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A Fine Romance:
The Magic. The Mayhem. The Musicals.
Book Review by Bob Gutowski
A Fine Romance (Watson Guptill, list price $45.00) is the first book from Darcie Denkert (who should not be mistaken for one of the "merry murderesses" of Chicago). We are told that "from the time she was a little girl ...(she) was enamored with (sic) the musicals of Broadway and Hollywood ... and the magic of the movies refused to release their grip on her imagination."
As is so often the case, those who can do, and those who can't become prominent entertainment attorneys. And now, following her bliss, in this very lavish coffee-table book Denkert endeavors to trace the origins of twelve notable film or stage musicals. She has chosen Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve/Applause, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Gypsy, The Sound of Music, Cabaret, Hello, Dolly, Auntie Mame/Mame, The Producers, and Hairspray.
What is truly noteworthy about this volume is its sheer beauty. This is a treasure trove of photographs: publicity stills, glamour and personality shots, behind-the-scenes peeks and on-the-set snaps, in color and glorious black and white. Denkert's choice and juxtaposition of these gems is at once sensible and revelatory. For example, facing a full-face close-up shot of The Merm at her most vivacious (she's so, well, there that I gasped) is a still of Rosalind Russell as Madam (and yes, Denkert calls her "Mama") Rose being directed in that climactic clinch with Natalie Wood in the film of Gypsy. If we already know the story (which is in the book, of course) of how Broadway's Queen Ethel lost the role of her career to non-singer but peerless farceuse Roz, the impact of these two images side by side is like a slap in the face.
Alas, the text is plagued by sloppy scholarship. In the same chapter Denkert mislabels a shot of Merman, Klugman, and cow head from Act Two of the show as a moment from the Act One finale, "Everything's Coming Up Roses." She also describes a shot of a smartly dressed and bejeweled Merman, off-duty in front of a photographer's studio light, as "'Rose's Turn' on stage, 1959." Yes, of course it is - and, to quote Dorothy Parker, "I am Marie of Rumania." For someone who professes to love these shows as much as she does, these gaffes severely reduce Denkert's credibility.
Denkert's chapter on My Fair Lady is full of errors. We revisit the notorious goings-on concerning the vocals of Audrey Hepburn. Denkert tells us that "Making Hepburn's task harder was the fact that Rex Harrison refused to record his songs prior to shooting, the standard practice when filming a musical ... due to Harrison's insistence, Hepburn was obliged to perform some of her most difficult number 'live' ..." Now, since the only two numbers Eliza shares with Higgins are "The Rain in Spain" and, stretching it a bit, "Without You," at first glance the author is simply guilty of overstatement; with no Harrison around, Hepburn certainly wouldn't be required to perform the rigorous "I Could Have Danced All Night" or "Show Me" live on set, would she? Moreover, according to many published accounts (including that of designer Cecil Beaton) and various documentaries, Audrey Hepburn actually filmed all of her numbers to her own pre-recorded tracks, some of which can be heard on recent video releases of the film as extras. At some point these vocals were judged not up-to-snuff, and professional ghost Marni Nixon was called in to post-dub. Why is Miss Denkert's account so at odds with all the others?
However, this is just a warm-up for a real howler. According to Denkert, "in the calm after the storm" of the Academy Award presentations (My Fair Lady nabbed eight, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor), composer Fritz Loewe retired to the south of France. She blithely adds "It proved a brief retirement, ending when Lerner and Arthur Freed presented him with Colette's Gigi, which won the Oscar for 1958's Best Picture." How's that again? My Fair Lady's triumph was in 1964. Gigi won her Oscar six years before that. Apparently, Fritz Loewe was not only a master of melody but something of a time-traveler as well.
Denkert includes both pithy and lengthy quotations from the creators and performers of these works, and the book is never less than interesting. Denkert herself is no great stylist, but her prose is efficient and often amusing. What's so disappointing is that this is yet another case of an enticing package yielding untrustworthy contents. Perhaps this book should have been either a lively, well-researched comparison of these properties, or simply an intelligently captioned celebration of them in photographs. By all means, enjoy and even cherish the images, but trust the text at your own peril.
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