Through the Screen Door: What Happened to the Broadway Musical When It Went to Hollywood
Reviews by By Alan Gomberg
Also see Jonathan's review of A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork
Two recently published books provoke the question: Why are so many books about musicals filled with factual errors?
Let's look first at Stephen Citron's Jerry Herman: Poet of the Showtune (Yale University Press; $30). Citron recounts the creation of Herman's shows and analyzes his songs, while also covering Herman's personal life in some detail. Herman has lived an exciting life, and a number of vivid personalities appear in the pages of this book, with the result that it's rarely dull. Maddening, but not dull.
Why is it maddening? For one thing, Citron sometimes falls into overstatement when attempting to convince us of the quality of Herman's work (and if we're reading this book, we probably don't need to be convinced). How many of us will believe that that Herman's scores are "far more showbiz, more emotional, certainly more immediate than [Irving] Berlin's"? Or that the "charm song" is "a genre in which Jerry Herman has no peer"? If anything, such claims are more likely to lead the reader to mistrust the author's judgment than to agree with his assessment. And there are places where Citron writes in a bland press release style.
What's most irritating, though, are the many factual errors, which appear with such frequency as to call into question Citron's basic knowledge of theater and musicals. Here are some examples:
Citron writes that in 1949, when Herman matriculated at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, "the school put its ten thousand students through a rigorous schedule of classes in all forms of theater arts, leading to a bachelor of arts degree." Were all ten thousand students theater majors? That's what Citron seems to be saying. I wonder if all the universities in America combined had ten thousand theater majors in 1949.
Citron states that the original Off-Broadway production of Little Mary Sunshine ran for almost eight years. The truth is that it ran for a bit less than three years.
According to Citron, Molly Picon, who starred in Herman's Milk and Honey, "had appeared successfully on Broadway opposite Sir Cedric Hardwicke in A Majority of One." Picon starred in the London production of the play, opposite Robert Morley, and she also played it in stock in the United States, but it was Gertrude Berg who starred in the play on Broadway and on the national tour (opposite Hardwicke in both).
Herman was afraid, Citron tells us, that David Merrick would replace him on Hello, Dolly! "even though he [Herman], like the rest of the creative team, had a standard Equity contract and, according to union rules, couldn't be fired." Herman would probably have been on a Dramatists Guild contract; in any case, he would not have been on an Equity contract.
Discussing the ten Tony Awards that Hello, Dolly! won, Citron writes, "Actually, by today's judging standards, under which separate awards are given to music and to lyrics, Jerry Herman would have won two awards and Hello, Dolly! would have won eleven." In the history of the Tonys, there's been only one year - 1971 - in which there were separate awards for music and lyrics.
On the subject of Mame, Citron writes that Mary Martin was sought for the title role at the age of "forty-two, six years after she was hardly believable as the young postulate [sic] in The Sound of Music." Numerous sources give Martin's date of birth as December 1, 1913, which would have made her two weeks shy of forty-six when The Sound of Music opened in November 1959, with Martin playing the postulant Maria Rainer.
Telling us about the theater in which Mame opened on Broadway, Citron writes that the Winter Garden "is the only legitimate theater except for the Palace directly on 'The Great White Way.' " He's forgetting about the Broadway (where Mame ended its original run) and the Marquis. (The Marquis didn't exist when Mame opened, but Citron's statement is in the present tense.)
Citron describes Celeste Holm, who replaced Angela Lansbury in Mame when she was on vacation, as Lansbury's understudy. (I imagine that Holm would be surprised to hear she was ever Lansbury's understudy.)
Discussing Broadway in 1975, Citron says that "Topical revue was still popular, with shows like Rodgers and Hart and A Musical Jubilee scheduled for production." Rodgers and Hart, as you might expect, consisted of songs written by Rodgers and Hart. A Musical Jubilee was a show in which the most contemporary song was written in 1938. Does Citron know what a topical revue is?
Citron writes that Lee Roy Reams played Cornelius "in the most recent Dolly revival." Reams did play the role in the 1978 Broadway revival. In the most recent Broadway revival (1995), which Reams directed, Michael DeVries played Cornelius.
