A chorus of more than 100 voices - including stars, celebrities,
producers, costume designers, critics, sons and daughters of Broadway
greats - lend It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great
White Way the heady excitement of a blockbuster show. "The first
time I ever set foot on-stage was in grammar school," begins Carol
Channing, the book's first speaker. The remembrances that follow - of
Broadway debuts, of its richest era following World War II, of famous
musicals and comedies, stars, hits and unexpected flops and a string
of laments over what "Broadway no longer" is today - move so
seamlessly. Charles Durning remembers the first laugh he got on stage.
John Raitt describes almost not getting to replace the lead in
Oklahoma! because he couldn't fit into Alfred Drake's costume.
John Lahr says his comedian father "could get a laugh on a
conjunction." Interspersed with stage and backstage photos,
caricatures, playbills and posters, the hundreds of magical,
informative, never boring stories Myrna and Harvey Frommer, who teach
at Dartmouth and specialize in oral history, have gathered demonstrate
what it took to fill those seats.
HAL HOLBROOK: Theater was mainstream, riding a wave of tradition that
was vital and essential to the entire entertainment process in the
United States. We had actors who lived in the theater. That was all
they did. We had playwrights who were writing good plays, sometimes
astonishing ones. In 1947 and 1948, I came into town and saw A
Streetcar named Desire and Death of A Salesman. I saw
King Lear for the first time at the old National Theater. I saw
Katherine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, the
Lunts, Louis Calhern.
MANNY AZENBERG: Olivier, Scofield, Gielgud, Albert Finney, Peter
O'Toole, Alan Bates . . .
HARVEY SABINSON: Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller,
Kaufman and Hart. There was Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Cole Porter,
Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser - great shows every year.
MERLE DEBUSKEY: You had continuing producers; it was their life.
Kermit Bloomgarten would produce a play every year or two.
SABINSON: There was a hard-core audience that had to see everything in
FREDDIE GERSHON: Going to the theater was an event. It was very
MORTON GOTTLEIB: I loved the glamor; I don't mean just the dressing
up, but the whole feel of how lucky you were to see a Broadway show.
TONY WALTON: Jerome Robbins had named names during the McCarthy era.
Jack Gilford's wife, Madeline, was one. Zero Mostel was another.
CHARLES DURNING: Zero Mostel didn't work for ten years. He told me he
went from making a thousand dollars to one hundred a week. "What kind
of secrets was I giving away," he'd ask, "acting secrets?"
WALTON: Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford were cast for A Funny Thing
Happened on The Way to The Forum. George Abbott had become the
director, and I was doing the set and costumes. We were floundering
out of town, and absolute disaster. When we opened in Washington,
George Abbott gave an interview saying "I think we could save the
sucker if we threw out all the songs." Steve Sondheim made a big
pitch to Hal Prince to bring Jerry Robbins back in . . . 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." . . . 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." And everyone burst out laughing - including Jerry.
CHARLES DURNING: A Chorus Line is an actor's play about actors.
When that girl starts singing "What I Did for Love" it has nothing to
do with sex. It's the love of the theater; the horror, the heartbreak,
the disappointments. We've all had our share. When I saw A Chorus
Line, and I saw it several times, I broke down and cried. My wife
does not understand why; she hasn't gone through what I have.
RONNIE LEE: The curtain went down, the lights came on. Everyone had
left the theater, and I was still sitting there weeping. My wife was
holding me in her arms. I was remembering the cattle calls. Hundreds
came. They'd teach you one step, everybody would do it, and they'd
eliminate. Then they'd teach you another step, perhaps two steps, and
eliminate again. They would eliminate for size, for looks, for color,
you name it. What we did for love; A Chorus Line really caught
CAROL CHANNING: It wasn't until a year or two ago that I learned Ethel
Merman was offered the original role of Dolly and turned it down. All
I knew was that Mr. Merrick told me he was going to have a musical
version of The Matchmaker written for me. Thornton Wilder told
me he wrote The Matchmaker about a woman he knew who had sandy
hair like mine. "She was a tall, handsome figure of a woman, like
you," he said to me. "You even look like her."
LEE ROY REAMS: Everyone thinks to be in the theater you have to have
such an ego. I think you have to have a lack of ego to be up there.
You're constantly receiving rejection, constantly being judged and
criticized. To succeed, you have to be passionate about your work. And
it's that commitment that makes us so verbal and indulgent in the
ROBERT WHITEHEAD: Strangely enough, when the musical theater was at
its most exciting and most expressive of us as a country, our theater
had a kind of world influence. A lot of plays were being done, and out
of them grew the great musicals. But then the volume of productions
went down, down, down, until there was practically nothing. And when
the serious plays began to disappear, the great American musicals
began to disappear. One fed off the other.
HOWARD KISSEL: The Andrew Lloyd Webber shows and the like fulfill many
people's idea of what an evening in the theater is supposed to be:
spectacle, constantly changing panoramas, theater as movie. The
average person doesn't know that something should happen to him while
he's watching a play. He gets beautiful stage pictures and he thinks
he's gotten his money's worth.
ELAINE STRITCH: As I am in the autumn of my life, I am finally able to
say that it is the work that satisfies. It is in the moment. A movie
star doesn't hear a "Bravo" from the seventh row. I have gone back and
forth from musical theater to straight plays. One year I did Noel
Coward's Sail Away and the next year I did Who's Afraid of
Virginia Woolf? I went straight from Showboat to A
Delicate Balance. It's a kick for me to do everything. Still, I
must admit that preparing for a play is such a difficult adventure
that every time I wonder why in God's name I choose to do this. It's
my version of nine months of a difficult pregnancy: morning sickness
and evening tears, misunderstandings, a long, long trip.
FOSTER HIRSCH: The 1996 revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate
Balance made me hopeful. Here was a revival of a great play
originally produced about thirty years earlier that got wonderful
reviews and a decent run. It's a very demanding play, with lots of
dialog that requires you to listen in a way we're not used to
listening in this era of spectacle shows. Its success means there is
still a desire for that kind of theater. The glitter can come back.
It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way
is the only history of Broadway told by those who lived it and made it
happen.The trials and triumphs, the battles and betrayals, the
dedication and drudgery are all here in a collective memoir that is
filled with the light, the magic, and the stardust of Broadway. Not
only, actors, directors, producers, composers, lyricists, and
playwrights, but also critics, publicists, set designers, and stage
managers take us through more than half a century of Broadway history.
There are accounts of the towering dramatic successes of the post-war
years, the great mid-century book musicals, and the spectacular
megahits of today. There are evocations of the great theatrical
personalities, comedians, and dramatic actors who possess that certain
something that sets them apart from the rest. Together, they tell the
saga of Broadway. It is the stuff that dreams are made of.