The Last Twenty-Five Years of the Broadway Musical
by Ethan Mordden
Review by Jonathan Frank
The best way to describe Ethan Mordden's latest tome to chronicle the genre that is the Broadway musical, The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen: The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical is to liken it to a distillation of any theatrical chat room you may have visited. It is equal parts knowledgeable insight and overreaching generality. At times catty and bitchy, Happiest Corpse contains opinions that are well thought out as well as those that are frustratingly shallow. At times, the writing is so clear and incisive it ranks among the best theatrical criticism ever put to paper. Then, on a dime, it becomes overrun with inconsistencies, hypocrisies and sentences apparently more concerned with being 'clever' than communicating information. Thus, The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen is one of those books that one either can't put down or will want to throw out the nearest window, depending on the page one is reading and the opinions one holds.
Mordden, who has tackled every decade of the American Musical Theater's history from the '20s to the '70s in six previous books, has condensed the last two and a half decades into one 300-page tome. Mordden obviously has a great love of the genre, which is communicated through every one of the book's pages. In addition to an encyclopedic knowledge of the art form, he also seems to possess a near photographic memory, which he uses to describe most of the shows in a level of visual and auditory detail that brings them to vivid life regardless of whether or not the reader was fortunate to have seen the specific production. When writing from this analytical side, the resulting observations place him with the best theatrical critics around today. A chapter entitled "Big Deals" is about as insightful as one could wish for and should be required reading for all musical theater fans and students. In it, Mordden focuses on director/choreographer-driven shows such as Tommy Tune's Nine and My One And Only, Michael Bennett's Dreamgirls, Bob Fosse's Big Deal, Hal Prince's Roza and Grind and Des McAnnuff's Tommy, plus the retooled/refocused revivals of Carousel and My Fair Lady (oddly enough, Mordden completely ignores the Sam Mendes helmed Cabaret revival in his book, a remarkable oversight, especially given the title of his book). Likewise, in entries on less-than-successful shows, such as Collette, Rags and the grandmother of all flops, Carrie, he brilliantly dissects each show's weaknesses and surprising strengths, oftentimes making the reader view a show in a new light, even if one disagrees with Mordden's overall opinion of the work.
If only his analytical side were all that was on display in this book. Unfortunately, Mordden is all too fond of making huge, sweeping generalizations that are usually rendered null and void by observations made by his more rational side. For instance, the central thesis of the book is that "...the closing night of the hit musical 42nd Street sounded the death knell of the Broadway musical," a statement that is hard to take too seriously as Mordden seems to find at least one show to respect - if not out-and-out like - from just about every season of the last twenty-five years. Indeed, the majority of the book is spent extolling the virtues and strengths of shows he liked versus bemoaning the "cats, helicopters, and the roof of the Paris Opera" that he feels have overpopulated the Great White Way in recent years. (Indeed, Mordden even devotes an entire chapter to five shows he thinks are special: Grand Hotel, Titanic, La Chiusa's The Wild Party, Sweet Smell of Success, and Amour). Likewise, his dismissal of shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Bat Boy due to the fact that "...the farther we get from shows with a valid role for Barbara Cook, the farther we get from what is enjoyable" is made ludicrous and hypocritical given that the previous chapter, which explored "New Talent," contains only two shows, The Secret Gardenand Big River, that would have contained a role for Cook. (It is hard to imagine her, for instance, in Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again and Marie Christine or William Finn's Falsettos, all of which he extols in that chapter).
As frustrating and eye-rolling as some of his statements may be, a few go beyond irrational to infuriating or even offensive. Comments such as "...those who truly love the musical - basically gay men and Frank Rich..." and "The Full Monty tells of married couples and teaches homo tolerance" smack of homophobia to this reader, and the fact that the author is not only gay but a writer of gay fiction and essays does little to assuage the sting. Entitling a chapter "Why Can't Susan Smith and Timothy McVeigh Have a Musical? Hitler Has One" makes for a cute sound bite, but to have an innocuous show like The Tap Dance Kid not only included, but follow The Capeman and Assassins is rather disturbing, as Mordden does not establish the chapter's true focus (shows about marginalized members of society) until after discussing the show. And the inclusion of Movin' Out and The Full Monty in that chapter with the justification that the white working-class male is a minority due to actions by "... special interest groups, lone-ranger spoilers and the ACLU [that] make war on everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to Christmas..." is a slap in the face to any member of a truly marginalized group. Most disturbing of all, however, is a frothing rant against Ragtime that ends the chapter. While it is perplexing that Mordden can consider Ragtime an exultation of terrorism due to Coalhouse's targeting of firehouses but can equate the "losers" in Assassins with "Islamists killing the symbol of the success they can not have," his statement that Ragtime "reveals how slavishly Broadway buys snake oil from the wreckers and stooges of the hard left" belongs more in a treatise by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly than in a critical essay on an art form.
While Mordden has a tendency to apply too much gilt to the 'Golden Age' of Broadway and view too much tarnish on what can best be called its 'Silicone Age,' there is no denying his passion for the subject. Whether one agrees with him or not, his book offers the opportunity to learn a great deal about the last twenty-five years of a genre that, while evolving and rethinking itself, is certainly not ready to go quietly into that good night.
Ethan Mordden's next book, Sing for Your Supper: The Broadway Musical in the 1930s, covers "Broadway's forgotten decade."
The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen
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