The above list is just a small sampling of the many factual errors in the book. Admittedly, some are minor, but along with the other problems that mar the book, they create the impression that Citron hasn't done his work very carefully. You want to be able to trust what you read in a biography, but that's impossible when fact-checking clearly hasn't been done much of the time.
What else is wrong? There are a number of places where Citron contradicts himself, or at least seems to do so. For example, discussing "Before the Parade Passes By," he tells us that "two respected theater historians" have wrongly credited the song to Strouse and Adams. In a footnote, Citron quotes from Ethan Mordden and Steven Suskin, presumably the historians to whom he is referring. The Mordden quote states that "Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote 'Before the Parade Passes By,' which Herman reworked," but the quote from Suskin states that the Strouse and Adams version "was not used ... instead, Herman wrote his own song with the same title."
Citron writes that Alexander Cohen, the producer of Dear World, "had a reputation for presenting quality, intelligent shows," but in a footnote we read that Cohen was "an extravagant producer who reveled in big productions." Cohen did produce both types of shows, but as Citron presents it some readers might be a bit confused.
Discussing the search for a director for Dear World, which opened on Broadway in February 1969, Citron writes that Angela Lansbury at first refused Herman's invitation to star in the show. According to Citron, this was because Gene Saks was to direct, and Lansbury felt that Saks "had not stood up strongly enough on her behalf during casting of the movie version of Mame." But Citron has already told us that filming Mame was first discussed in 1970, and that George Cukor was the first director hired, with shooting originally scheduled to start in 1972. When filming was delayed and Cukor was no longer available, Saks was hired, long after Lucille Ball had been engaged for the title role and several years after Dear World.
A particularly confusing combination of inconsistency and inaccuracy comes when Citron tells us that Ginger Rogers, Carol Channing's first replacement as Dolly Levi, started her run in Hello, Dolly! on "9 August 1965." Citron goes on to write, "[N]ot only did she [Rogers] not play out the year of her contract, she rarely sold out the theater, and she missed a lot of performances." Then he tell us that Martha Raye replaced Rogers on "16 February 1966." If that were true, it would mean that Rogers played the role for only six months, a good deal less than a year. But on the opposite page, there is a photo of Rogers and Channing, and the caption tells us that "Rogers starred in the role on Broadway for two years."
None of this is correct. It took me only a little research to find out from several sources that while Rogers did assume the role on "9 August 1965," it was on February 27, 1967, that Raye succeeded her. So Rogers played the role for approximately a year-and-a-half.
Then there are various bizarre statements, of which my favorite may be the following, describing "Bosom Buddies" from Mame: "With rhyming zingers like 'You should try to keep your hair natural like mine,' from Mame and ripostes like "If I kept my hair natural like yours, I'd be bald,' it is a no-holds-barred sparring match." Where is the rhyme in "You should try to keep your hair natural like mine"? And it doesn't rhyme with any other line in the song, including the "riposte."
Citron's synopses of Herman's musicals are also vexing. Some details of plot and structure, as well as some of the lines that are quoted, differ from what was in the shows as they were produced on Broadway and the subsequent published scripts. For some of the shows, Citron says or implies that he is describing what was performed in the pre-Broadway tryouts, rather than the Broadway versions. Sometimes it is clear that this is the reason for the differences - for example, when he includes "Penny in My Pocket" (a song that was cut out of town) in the Hello, Dolly! synopsis. A good deal of the time, though, I'm fairly certain that the differences, which are far too numerous to discuss in detail, are the result of Citron too often relying on memory when preparing the synopses.
The book needed at least one more look by the proofreaders and copy editors, as there are too many punctuation glitches and typos, including a number of misspelled names. (For example, Dorothy Loudon's last name consistently appears as Louden.) It's also frustrating that the index is missing a number of names and titles that appear in the text.
