It Happened on Broadway

An Oral History of the Great White Way

By

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998, pp. 320. $35.

 

Fantasies, Foibles & Flops

By Carter B. Horsley

The myth and metaphor of Broadway are securely grounded in this superb compilation of the experiences and wisdom of about 100 important theatrical figures.

This is great grist.

Both anecdotal and philosophical, this book deftly touches all the bases from daydreaming to stage-struck, from lighting to costumes, from producer to chorus line. The "voices" of this new oral history are mostly legendary. Indeed, It would appear that few major figures declined to participate and while many important figures who have long since passed away are absent in direct quotation, their presence abounds in the other comments.

Rather than just a collection of nostalgic and perhaps maudlin reminiscences, the quotations, most of them relatively brief, are very incisive, and both deeply felt and reasoned. What is remarkable is the perspective and the intensity of emotion that those involved in this wonderful project have been able to convey. Excitement, excellence, enervation and ego are here encapsulated in honest, sophisticated commentary that is often very witty and full of surprises.

One of the biggest surprises is how few clichés there are in this book and how integrated the various professions are in the mystique of the theatrical business. This is not "All About Eve," but all about the spirit and physical presence of Broadway, the culture of performance, and the passion of creativity.

While the book documents the often circuitous and difficult road to Broadway, its focus is on the fantasies, foibles and flops of the writers, directors, producers, choreographers, set designers, costume designers, lighting specialists, the actors and actresses and understudies as well as the press agents, critics and columnists.

The book is full of fascinating tales of travail, collaborative foils that coalesce into the unexpected, mistakes that succeed. It revels in the dynamics of this vital cultural organism - the live interaction between performers and audience and the vast gulf between inspiration and opening night.

There is much adulation here, but the tone is far from congratulatory. The sweet triumph of toil leads to great expectations and often withering changes.

The Frommers, who teach at Dartmouth College and have written other "oral histories" on the Catskills and Brooklyn, have written a very brief introduction and organized the quotations into 10 main chapters. Some have an obvious theme like "breaking-in' stories and choreography, or "The X factor," which is "that ineffable quality that makes certain performers unique," while another analyzes some "surefire plays that were flops." It is not clear from the book's context whether the Frommers had, in some instances, conducted group interviews, or merely patched together related quotations from separate interviews. It appears to be the latter, which is perfectly alright, but the presentation implies the former as each quotation is prefaced with the name of the speaker, but the flow of the individual chapters often abruptly changes course without any new headings. In a published interview, Mr. Frommer said that the authors transcribed their interviews and then decided on the overall subjects or themes they wanted to focus on and took parts of each interview, interweaving them with parts of others on the same subject. "In essence, we strive to produce what reads like a conversation in a living room, but in actuality is a collection of pieces of interviews interwoven to deal with a particular subject," he said. In the interests of professional clarity, this point should have been made somewhere in the book, but it is not of great consequence.

Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Leonard Bernstein, at the piano, Jerome Robbins, listening, Betty Comden singing and Adolph Green smoking during rehearsal for their first Broadway show, On The Town, in 1944

The book's first chapter, "Broadway Calling," begins a bit slowly with recollections by actresses Carol Channing and Betty Buckley and Manny Azenberg, the producer of many of Neil Simon's plays, on why they were first attracted to the stage. The book begins to hit its great stride, however, with the remarks of Betty Comden and Adolph Green in this chapter.

Green recalled that he had "met Leonard Bernstein up at a summer camp" where Green had been a counselor and that Bernstein came down to Greenwich Village to see him and Comden perform. "Betty was knocked out by him," Green recalled. "I saw this great-looking guy in the audience. After we finished performing, he went to the piano and played from midnight until six in the morning. We became deep friends and stayed that way until the end of his life. In 1944, Lenny did Fancy Free, a twenty-two minute ballet with Jerry Robbins. We hung around the rehearsals," Comden continued, adding that "The idea came up that Lenny and Jerry should do a whole show based on Fancy Free together. Lenny said he knew just the people to write the book and the lyrics. The producers came to see us at the Blue Angel, and we got the job .... we wrote in two very good parts for ourselves: Adolph played one of the sailors, and I played a lady anthropologist, Claire de Loon." The score of Fancy Free was dedicated to Green and the play was On The Town, a hit that ran for a year and a half starting in 1944 and was made into a fine movie.

