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Sing for Your Supper
Book Review by Alan Gomberg

Also see Alan's review of Raymond Knapp's
The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity

Ethan Mordden has written on a number of subjects, but the Broadway musical seems to be the one that is closest to his heart. Mordden's books on musicals have a lot of fans, who have surely been waiting eagerly for Sing for Your Supper (Palgrave Macmillan; $26.95), the final volume of his series covering individual decades of the Golden Age of the Broadway musical (which Mordden defines as the 1920s through the 1970s).

When Mordden is at his best, as he is most of the time in this swift, entertaining, readable chronicle of the musicals of the 1930s, he is both a charming and an informative writer. Although Sing for Your Supper is not always ideally organized and some of Mordden's usual idiosyncrasies are present, it's a distinctly pleasurable read, in part because the most problematic of those idiosyncrasies are under control here.

According to Mordden, the reason Sing for Your Supper is the last book of the series to appear is because "the 1930s is the most difficult decade in the set: the one that left the fewest remains behind for the archeologist, whether as filmed souvenirs of its performing style or the simple survival of scripts and scores."

Perhaps another reason why this is the last of the books is because Mordden may feel little enthusiasm for the 1930s, which he describes as "the least enterprising decade in the musical's Golden Age." Indeed, Mordden even managed to produce The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen, covering the musicals of the last 25 years, before finally giving us Sing for Your Supper.

As Mordden sees it, the 1930s is the most cautious of the decades, with greater innovations coming in the scenic department than in the writing. Because of the Depression, "those producers who could weasel up a budget had to concentrate on the most commercial projects, the sure things. That meant avoiding 'difficult' subjects in favor of standard-make fun."

While serious subject matter was encountered only rarely, progress was being made in areas other than the scenery. Mordden identifies several shows as "missing links" in the development of the musical between Show Boat and Oklahoma! In fact, one paradox of the book is that Mordden makes the decade's shows, or at least a good number of them, sound interesting enough that you end up uncertain whether his assessment of the decade is too harsh. Indeed, after reading Mordden on As Thousands Cheer, The Cat and the Fiddle, On Your Toes, The Band Wagon, Jubilee, Music in the Air, Pins and Needles, Knickerbocker Holiday, The New Yorkers, Face the Music, May Wine, and a number of other shows, you may end up feeling that Encores! should devote its next few seasons exclusively to musicals from the 1930s (as long as they finally do Love Life and The Golden Applefirst). It's hard not to wish that we were currently in the midst of such an unenterprising decade.

In his fine chapter on Girl Crazy, Leave It to Me, The Cat and the Fiddle, and Knickerbocker Holiday, Mordden demonstrates "how quickly the people of the 1930s learned to revise the twenties handbook," contrasting the two musical comedies in the bunch: 1930's Girl Crazy was full of "narrative chaos," but by 1938, Leave It to Me!, though a light musical comedy tailored to its stars, "almost makes sense."

This was probably because some shows were not almost making sense but were going all the way, such as 1931's The Cat and the Fiddle, perhaps "the most integrated musical of all time . . . so integrated it has never been outshone, not even by Grand Hotel or Passion." And in 1938, Knickerbocker Holiday was "a very rich evening" written by authors who "can get a song out of anything," from "Hush, Hush," sung by the city council of New Amsterdam, on "the paying out of hush money ... combining the music of a charm song and the verbal content of a Juvenalian satirist," to "Ballad of the Robbers," which "tells how, shortly after Eden, there were so many crooks and so few honest men that the former rose and jailed the latter: and called it law," to "September Song" ("where else in this decade do we hear an older man trying to make love to a soubrette, and with genuine purpose?"), famously sung by Walter Huston as Pieter Stuyvesant. Yet even as Stuyvesant could sing the show's hit ballad, the character was the first headliner role in the history of the American musical to be "thoroughly bad. He's not an anti-hero, one of those loveable scalawags. He's not even a regretful scalawag. He's Hitler." Knickerbocker Holiday billed itself as a musical comedy, but clearly it was not your typical musical comedy of any decade.

Those are all well-known titles, even if they are almost never performed nowadays. Among the fascinating-sounding shows that are virtually unknown, even by reputation, there's the "nearly transgressive" May Wine, a Romberg-Hammerstein show (with a book by the forgotten Frank Mandel). The title might lead you to expect a generic operetta, but the plot sounds, as Mordden suggests, like that of a Nabokov novel, as it "follows the marriage of a milquetoast psychiatrist and a hot Liebchen taking him for his money." The Liebchen loves a "caddish baron," and the psychiatrist is so in her grip that he allows the baron to come along on their honeymoon. May Wine managed a decent run of six months, not bad at all for the 1930s. (May Wine is one of the few shows on which I wish Mordden had gone into more detail. Most of the time he gets the right balance between telling us too little and telling us too much. But at least now that I know a bit about the show, I can try to find out some more.)