There is an extensive discography that includes many foreign-language cast recordings, as well as "private recordings" that are not available to the general public. Unfortunately, the discography is sloppily executed, both in terms of formatting and thoroughness. Among other things, it doesn't include several major recordings, including the Dolly revival with Carol Channing, the London cast of Mack and Mabel, and the Australian cast of La Cage aux Folles, and CD reissues of recordings originally released on LP are generally not noted.
On the positive side, as stated earlier, the book is rarely dull. And I applaud Citron's determination to demonstrate that even though Herman is not a formally trained composer, his harmonic instincts are rather sophisticated. Citron's analyses of Herman's music are worth reading, if sometimes a bit unclear. Surprisingly, I think Citron underrates Herman's work in at least one instance: I can't agree that "Dickie" is the only "real melody," the only one "that sticks in the memory," of the three melodies that make up the climactic, contrapuntal section of the "Tea Party" sequence in Dear World.
If you're a fan of Herman's, you may enjoy this book despite its problems, even if you've already read Herman's charming memoir, Showtune. But Herman deserves a better biography, and I hope that he gets one someday.
Let's move on to Thomas S. Hischak's Through the Screen Door: What Happened to the Broadway Musical When It Went to Hollywood (Scarecrow Press; paper, $39.95), the subject of which is film versions of Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals. Hischak also discusses musicals (such as 42nd Street and Gigi) that made the reverse journey, from Hollywood to Broadway.
Fans of the Broadway musical love to debate the relative merits of the film adaptations of the great (and even the less-than-great) shows, so there is definitely a public for a book on this subject. I'm sorry to say that that this book will probably disappoint many members of its intended audience, and the level of dissatisfaction is likely to rise in direct proportion to the reader's knowledge of the subject.
In the first, longer part of the book, Hischak synopsizes and discusses each show and its film version (or versions, as some have been filmed more than once). For the most part a paragraph on the show is followed by Hischak's opinion of the film(s). Following this is the "Musicals Directory," giving basic information (authors, director, choreographer, principal cast members, a sampling of song titles) for each show and film.
In some respects, Hischak is very thorough, with (according to the book) 176 titles covered in some fashion. As the main part of the book is only 196 pages, Hischak does not go into great detail on most of the films. It might have been better to cover fewer titles but in more detail.
Hischak states up front that the book is "highly personal and admittedly opinionated." As it turns out, most of his opinions are pretty standard; he does not defend Mame or Man of La Mancha (much less A Chorus Line), and he praises most of the films that are generally admired.
There are a few odd omissions. Although there is a chapter devoted to revues and their film versions (even when those films do no more than borrow a revue's title, as with Frank Tashlin's Artists and Models), Hischak doesn't include what is probably the most faithful film adaptation of a Broadway revue, the film version of New Faces of 1952 (released as New Faces). Other important titles that he doesn't cover include Oh! What a Lovely War, which might have fit into the chapter on revues or the one on British musicals, and Irma la Douce, which can be classified as at least partly a British musical. (For the record, Hischak does discuss the film of Fanny, which, like the film of Irma, cut all the show's songs but used some of the melodies for underscoring.)
Perhaps odder is that he includes the videos of Cats and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. This might lead you to expect that he would include the television films of Annie, Gypsy, The Music Man, and Bye Bye Birdie, but he doesn't, perhaps because those shows had earlier film versions that received theatrical releases. Still, it's a bit odd.
Hischak discusses the tendency of many of the films in the 1930s and '40s to retain a show's plot but throw out most - or virtually all - of the score, with some films adding inferior new songs, often not written by the show's composer and lyricist. Strangely, in his discussion of the film of Rosalie, Hischak doesn't mention that the entire original score - an unusual collaboration, with approximately half the songs composed by Romberg and the other half by Gershwin - was thrown out so that Cole Porter could write a completely new one. In connection with this, it's disappointing that the song lists in the "Musicals Directory" are not complete. Had the lists been complete (and had Hischak identified who wrote each new song not by the original songwriters), this book might have been a great reference source.