Al Hirschfeld, the legendary caricaturist, recalled that about 1926 he had gone to a play with Bill Pan, a press agent, "and, without thinking, made a sketch of the star on my program." "Bill noticed it and thought it was pretty good. 'Let me have it,' he said. 'I'll try to get it published.' My interest was fine arts. I was a painter and sculptor. But to my surprise, this little sketch was accepted by the Herald Tribune, and they asked for more. I began doing some sketches for the World. And then one day, I got a telegram from the New York Times asking for one. About nineteen years later I was doing a sketch for a play that had a circus background. My daughter Nina had just been born, and I inserted a little poster of 'Nina the Wonder Child," a little drawing of a child reading a book. The following week I put just her name in. This went on for two or three weeks, until I thought the joke had worn pretty thin and left it out. Then mail starting coming n from all over the country. Unbeknownst to me, people had discovered this thing. I found it easier to put her back in than to answer all this mail."

Actor Charles Durning recalled that after leaving home at the age of 16, he worked in a factory in Buffalo and also became an usher in a burlesque house. After World War II while recovering from a wound he became the emcee of The Purple Heart Revue and then, with a limp, tried dancing before becoming a comic and a singer with his own radio show in Newburgh, N.Y. Soon, he decided to become a character actor and started dramatic school on the GI Bill. "But the powers that be decided I had no talent and told me to take a walk. That was kind of devastating," he said. Undeterred, he joined a stock company in Brooklyn and did a hundred plays in two years in the basement of an abandoned church: "I was beginning to learn what worked and what didn't," he said. In time, he did some work off-Broadway and one night got a note suggesting he call, signed J. Papp, New York Shakespeare Festival. "I didn't know who the hell he was, but I called. He told me he wanted me to read for the Casca part in Julius Caesar. I heard it as 'Cassius.' I go in. There's this guy with a big cigar, and he says, 'Get up there and read Casca on page...' I had prepared for Cassius; I hadn't even read the whole play. Who the hell is 'Casca'? I'm thinking. I read it cold. He puffed three or four times on his cigar. 'How dare you come in here and read Shakespeare without studying it first! If I hadn't seen you act, I wouldn't give you the part. But I'm desperate....' I learned to act by watching people who got their start though Joe Papp: Colleen Dewhurst, Julie Harris, James Earl Jones, George C. Scott.... I stayed with Joe for twelve, thirteen years.... I would get good reviews, bad reviews, so-so reviews. John Simon always wrote how bad I was. But Joe would tell me, 'The only people you have to please are the producer and director and yourself. If you think you have to please a critic, you shouldn't be in the business.'"

The second chapter, entitled "The Waterfall and The Camel were Still there," a reference to two of Times Square's more famous "action" billboards, long since vanished, recalls the theater district in the period right after World War II when Toffenetti's, Lindy's and the Blue Ribbon were popular eateries. Martin Richards, the producer, recounted that in his early years, he would "second-act" everything and sneak into theaters with the crowds after intermissions. Harvey Sabinson, the publicist, recalled that then "there was a hard-core audience that had to see everything in a season." Sabinson tells the tale of walking into producer David Merrick's office on opening night of Subways Are for Sleeping and being asked why he was not watching the show. "You don't pay me enough to watch this show twice," Sabinson maintained he retorted. Merrick, who had a Manhattan phone book in his lap, said, "You know there's another Howard Taubman here," referring to the name of the drama critic of The New York Times. "How about Walter Kerr?" Sabinson asked and in a few minutes they ended up with seven people who had the same names as seven New York theater critics and they decided to quickly take them to dinner at Sardi's and then to see the play and asked them each for a quote, which they then put into a newspaper ad. "The Times wouldn't run the ad, but it made The Tribune. They always ran second and were glad to get the money. It was picked up all over the world and gave the show enormous publicity. Merrick loved every minute of it.... When you visited the papers with your story and photos, there were no security guards all over the place, no ascerbic, skeptical, pain-in-the-ass editors. They guys were glad to see you."

