Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Ethan Mordden published his first book about musicals, Better Foot Forward, in 1976. Seven years later came Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical. Fourteen years after that he embarked on a six-volume decade-by-decade series on the Golden Age of the American musical, covering the 1920s through the 1970s. Before finishing that series he discussed musicals from 1980 through 2004 or so in The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen. He has also written books on Rodgers and Hammerstein, Ziegfeld, Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, and Hollywood film musicals, along with nonfiction on several other subjects and a good deal of fiction. Now he has written Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre. Busy man. That busyness may explain why the considerable strengths of his new book are undercut by sloppiness on several fronts.
You may be wondering what Mordden could find to write about the American musical that he hasn't already covered. He answered this in a recent interview on CUNY TV's "Theatre Talk": "I decided to give it a completely fresh look, push everything I've already written aside, start from the beginning, which is The Beggar's Opera, 1728, and go up to last Thursday, more or less ... The idea was to try to understand what is so wonderful and marvelous about this basic American art form."
Indeed, it's true that none of his previous books went back to the beginnings, and obviously none went up to last Thursday. After declaring The Beggar's Opera to have been the first musical, he examines the work of Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan, and he continues on to genres including minstrel shows, burlesque (the Lydia Thompson type of burlesque), pantomime, musical farce ("a play with a talent show"), comic opera and extravaganza, all within the first few chapters. Among the individual shows he covers are The Black Crook, Evangeline (which he describes as the first American musical, or "at any rate, the first famous one") and Robin Hood. Moving onward he eventually gets to shows as recent as Next to Normal, The Book of Mormon and Bonnie & Clyde.
The scope of the book allows him to do things that he could not do in the decade-by-decade series. For example, in a chapter titled "The Rodgers and Hammerstein Handbook," he covers all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows along with others in the 1940s and 1950s that were influenced by them, examining the developments that occurred over those two decades.
Of course, there are limitations to what can be done in a 322-page bookof which the last 40 pages are suggestions for further reading and a discographycovering musicals from The Beggar's Opera to Bonnie & Clyde. This is a fast-moving and somewhat selective book. I'd guess that at least 200 musicals are covered to some degree. That includes most of the classic and near-classic shows, but many get only a paragraph or two, while some important titles get no more than a mention, and a few don't even get that. Deep River (which Mordden cited as an important show in that "Theatre Talk" interview), The Boys From Syracuse, One Touch of Venus, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors are among the musicals of different types and from different periods about which Mordden says either very little or absolutely nothing.
Mordden probably feels that the important shows to which he gives short shrift (or no shrift) in Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre are covered sufficiently in his other books, and that many of them have also been written about in detail by other authors. His neglect of some important titles gives the impression that he intends this book much more as a general overview and analysis for the knowledgeable reader rather than a thorough history for less knowledgeable or relatively casual fans of the American musical who want to learn more. This impression is bolstered by his seeming assumption that his readers will not only already know the famous shows but will also get rather obscure references. What would someone who didn't know much about musicals make of his mention that "the future Dame Kenneth Nelson" played the lead in Seventeen? (It's the only mention of Nelson in the book.)
Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre displays an abundance of the qualities that have won Mordden many devoted readers. He has clearly read a lot, seen a lot and knows a lot. He has a convincing grasp of the overall history. The broad strokes come through wellwhat kinds of shows were popular in each period, which shows were influential and how, and so on. Best of all, Mordden has the ability to make forgotten musicals written in outdated styles sound so intriguing that you're ready to start sending suggestions for future seasons to the folks who run Encores!.
He also can write very well about the most famous shows. Show Boat, for example, inspires some of his best writing. He has truly smart things to say about the work's themes, characters and innovations, although it is a bit odd that he spends four pages of a nine-page chapter on 1920s operetta discussing a show that he doesn't think is an operetta.