The book badly needed the services of a good copy editor. Hischak's word choices are sometimes less than felicitous and occasionally just incorrect. For instance, discussing the problems of the stage version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Hischak writes, "Yet there were many wonderful things, ... including Barbara Harris's enervating performance." (Perhaps Hischak thought that enervating is synonymous with energetic.) The film Gigi prompts him to write, "The performances throughout are equally auspicious." And he says that in order to love the film of West Side Story, "one has to suspend belief." These kinds of mistakes happen in many books, but they happen too often here.
Despite the frequent sloppiness of the writing, most of the time what Hischak is trying to say is clear, as when he writes that The Sound of Music was the only Rodgers and Hammerstein show "that Hammerstein did not have a hand in writing." In this case it's clear that what Hischak means is that Hammerstein didn't write the show's book, but less knowledgeable readers might be confused.
Occasionally, though, Hischak's statements are just puzzling. For example, discussing the film version of Fifty Million Frenchmen, Hischak writes, "The various Paris landmarks re-created on stage fairly cried out to be filmed. But Hollywood thought otherwise, the 1931 movie version retaining [William] Gaxton and the plot premise but eliminating all of the score, save a few tunes for background music." Hischak should have clarified what he meant by "But Hollywood thought otherwise," instead of moving on to matters other than the Paris landmarks. Was he saying that the film should have been shot on location but wasn't? Or that the film didn't attempt to recreate the Paris landmarks in the studio? Or that all the scenes set outside in the show were changed to indoors locations?
Then there are many places where Hischak's knowledge seems to fall short. Discussing the film version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Hischak writes that Barbra Streisand "sings every song except for two given to nonsinger Yves Montand." I don't think that a man who sold millions of albums as a singer can be described as a nonsinger.
Discussing Hello, Dolly! Hischak seems to have forgotten that Dolly Levi's maiden name, at least onstage, was Gallagher, writing that "Streisand's Dolly was more Jewish, an undeniable aspect of the woman that most actresses in The Matchmaker and the stage version of Hello, Dolly! usually omit." It seems likely that Thornton Wilder's intention when he created the character was to suggest that Dolly was an Irish Catholic woman who had married a Jewish man.
Hischak writes that the Jack Buchanan character in the film The Band Wagon was patterned on the film's director, Vincente Minnelli, whereas every other source I've seen has stated that the character was based on José Ferrer. And Hischak is unaware that "Louise's ballet" in the film version of Carousel retained most of Agnes de Mille's stage choreography, even though she wasn't credited.
When Hischak writes that Michael Kidd directed the film of Li'l Abner or credits Oscar Hammerstein with co-authoring the screenplay of Flower Drum Song, it would seem that he hasn't bothered to consult his own book's "Musicals Directory." Similarly, he suggests that perhaps Carol Reed should have been hired to direct the film of Half a Sixpence, given that Reed's film of Oliver! had been so successful. If he had looked in the directory, he would have seen that Half a Sixpence was released in 1967, and Oliver! was released in 1968.
In his discussion of Camelot, Hischak writes of the stage production that "songs, characters, and scenes were dropped during previews in order to bring the show in under three hours." Hischak's next paragraph starts, "Since the movie had to be even shorter than the play ... " He seems to be unaware that the movie was released at 179 minutes.
When it comes to Hair, Hischak thinks that Claude (in the stage version) is British. Although Claude often speaks with a British accent and sometimes claims to be from Manchester, in a scene with his parents he complains about having been born in Flushing (New York), and I think we can safely assume that's where he was born. If he were British, would he be drafted for Vietnam?
As with Citron's book, I don't have space to list anything close to all the factual errors or to discuss all of the problems of this book in detail. The above is just a sampling.
Is this book without value? No. Will some people enjoy it to some degree? Yes. And when Hischak discusses some of the more obscure titles, he does supply some interesting information that will be unknown to many readers. Of course, given Hischak's huge lapses when discussing the well-known titles, it's possible that I missed similar lapses in his discussions of the more obscure ones.
At $39.95 for a standard-sized paperback that is 300 pages with no photos, I'm caught between gratitude that a new book on this subject has appeared and disappointment because of its many flaws.
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