"Your hot and first news would go out to Walter Winchell. All the press agents would hang out at Hanson's Drugstore on Fifty-first and Broadway at three or four in the morning, waiting to give him their items," said another publicist, Shirley Herz.

"Leonard Lyons, Walter Winchell, Dorothy Kilgallen - they hated each other. It was really bloody. If you serviced one, you would be dead with the others," recalled Merle Debuskey, another well-known press agent.

"First I'd go to the Times," recounted Michael ("Mickey") Alpert, another famous press agent. "Sam Zolotow [a reporter covering theater news] was a legend there. Everybody tried like crazy to get their stuff into his daily theater column ... From the Times I'd walk over to 240 West Forty-first Street, to the Herald Tribune. Then I'd take the subway downtown to the Post on West Street, and from there I'd walk over to the World Telegram and Sun on Barclay Street....Next I'd take a cab to the Journal at 210 South Street, and from there I'd take a cab up to the News on Forty-second Street. From there I would walk over to the Mirror on Forty-fifth Street. The columnists could not make or break a show, but they were very important in terms of mentioning your client's name. Leonard Lyons was in a class by himself. If he didn't use material you sent him, he would send it back. A lawyer by education, Lyons was a celebrity lover. He'd start his day around noon at Sardi's. Then he'd go to 21, the Four Seasons, looking for people. Those were his lunchtime rounds. He would go down to the Post on West Street and begin to put his column together and then go to his fabulous apartment on Central Park West. About six o'clock he'd come out again, go to the screening of a movie, a premiere of a play. And then the rounds again: back to Sardi's, Arthur's [a popular disco for a while in the 1960's], and P. J. Clark[e]'s, which was the last stop for him and Earl Wilson [the Post's main gossip columnist in the 1950's and 1960's]. They used to write until three, four in the morning."

The Frommers' interviewees recount how some producers would make sure that on opening night producers carefully reviewed the audience's seating to make sure that critics got good seats and that backers and agents and lawyers were not dominating the orchestra seats. "When the Times hired Stanley Kaufman [as its theater critic], they got him tickets for a pre-opening night performance so he could have more time to write his review. For some reason he was not equipped to go back and write a review the same night. David Merrick [the producer] got wind of it and canceled the performance, claiming there was a rat in the generator. He gave everyone their money back. So Kaufman had to go to opening night. But that started the business of allowing the press to come to previews. Before then, the curtain would come down and you'd dash up the aisle, almost knocking some elderly couple over on your way out, rush to your typewriter, and write a review in thirty or forty minutes. You couldn't wait to write it. At three in the morning you might wake up and think of an adjective you should have used. But having time to mull it over, you could never display the same enthusiasm as fully," Douglas Watt, the former theater critic for the News recalled.

At the Times, a copyboy was assigned to stand close to the theater critic and run each 10-part page of copy as it was completed to the culture copy desk because the second edition deadline was so tight that every second counted. It's one thing to write a review nowadays on a computer and quite another to write it a paragraph or two at a time with no chance for revision as they had to do in the pre-computer age of journalism. The difficulty might be compared to the modem bus driver in New York City and the Jackie Gleason-era bus driver who made change for every passenger in addition to negotiating traffic.

Vincent Sardi Jr., the restauranteur, recalled that his father's restaurant began in a brownstone at 146 West 44th Street in 1921 and that the family took in boarders and lived above the restaurant before moving to its current location at 234 West 44th Street during Prohibition in 1927. "Ninety percent of the restaurants in the area where speakeasies. Dad never ran a speakeasy, but those he knew were able to get some liquor in a cup....There was a crowd that went to all the openings; they had their own tables. That's how the opening-night tradition got started. When Shirley Booth came in after Come Back, Little Sheba, the restaurant was full, and she got a standing ovation. That's how that tradition got started."

