Book Reviews

Show Tunes: The Songs, Shows, and Careers of Broadway's Major Composers (Fourth Edition)
Steven Suskin

Review by Bob Gutowski

Show TunesYes, dear, this is what I brought to read at the beach!

I know it's huge, but I can't put it down—oh, ha, ha, yourself! It's so big because it's full of lists of theatre composers' shows and songs, organized in sections. It begins with "Composers of the Early Years"—that includes Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers, of course. Then there's "New Composers of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s"—Bernstein, Loewe, Styne, Loesser, and Sondheim, and Herman, and Strouse, and Coleman, among others. Then comes "New Composers of the 1970s and Beyond." That takes us from Steven Schwartz to Stephen Flaherty, and, um, beyond.

Did you just ask me "Isn't that boring?" Steven Suskin, boring? This is the man who writes those terrific theatre books I'm always reading to you from! No, he's not the angry one—that's Ethan Mordden. All right, true, there's nothing very entertaining about lists of songs, but Suskin starts off each composer's entry with a short but punchy work-bio. And he knows what he's talking about—this is the fourth edition of the book. Think of that. The first edition was published in 1985, before there was even an Internet. You know, we should be grateful for people who take the time to do research and put the results in something that's convenient, and easy to lay your hands on, something you don't have to plug in or boot up. I am not crying; a sand fly just went up my nose.

Anyway, in these bios, Suskin lays out the composers' careers, but he's never dry or dull. He manages to slip in a comment or observation from time to time, and he's a minimalist when it comes to humor. If you spray sun block on my back I'll find you an example. Here, this is from the section on Richard Rodgers, about Babes in Arms:

Rodgers and Hart also provided the libretto, the one about the group of kids getting together to put on a show. Somebody's father has a barn.

"A barn." Don't you love how that just sums up the whole genre? This is what he says about Jerry Herman and Mack and Mabel:

 ... [the show] has been reworked again and again over the years, in three countries (at least), but it remains stubbornly unworkable. "Time Heals Everything," it seems, except ill-conceived musicals.

Notice how he uses one of the show's song titles itself to—what's that look on your face? No, he's not particularly down on Jerry Herman at all—here's the end of the bio, after Suskin notes that Herman's had three monster hits:

This record compares more than favorably with many of his peers, yet his work is often attacked for its common touch ... even so, he has turned out perhaps twenty top-grade show tunes, most of which feature especially strong melodic drives. An early Herman lyric goes "There is no tune as exciting as a show tune," a sentiment the composer has proven again and again.

Finally, we get to "Notable Scores by Other Composers." Suskin tells us:

Some were enormous hits and are included for that reason only; others were written by popular or interesting composers who never found Broadway success; and a handful are included simply due to the high quality of the work.

In this short section, Suskin really lets loose with some of his opinions, both witty and pointed, and doesn't stint on the word-play. This is some of what he has to say about Victor/Victoria:

Julie Andrews was game enough to give Victor/Victoria her all, despite the back-breaking work, and some demeaningly bad material. (Her husband - who conceived it, wrote it, misdirected it, and produced it—had his ego on the line, after all. Whereas a star like Glenn Close is more likely to take her check, serve her time, and get out as soon as possible, even as her vehicle's chances trail off into the sunset.) ... You could blame the show's troubles on the lack of Broadway experience among the creators, except that the worst work came from the one veteran on hand, Leslie Bricusse. Victor/Victoria nevertheless did sellout business. For a while, that is, after which even Julie Andrews couldn't fill the house. She finally withdrew, was replaced by Raquel Welch, and seven weeks later the whole thing sunk in a vat of red ink.

Now you're interested? Okay—you can certainly read it when I'm finished, but you can't look at it now. Why not? Because you have Coppertone and potato chip crumbs all over your hands, that's why not, and I want to keep this book in good shape, at least until Suskin puts out the fifth edition of Show Tunes.

Show TunesShow Tunes: The Songs, Shows, and Careers of Broadway's Major Composers (Fourth Edition)
Steven Suskin, with a foreword by Michael Feinstein
Oxford University Press, 2010
624 pp
Hardcover MSRP $60.00
ISBN: 978-0195314076

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