where I can find a copy of the libretto of [a semi-obscure, older musical]."
So, I'm instituting a new blog series I'm calling the Musical of the Month. My plan is to publish on this blog an electronic edition of a libretto about once a month in formats you can read online, on your smart phone, or on most ebook readers. In some cases I'll also be able to provide digitized images of piano/vocal scores for at least a few songs. Additionally, for each play, I'll provide a short history of the original production, explanatory notes for references that may be obscure to modern readers, as well as links to additional related material digitized from library collections (either at NYPL or elsewhere) and links commercial material (such as cast recordings) available for purchase.
By the end of the year I hope there will be about semester's worth of material that could serve as a kind of textbook for early musical theater history. To begin with, the plays will necessarily be selected from out-of-copyright titles (that is, texts published before 1923). My hope, though, is that arrangements may eventually be made with intellectual property holders to make accessible some later texts as well. I will begin next month with the 1866 musical that many early historians called (for very questionable reasons) the first American musical. As a preview, you can check out Harvard's copy of an early promptbook for the play. Enjoy!