Sardi's, of course, is worth its own book and much more about it could have been included here such as how it once had its famous bar in the middle of the dining room, or how Ray, its bartender, always remembered what a customer drank, or how good its cheese crock for the crackers was after he laced it with sherry, or how many editors and reporters, but not all, from the Times went to the upstairs bar. V. Max Klimavicius, the president of Sardi's, is quoted in the Frommers' book as saying that the "front area on the left became the preferred place to sit, simply because it's the easiest place for the maitre d' to control." He added that "Some of the caricatures have disappeared along the way. Today, as soon as they are signed, we make two copies: one goes on the wall and one goes to the subject."

One of the best stories in the book is told by Robert Whitehead, the producer, who produced a version of Medea by poet Robinson Jeffers that starred Judith Anderson as Medea and John Gielgud as Jason:

"Judith Anderson was extraordinary; she had a huge talent. She was an animal-like figure on stage. But at all times we had nothing but disagreements. Our relationship was horrible. I think she felt I was a kind of young upstart. I wanted to do the play in certain ways that were probably too modern in feeling for her. She was right, I'm sure. After it played in New York, I wanted to put Medea on in London. I asked Judith if she would do it. 'Not if you are the producer,' she said. That burned me up so much that I went off to London and did it with somebody else. It was a mistake; it didn't work. I was so angry, I thought I would never speak to Judith again. Thirty years passed. One day I got a call from the Robinson Jeffers Foundation asking me if I would come out to Carmel, California, where Jeffers had lived, and do Medea in their open-air theater. They said my wife, Zoë Caldwell, is the one woman in the world who can play the title role. Zoë read the script. 'I think I can play that lady,' she said. I went out to meet with the people from the foundation. 'You really must go up and see Judith Anderson, who is living in Santa Barbara,' they said. 'Why do you say I must see Judith Anderson?' I asked. 'Because she's the one who told us to call you, and she's the one who said you are married to the only woman in the world who can play Medea.' Judith was now about eight-five. She stepped out of her house. 'You stopped me from doing the one thing I wanted to do in my life,' she said to me. 'What are you talking about?' 'The London production of Medea.' 'I begged you to do it. But you said you wouldn't if I produced it.' 'Why should I? You treated me so badly.' I thought to myself, This is the exact conversation we had thirty years ago. Finally I said, 'Let's forget all of that. Let's not discuss it.' Then she said, 'I want to play the nurse.' 'I couldn't do it with you, Judith, I couldn't.' 'Whom are you going to get who is better?' 'I couldn't direct it with you.' 'Oh, my god, don't tell me you're going to direct?' Then she quickly added, 'I still want to play the nurse.'....Judith was marvelous, and this time we had a great relationship. She was helpful; she wanted to live again through Zoë." The book includes a fine photograph of the two famous actresses in the production.

One is struck by how influential and important a role in American theater history was played by the Theater Guild, which was founded by Lawrence Langner and five partners in 1919. Philip Langner, now head of the Guild, recalls in the book that prior to his father's organization, the "American theater was totally commercial: comedies, vaudeville, revues, and soap opera-type melodramas." "It was the Guild that began bringing over serious plays from Europe by people like Bernard Shaw, August Strindberg, Franz Werfel. It was the Guild that brought Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne together for the first time, in 1924 in The Guardsman, by Ferenc Molnár. It was the Guild that raised America's theater consciousness. The Guild brought Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart together in Garrick Gaieties in 1925. It was a little tiny thing they did in an afternoon at the Guild Theater, but it included such songs as 'Manhattan' and 'Mountain Greenery.'...Katharine Hepburn's first work for the guild was in a Philip Barry play in 1935. They had spent a great deal of money on it. But when they were in Boston, she decided she hated the play and didn't like herself in it. She asked my parents not to bring it in. They agreed. That was a real twist: agreeing not to do a play. Ever after that, Katharine remained their loyal star. She never had a contract, just a handshake. When Equity insisted she have a contract, she would work for minimum until the show paid back. Walter Huston also worked without a contract. My father suggested they draw one up when Huston was cast in William Saroyan's Love's Old Sweet Song. 'Oh no,' Huston said. 'You can break a contract, but you can't break your word.' That play was a favorite of my father's, even though it was a flop. It came on the heels of Saroyan's big hit The Time of Your Life, which the Guild produced as well. Until A Streetcar Named Desire, The Time of Your Life was the only play to receive both the Pulitzer Price and the Critics' Circle Award. I remember Saroyan as being somewhat demented in a nice sort of way. During rehearsals he'd sit around eating pears and apples that he'd peel with a dangerous-looking pocketknife. He had all these cousins, an Armenian Mafia, who began coming in from the West Coast. 'This is my cousin Joe,' he'd say. 'We've got to give him a part in the play.' 'You can't just give someone a part,' my father would protest.' 'I'll write something for him.' Saroyan was constantly adding new parts. His plays had that crazy-quilt quality. Gene Kelly, who played Harry, was not an Armenian relative, but had danced in a little revue in my parents' summer theater in Westport, Connecticut. After George Abbott and Richard Rodgers saw him in The Time of Your Life, they picked him for the lead in Pal Joey, and from there Gene went on to his great career in Hollywood."