In general, I found the early chapters to be the most valuable. Mordden clearly does not expect many of the shows he discusses in these chapters to be familiar to even his most knowledgeable readers. He covers some showsincluding The Black Crook, The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Toyland and The Red Millat more length than the paragraph or two he gives to most of the others, many of which do not seem to necessarily demand more than that.
The later chapters also have much that is excellent, but what is good in those chapters is usually his analysis of the known rather than details about the obscure, as when he writes, "Sondheim shows are very intensely about choices, just as the R & H shows areanother reason their musical play was a breakaway in its time."
Mordden's writing is that of a knowledgeable enthusiast rather than an academic. He definitely is not an academic. One sign of this is that, as usual with Mordden, there are no endnotes with sources and further information. This time he does provide some general information on his sources in his introduction and also in the section "For Further Reading," in which he discusses the existing literature on the musical. Some of the books he mentions there were surely among his sources, but a formal and thorough listing of sources would help the reader who wants to learn more on a particular subject.
When discussing the books of musical theatre historian David Ewen in this section, Mordden brings up the difficulties inherent in getting the facts right when writing about musical theatre: "Ewen's data were often errant, in misspelled names, incorrect song titles, and miscarried synopses. This may be a problem built into the subject matter, for no other topic has as many sheer details as the musical." Perhaps Mordden wrote this partly as a way of indirectly acknowledging that he was likely to have made some errors. Perhaps not. In any case, the book does contain a fair number of errors, as well as some other problems.
One obvious error is when Mordden describes baritone John Charles Thomas as a tenor. One that is rather funny comes when he calls "After the Ball," from the 1891 smash A Trip to Chinatown, "the musical's first gigantic song hit, the 'Memories' of its day." I think he means "Memory."
Writing about Adonis, another huge early hit, Mordden tells a story about Eugen Sandow making an appearance in the show on the night that Ziegfeld was in the audience. This led to Ziegfeld's management of Sandow's career. Mordden says that this happened in 1884, at which time both Sandow and Ziegfeld were 17 or so. Looking into the story, I found that Sandow's appearance seems to have happened in a revival of the show in 1893.
He also writes that Henry E. Dixey, the show's star, "seldom strayed from his signature role for the next twenty years," but Dixey's New York Times obituary mentions 19 productions other than Adonis in which he appeared during that time.
Another error comes in a story about a dispute between Victor Herbert and Marie Cahill, star of Herbert's It Happened in Nordland. Mordden tells us that Cahill insisted on interpolating into the show a song not composed by Herbert. Conducting one night, Herbert refused to conduct the interpolation, handing over the baton to the concertmaster. "Shaken, Cahill left the stage. A minor player, Pauline Frederick, was promoted to replace Cahill, an odd note in the saga because Pauline was to become famous as a silent film star ... Frederick was then replaced by Blanche Ring." Mordden leaves it unclear whether Cahill completed the performance or if Frederick took over in mid-performance. Trying to find the answer led me to a mix of contemporaneous and later accounts that clarified things. The incident happened on closing night of the first New York run (April 26, 1905). The production was to then go on tour, opening in Boston two days later. The regular conductor had been ill, and Herbert had been subbing for him. Cahill had accepted the concertmaster taking over for the interpolation at the earlier performances conducted by Herbert, but not on closing night. After some offstage cajoling, she returned to the stage, completed the song unaccompanied, and finished the performance. When the tour opened in Boston, Cahill's role was not played by Frederick but by "Billie" Norton, a member of the supporting cast. The better-known Jeannette Lowrie soon took over. When the production returned to New York in late August, Ring assumed the role. Frederick replaced Ring (not vice versa) during that run.
