Book Reviews

Second Act Trouble
Behind the Scenes at Broadway’s Big Musical Bombs

by Steven Suskin

Book Review by Bob Gutowski

Item: Leo Tolstoy begins his classic novel Anna Karenina with the words "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Item: Schadenfreude is a German term meaning "pleasure taken from someone else’s misfortune."

Item: Writer Larry Gelbart has said, "If Hitler’s still alive, I hope he’s out of town, with a musical."

Second Act TroubleThe musical may indeed be the toughest theatrical form to get right. It is necessarily a team effort, and the possibility that the gathering of so many creative egos in one arena might result in not a My Fair Lady, but a Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a Dude, or a Kelly haunts producers already concerned with the precarious financing of any such attempt.

Not only are not all unhappy families not alike, no behind-the scenes story of a clunker like the ones named above is identical to another. Accounts of these disasters are instructive, frightening, cautionary, and (pace that happy little German term) damned entertaining reading. Therefore, let us rejoice that Steven Suskin’s eagerly anticipated new book comprising some twenty-five pieces by various writers detailing "what went wrong along the way" (to borrow a phrase from a smash you certainly won’t find in this volume) is finally here.

I’ll admit that upon receiving my reviewer’s copy I was momentarily disheartened to discover that Suskin had not written the entire book himself, as I’m a great admirer of his work. Then I waded in and saw that he had chosen wonderful articles and excerpted accounts which we should all be ecstatic to see (or see again; I remember some of them from their first printing in New York magazine) between covers. In the days before the Internet, these from–the-trenches and after-the-fact reports were the closest those of us without gabby friends in the theatre could come to knowing what was really ailing those incoming or about-to-close disasters. As it turns out, Suskin is always vigorously present through his clever introductions, comments, and closing remarks.

He also, as a prelude, provides a delicious list he calls "Cast of Characters (and List of Victims)." A typical entry here might be "Ken Howard, a star who isn’t replaced when everybody else is (Seesaw)," or "Janie Sell, an understudy who doesn’t go on (Irene)." Every item is, of course, later explained in the text. One of my favorites concerns "Marlyn Mason, a leading lady with too much makeup (How Now, Dow Jones)," with legendary director George Abbott matter-of-factly telling her " ... [Y]our makeup today is lurid. You look like a woman who drinks blood." Oh, Mister Abbott!

Suskin has grouped his selections under the headings "When Everything Goes Wrong," "Star Turns," "Material Objection," "Salvage Jobs," "Outside Interference," "Battle Stations," and "The Nadir." Some of the shows which are discussed, prodded, and eviscerated are, as you might expect, The Act, Rex, Nick & Nora, and Subways Are For Sleeping. The professional reporters represented include Cliff Jahr, Chris Chase (remember her as a TV critic in the film All That Jazz, giving Roy Scheider a massive coronary with a catty review?), Harvey Sabinson, and Patricia Bosworth. More personal are the tales told by Richard Adler, the composer/lyricist of Kwamina, whose production ultimately led to the end of his marriage to the show’s female lead, and producer Max Gordon, whose story of Flying Colors (1932) includes an amazingly candid description of his accompanying nervous breakdown.

There’s only one account in the book Suskin lets stand uninterrupted, and that’s William Gibson’s somewhat purple piece on his involvement with the libretto of Golden Boy, which starred Sammy Davis, Jr. I wouldn’t have let a passage like "... I said yes, the only way I could envision any white man daring to take pencil to this would be in collaboration with Sammy on every line; doing so would be to educate oneself on a sizeable segment of American life ... " pass without some sort of comment or question, even given the tenor of the time (the mid-Sixties) in which the show was mounted.

The book is wittily illustrated with reproductions of Playbill covers and credit pages, often with several versions for each show included, mirroring the coming and going of directors and the elimination and recasting of roles. Many of these have been signed by (apparently) still-optimistic cast and crew members. The inclusion of the credit page of Cry For Us All, the flop musical based on the play Hogan’s Goat, gives Suskin the opportunity to supply dryly funny captions like this one: "Note that the actors are billed in six degrees of type, undoubtedly negotiated meticulously. Handwriting analysts can have their own holiday with this page; the monument on the left is the autograph of Joan Diener." And a whopping big John Hancock it is, too! I must confess it also tickled me to see that Hilary Knight’s Playbill cover rendering of Debbie Reynolds in Irene has become, with the passage of time, the spitting image of a footloose and fancy-free Katie Couric.

Given that the subject of this book is failure, the book is, paradoxically, quite inspiring. It’s also hysterically funny, what with its assortment of larger-than-life heroes and villains (I give you David Merrick - read this book and decide in what proportion he was both of these – and, in his favor, recall that he did mercifully close Breakfast At Tiffany’s out of town), hangers-on, onlookers, and bystanders. Finally, let it be known that this work is, happily, in no way a duplication of Not Since Carrie, that estimable volume on the same subject by Ken Mandelbaum. Both will sit together very nicely on your bookshelf, and down the road, updated and/or expanded versions of both books will be essential purchases, too. Second Act Trouble was well worth the wait!

The American SongbookSecond Act Trouble: Behind the Scenes at Broadway’s Big Musical Bombs
By Steven Suskin
Hardcover. 388 pages, including index
Applause Theatre and Cinema Books
Publishing date: February 2006
ISBN: # 1557836310