Patricia Neal and Montgomery Clift were first noticed at the Westport theater, which was also where Dick Rodgers came to see Green Grow the Lilacs, which became Oklahoma!, one of the three musicals based on plays the Guild had produced, the other two being Porgy and Bess, from Porgy, and Carousel, from Liliom, according to Langner.

Kim Hunter, the actress told the Frommers about her experience working with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire: "Once when Marlon threw the radio out the window and I grabbed at him, his T-shirt tore. Somehow it looked right, so he kept it that way."

Hunter relates the horror of the infamous "blacklist" and its impact on the entertainment community during the Cold War hysteria fueled in large part by Senator Joseph McCarthy:

"The blacklist was like the Salem witch-hunt, the reason people like Sam Wanamaker and Charlie Chaplin left the country altogether. Elia Kazan disappointed a lot of people by going before the House Un-American Activities Committee and naming names. For that reason, Lillian Hellman didn't hire him to direct The Children's House....Because of the blacklist, I didn't work in film for five years. I couldn't work in television; they would threaten the sponsor. Theater was different, because each producer was on his own. He didn't have to cater to General Foods....I had signed petitions in favor of civil rights and against the hanging of people in Georgia. I had appeared in a Lillian Hellman play. I had worked with a director who was named before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Then I got a letter asking if I would be a sponsor of this organization of people from the arts and sciences who were seeking to find a way out of the Cold War. It had a list of four hundred sponsors, including Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt. I never went to any meetings because I was in rehearsal. Nevertheless the organization was labeled red as a firecracker, pro-Communist."

Jerome Robbins, the choreographer and director, also named names, including that of Zero Mostel, the great comic actor. Charles Durning, the actor, recalled for the Frommers that Mostel did not work for ten years as a result. Tony Walton, the costume designer, noted that Mostel had been cast for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and that director George Abbott at one point considered throwing out all the songs. Walton said that Steve Sondheim urged Hal Prince to bring Jerome Robbins back in as Robbins had originally been the director but had pulled out for another project. "Hal phoned Zero to ask whether he would be prepared to work with Jerry Robbins. 'Are you asking me to eat with him?' 'I'm just asking you to work with him.' 'Of course I'll work with him,' Zero said. 'We of the left do not blacklist.' ...Some of the lyrics were lines right out of Jerry Robbins's mouth. Steve wrote it in sort of a white heat....But when Jerry first came in, we were all terrified. He was already a daunting figure. This was - after all - well after West Side Story. We stood on the stage of the National Theater in Washington. Jerry Robbins ran the gauntlet, shaking everyone's hands. When he finally got to Zero, everyone held their breath. The tension was palpable. Then Zero boomed out, 'Hiya, loose lips.' [A reference to the World War II motto of "Loose Lips Sink Ships."] And everybody burst out laughing - including Jerry."

Much of the book is devoted to musicals since it is such an important American contribution to the theater.

"Even though there is poverty in America, we are a culture of abundance. And the images and myths of abundance are enacted in the Broadway musical. The notion of putting your name in lights, of going in a nobody and coming out a star - the whole mythology of American individualism is built into the musical....The optimism of America is a very strange link to anyone outside culture. The reason the English don't do American musicals very well is that they don't believe that everything is coming up roses, that something's coming, something good, if you can wait," observed John Lahr, the New Yorker writer and son of famous comedian, Bert Lahr.