Of course, the 1930s was the decade of the greatest revues, and Mordden spends a good deal of time on both the great and the not-so-great ones. Interesting details abound, as when Mordden tells us of the song "Moanin' Low" in the The Little Show (produced in 1929, but covered in this book as the progenitor of the new style of intimate, sophisticated revue that during the 1930s would triumph over the older style): the song was presented as "a dance of death between [Libby] Holman and [Clifton] Webb ... After singing the number, Holman awoke the sleeping Webb, the two performed an erotic apache, and, at the close, he strangled her." This was a side of Clifton Webb that would be kept mostly offscreen in the movies.

Most of the book is a terrific read. So what are the idiosyncrasies? Apart from some odd punctuation, there are places where Mordden seems to assume that we will have read Make Believe, his book on the musicals of the 1920s (which is out-of-print), just before we've read Sing for Your Supper, referring to information in the earlier book as if it's something that should be fresh in our minds. Sometimes he seems to expect that we'll know extremely obscure performers who, as far as I can tell, he hasn't mentioned earlier in this book or anywhere in Make Believe. (It's a little hard to be completely sure that Mordden hasn't mentioned some of these people as one annoying aspect of the entire series, even as it has moved among several publishers, has been the insufficiently comprehensive indexes.) Most of the time, as in the other books in the series, Mordden seems to be writing to an audience of readers who are generally knowledgeable about musicals, which is fine. Occasionally, though, he seems to be writing to people who've been spending their last few months researching the more obscure musicals of the 1920s and 1930s, and at those times he can be a little puzzling.

Then there are oddities such as his continuing fondness for the word impedient, which has appeared in other Mordden books. (Much as I like learning new words, this one is so obscure that it wasn't in my unabridged Webster's New Twentieth Century from the mid-1970s, nor was it in the dictionaries of the first three people I called in my search for the definition. Finally, a fourth person had a dictionary that contained the word.) And perhaps I'm just too drearily conventional to appreciate it when he writes that a play titled Up Pops the Devil "must have seemed extremely potential" as source material for a musical or when he tells us that the first draft of Anything Goes "sounds potential," but it just sounds silly, not potential, to me.

Mordden goes a little far in proclaiming that his account of the writing of the Anything Goes book is "the truth," as if the real story has never been told before, when his account is not all that different from those in several other sources - that is, the main reason the book was replaced was because it was terrible, not because (as many sources have it) the plot involved a shipwreck (which it didn't).

But the above problems, though slightly annoying in passing, are almost endearing, or at least they were to this longtime Mordden reader. This is the Ethan we know and (at least sometimes) love. Fortunately, there is virtually none of the strange vulgarity in which Mordden has indulged in some of his other books. Also, rather surprisingly, he keeps his personal politics under wraps, even when dealing with the decade's more political shows (of which, as he points out early on, there were fewer than you might expect). Although Mordden continues to have a blind spot regarding Marc Blitzstein's talents as a melodist, at least he doesn't describe him here (as he does in the generally excellent Beautiful Mornin') as "a braying stooge of the Communazi Red Front." Mordden does underrate Blitzstein's music for The Cradle Will Rock, but otherwise he is surprisingly fair to the show.

The 1930s being a decade whose musicals I don't know intimately, I want to trust in the accuracy of what Mordden writes. (With the later decades, I'm more capable of judging it than I am with this one.) It's true that when he gives us a précis of the plot of Of Thee I Sing that is only partially accurate or when he tells us that the Encores! DuBarry Was a Lady starred Robert Morse and Christine Ebersole (it was Morse and Faith Prince), it's hard to be fully confident that Mordden is always correct in the details that he supplies. But I found only a few such errors, and I think (or at least hope) that Mordden has almost everything else right.

Occasionally, there are things that Mordden just doesn't "get." For example, I think that he misses just how subversive Let 'Em Eat Cake must have seemed. Perhaps stranger is that he misses the point of the song for which he has titled the book, describing "Sing for Your Supper" from The Boys From Syracuse as an "irrelevant lark" that has no particular reason for being in the show, when the song's view of sexual politics seems very relevant indeed to the show and to the characters who sing it. (There was also a leftist revue titled Sing for Your Supper, but I'm guessing that Mordden took his title from the song.)

Speaking of the title, I want to pay tribute to Mordden's brilliance in choosing titles for this series. Each title seems so perfect as to have been almost inevitable, even obvious, yet surely they weren't obvious.

In conclusion, one nice thing about this series is that it has been a fun way to learn about musicals of the past. Even with his idiosyncrasies, Mordden is almost always an entertaining writer. (In fact, it is probably partly because of them that he is an entertaining writer. Whatever else you might say about these books, you can't say that the writing doesn't have personality.) The problems in Sing for Your Supper seem minor and the pleasures are many. Mordden has ended the series on a high note.

Sing for Your Supper
Ethan Mordden
Hardcover. 288 pages
Palgrave Macmillan
Publishing date: March 2004
ISBN: # 0312239513

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