There is some perceptive analysis in the section on Gypsy, along with a misleading statement about the genesis of the show. Mordden makes it sound like Arthur Laurents was the first person to contact Ethel Merman about the show, and that this happened after Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim had been hired. In her second autobiography (which Mordden mentions as his source, a rare instance of his directly citing a source), Merman did make it sound like Laurents was the person who proposed the idea to her, but press reports from the time contradict this. Merman made it known that she wanted to play Rose months before Laurents was involved. Leland Hayward (who would become co-producer of the show) worked on her behalf to make sure she got the role. When it was officially announced that Merman was to star, the New York Times also reported, "The following already have evinced interest in being associated with the projected show: Arthur Laurents (adaptation), Harold J. Rome (music), and Jerome Robbins (staging and choreography)," so it would seem that Styne and Sondheim had not yet been hired.
An instance where a source would have been welcome is when Mordden writes of a rule that Oscar Hammerstein "gave voice to on a number of occasions: The second act should last half as long as the first with twice as much action." As I don't recall ever having read about this statement of Hammerstein's, I would have appreciated having at least one of the occasions specified.
There are times when Mordden leaves out important details. For example, when discussing Do Re Mi he explains clearly and concisely why he views it as "something of a serious musical comedy," a statement with which I completely agree. He concludes with "Styne, Comden and Green were known for, essentially, farces, so Do Re Mi was an odd item." Nowhere does he mention the show's book-writer and director, Garson Kanin. If the show was an "odd item" for Styne, Comden and Green, the reason must have been Kanin. Not mentioning him seems a strange omission.
Somewhat conversely, Mordden throws in a detail of uncertain origin and authenticity when he recounts a well-known story about Merman objecting to Jerry Orbach's onstage reactions to her when they appeared together in the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, Mordden says that Orbach's reactions occurred during "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly." Since the character Orbach played is not supposed to be onstage during the song, this seemed unlikely. Checking on this, I found that Orbach did not mention the song in a video interview in which he told the story, nor is it mentioned in Brian Kellow's account in his biography of Merman, summarized from what Orbach told him in an interview. Mordden also says that Merman personally confronted Orbach, but Orbach said that she spoke to the stage manager, who then spoke to him. That is an important point: Merman followed the correct theatrical protocol.
In the section on Gypsy, Mordden writes that "Rose's Turn" is performed "with Rose all alone on a stage emptied of everything but, the script says, 'a few stacked flats of scenery used earlier in the big production numbers'as if, in Concept Musical style, the real life of the 'fable' has given way to out-of-story commentary. The piled up scenery of the previous scenes is like a record of Rose's life." That's an interesting scenic idea, but it's not in the script. Mordden has misread "number" as "numbers." Read correctly, the description refers only to the Minsky's production number that the audience saw 10 minutes or so earlier, not to all of the show's production numbers. (By the way, the scenic description is not in later published editions of the script; it seems to have been only in the original Random House and Fireside Theatre editions.)
There are other misleading, confusing or inaccurate statements. More clarity and specificity in the discussion of the beginnings of amplification in Broadway musicals would be particularly welcome, as Mordden's single page on this raises several unanswered questions, not the least of which are his sources. At several points, Mordden seems to contradict statements elsewhere in the book or in his past books.
Most of these problems, looked at in isolation, are minor, but as you progress through the book and they keep appearing, you may start to wonder how much of what you're reading can be trusted.
The discography is valuable mostly for Mordden's informative discussion of recordings from the early years. The "For Further Reading" section is quite good, although I was a bit surprised by the absence of Joseph P. Swain's The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey and Stephen Banfield's Sondheim's Broadway Musicals, which seem to me seminal books in the literature on the American musical.
I should reiterate that much here is excellent. You have to admire an author who can capture in two sentences the central change to have occurred in musical comedy over the decades: "The musical comedy format had been altered completely since the Princess shows of the 1910s, the Guy Bolton or Herbert Fields farces of the 1920s, and the Ethel Merman-Cole Porter model of the 1930s. From the 1940s onand especially by the 1960seach musical comedy was its own musical comedy."
Yet by the end this is a somewhat frustrating book. Mordden does well with the big picture, but is very inconsistent when it comes to the small stuff. I read the book with interest and sometimes with excitement but a bit too often with some dismay.
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