"In the 1940's, the comedians were succeeded by the Rodgers and Hammersteins. They created a situation where the story and the songs were so integral, no cavorting clown could mess it up," Lahr told the Frommers.

"The switch from Larry Hart to Oscar Hammerstein II was a major step for Dick Rodgers," recalled James Hammerstein. "Hart came from the world of revues, my father from the world of operetta. With Hart you changed the story to allow for your best songs. With Hammerstein you changed your songs so they worked best for the story. It's night and day, totally different ways of looking at theater."

James Hammerstein's great-grandfather, Oscar 1, came to the United States during the Civil War from Germany and built opera houses and theaters and a vaudeville house. "If he didn't like you he would hit you in the jaw. For many years he engaged in a war with the Metropolitan Opera, which was funded by the Astors and the Vanderbilts. Oscar's opera was financed only by Oscar. At one time, it was suggested that he become the head of the Metropolitan board, but the idea of a Jew in that position was very dubious then. They ended up buying him out for a considerable sum of money," James Hammerstein said.

"Larry Hart was an alcoholic, and he became increasingly unreliable. Daddy had to lock Larry in the room, play him a tune, have him do the lyric, and then let him out. With Oscar it was totally the opposite. The lyrics always came first," recalled Mary Rodgers.

Okhlahoma! is one of the musicals that are well-covered in the book.

"One of the biggest objections from investors was that the play was too clean. It had no striptease, no suggestive jokes, none of what was in the successful musicals of the era," recalled Philip Langner. "At one time," he continued, "they thought of calling the play Down on the Strip. When Oklahoma! was suggested, some people thought it was too static. The decision to settle on Oklahoma! had a lot to do with my family's connection to Oklahoma. My mother's parents met on a stagecoach in Oklahoma. Her father was the driver and her mother a passenger on her way out west."

The role of choreographer Agnes de Mille in Oklahoma! is praised by several people in the book, which wonderfully documents the birth pangs and surprises of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I, including a hilarious dirty joke that Yul Brynner whispered on stage in the final scene to a co-star that alone is worth the price of the book.

Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway of My Fair Lady

Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway, stars of My Fair Lady,

chat with Princess Margret in 1956

The book relates many fascinating stories including how Home of the Brave, a play by Arthur Laurents about anti-Semitism was turned into a movie of the same title about racism, how Mayor LaGuardia closed Trio, a play about lesbian lovers with the man in the middle played by Richard Widmark with Kirk Douglas as his understudy, how Oklahoma! almost closed in Boston and how someone turned down My Fair Lady, whose stars are shown in the picture above, why Guys and Dolls was the first play to have its own hairdresser and the fact that no one seems to notice or care that the opening song in that play is about horse racing and not crap shooting.

Donna McKechnie, the actress tells about Cy Feuer, the producer, teaching her that "it takes years for back muscles to develop and that's why women don't come into their own as singers until their late thirties and forties." She also says that and Frank Loessor, the composer, emphasized the importance of making "the gesture first": "You mimic your organic response, do whatever your physical impulse is, then follow it with your voice."

Roy Somylo, the president of the American Theater Wing, relates the fact that Robert Fosse's innovative use of a television commission to advertise Pippin included a routine that was not in the play but "it became so popular that ultimately he did put it in, and whenever that moment came up, the audience broke out in wild applause."

Times, of course, were changing and have continued to change. "New York isn't a four-o'clock-in-the-morning town anymore," bemoans Shirley Herz, the publicist. Little Orphan Annie was the last show that did not use any microphones and, according to Charles Strouse, the composer, "It was one of the last shows that relied exclusively on the strength of its text, its emotions, and its simplicity." "It is helicopterless. It is chandelierless. It is pure Broadway," Strouse said of Annie.

Howard Kissel, the drama critic for The New York Daily News, is one of many in the book who express deep concern over the current state of the theater:

"The Broadway musical had a tremendous, galvanizing energy. The audience would get this fabulous performance and erupt in applause. That energy would fuel what happened next, and at the end of the evening, you were exhilarated. My feeling is that at the end of an evening of spectacle theater, you're enervated. You just want to get out of there and go home. Look at the reviews for Cats. Not one was enthusiastic. Has that had any effect? The bulk of the public, they see a set go up, go down, and they're happy. The public has no sense of history; it's all now. They get it from television. It's now, and it's over, and we go on the next thing."

John Lahr picks up this very astute thread with rather brilliant insights:

"In the sung-through musical that Sondheim pioneered and that Andrew Lloyd Webber popularized, the narrative function has been taken away from the playwright and given to the songwriter. You listen to a song in a completely different way than you listen to a scene. Auden makes the point that rhyme makes any statement acceptable, gives it authority. Distinctions really aren't possible. 'April, May, and December' sounds right if the rhythm is working. When you hear a song, you are enchanted; the root of the word enchant is the same as the French word for 'song'- chanson. The musical increasingly is not telling a narrative story. Its telling is through song, and song is not sufficient to establish character; it cannot carry the burden of psychology and situation. You need prose and plot. With all he's given the musical, Sondheim, by deconstructing it, has taken it narratively to a place where it can't function."

Eric Stern, the musical director, chimed in that "much of the sung-through musical is declamatory, and as a result, it's lost the dynamic. The heart is gone. We are told what to think and what to feel." And Clive Barnes, the drama critic for The New York Post and formerly the Times, proclaimed that the Broadway musical is "virtually dead," adding that "The guts were knocked out of it when Lennon and McCartney chose not to write a musical." Stern also noted that "when we talk about why the theater is not quite as vibrant as it could be, we are overlooking our losses because of AIDS. It is not a small matter that a good deal of the talent pool of this art form is not growing into maturity. Apart from the personal tragedy, it is a cultural tragedy."

Call Me Madam principals

From left to right, set designer Raoul Pene du Bois, producer Leland Hayward, director George Abbott, authors Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, singer Ethel Merman, composer Irving Berlin and leading man Paul Lukas, all at a rehearsal for Call Me Madam in 1950. Photofest.

While many of the interviewees bemoan the current state of Broadway, they note that extravaganzas, stunts and sets are not as important as "The X Factor," that quality that makes a superstar. Elaine Stritch, the wonderful actress, observed that one of Broadway's greatest stars, Ethel Merman, shown in the picture above, "made a lot of enemies because she wanted to get it right." "She was a selfish old broad. Still, it's a sin that they haven't named a theater for her."

Harvey Sabinson, the publicist, maintains in the book that he talked Barbra Streisand out of getting a nose job. "'You're one of a kind,' I told her. 'You don't want to be just another pretty face."'

Billie Allen, the actress, writer and director, tells a fabulous story about working in a revival of Mamba's Daughters with Ethel Waters. "She was Brechtian, bigger than life, a force of nature, a geyser," Allen said, describing her first meeting with the famous singer and actress, a meeting in which Waters states memorably, "I know when to, how to, and not you."

At one point in the early 1980's, it looked like MTV was the great new art form and for several years the collective creative brilliance of the music videos was astounding. Incredibly, its meteoric zenith was relatively short-lived and though it continues it has diminished in quality and excitement. During its glory days, it diverted energies just as the Internet is doing now. Technology, however, does not spell the death of creative communication and undoubtably there will be discoveries of new Streisands, new Sondheims, spawned in the Information Age.

Perhaps the best comment on the theater in the book comes from Jane Summerhays, a performer in A Chorus Line.

"I believe in the healing power of the theater, that it is a place where we all come together, where we take refuge, where inexplicable things become explained. It's a second-chance family."

If the book has flaws, they are minor: its format needs a bit more structure as an "official" record, the pale sepia photographs are frustratingly faint, and the art design is a bit labored. The content, however, is on the mark. Indeed, these dialogues are riveting and provocative, wry and precious, right and full of great honor and homage.

This book vividly explains why we want second chances. To go on. To perform. To live and celebrate.

 

Click here to order "It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way" at 30 percent off its $35 list price from amazon.com

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