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The Art of the American Musical:
Conversations with the Creators

Jackson R. Bryer and Richard Allan Davison, Editors
Book Review by George Reddick

Some years ago, I had a show at the Kennedy Center ... I was sitting around talking with the cast; I was telling anecdotes, and suddenly a little light went off, saying, "God, don't start doing anecdotes. You've been around thirty years. You're going to get into that thing where you don't direct any more and all you do is tell anecdotes ..." So in the middle of talking about the good old days, I suddenly stopped myself and chastised myself in front of the company — whereupon the youngest member of the company, a young girl, raised her hand and ... said, "We know what you're saying. Don't stop. But we also ... know that it indeed was better in those days." I suspect that that's the first time that was ever true, and that's very sad. I think it was better. I think it will always have been better, and the question I ask myself is "Could anyone today have the career I've been lucky enough to have in the theatre since 1954?" Sadly, I think the answer is no. Now you can have a wonderful life in the theatre, but you can't have the kind of life I've had, which is the kind of life Sondheim has had. Unfortunately, I think that kind of life is over."

- Hal Prince, The Art of the American Musical

In the Introduction to The Art of the American Musical: Conversations with the Creators, a compendium of interviews with musical theatre composers, lyricists, directors, and choreographers, Editors Jackson R. Bryer and Richard A. Davison state that the impetus for the book was a desire to dissect the collaborative and creative process of writing musicals in order to discover "how and why a musical ever gets produced and what aspects of the collaboration determine whether or not it will be successful." However, what emerges from the eighteen transcribed interviews is not a set of instructions on the creation of musicals; it is a series of portraits. Hal Prince's worry that telling anecdotes about the good old days will replace forward thinking artistry in musicals is, in fact, somewhat justified by the interviews throughout the book. Many of the interviewees represent eras of Broadway's history that are concurrent with or prior to Prince's, but it is impossible not to notice that the younger creators, particularly the composers and lyricists, have had less opportunity and experience than their predecessors.

Jason Robert Brown, one of the youngest subjects, and one of the most notable of the current younger generation of Broadway composers, has only had one major Broadway production. Brown appears very disillusioned by his experience with Parade, which was directed by fellow interviewee Prince. The show failed, according to Brown, because he and his collaborators wrote it "in an ivory-tower place." He elaborates, "It was my first show, but I think that Alfred Uhry, who wrote the book, and Hal Prince, the director, both thought that they had finally evolved as artists to the point where the audience was willing to go with them wherever they wanted to go. I wish that had been the case, but in point of fact the audience was clearly not ready to go with them, with us. I watched people file out of that theatre every night through the entire first act of the show."

Not all of the younger interviewees paint as bleak a picture; creators such as Susan Stroman and George C. Wolfe represent divergent paths but fruitful careers. Still, the book's main thrust is not a story of hope for the future of Broadway. It is, instead, a love letter to Broadway's past, filled with just the sort of anecdotes Prince warned himself against telling. Prince may actually provide the most riveting interview, though many new and fascinating stories from Broadway's Golden Age are related by such royalty as Burton Lane, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Sheldon Harnick, Arthur Laurents, Charles Strouse, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and the ubiquitous Stephen Sondheim. Tommy Tune and John Weidman represent a slightly younger generation while the youngest creators not already mentioned include Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and Kathleen Marshall.

While several of the interviews included were conducted by the editors in 2004, seven are taken from a 1992 Smithsonian-sponsored series, "Presenting ... The American Musical Theatre!" and were conducted by a variety of questioners. (A guide is included at the beginning of the book detailing the setting and participants of each interview). Some of these thirteen-year-old interviews have been updated in the last year; the most amusing may be Arthur Laurents' 2004 interjection into his original interview. In 1992, he described the upcoming television production of Gypsy starring Bette Midler as "a dream come true." In 2004, he stated, "I was completely wrong ... [it] was a dud." (Laurents was, however, impressed with Bernadette Peters' Rose in the 2003 Broadway revival.)

Some other highlights from the interviews:

John Kander: "Let's just say the revival of Zorba was not an improvement."

Burton Lane recalls bringing a young Frances Gumm to Metro, where he played her audition for the head of the music department. "He called L.B Mayer ... When he heard her, he said, ‘I want every director and every producer on the lot to hear this kid.' Well, Judy Garland — and she was some find."

Arthur Laurents remembers Barbra Streisand's audition for I Can Get It For You Wholesale: "I'd never heard a voice like that. She asked for a chair, and she took her chewing gum and put it under the chair. After she auditioned, I said to my assistant, ‘Go up and look at the chair. I'll bet there's no chewing gum.' There wasn't. She knew not only what she's doing, she knew then she was going to be Barbra Streisand. No two ways about it."

Sondheim says there are new composers "all over the place. The trouble is they're not getting enough chance to be heard, so they're not learning." But Tommy Tune thinks "There's nobody writing." Of Hairspray, he says "When it won everything, I said, ‘We're doomed.'" But looking to the past isn't the answer either, according to Tune. "I like originality. That's why I don't do revivals on Broadway. ... This recent production of Gypsy is perfectly good and Bernadette Peters is profound in the lead, but I really don't need to see that show again. I want to see something new ... "

Though several of the interviews do include thoughts on the current state of the American Musical and what may have changed over the years, little is said on the subject that is likely to shock anyone. However, the value of a book like The Art of the American Musical is really in its documentation of history by the living legends who were there. Not unlike Rick McKay's recent film, Broadway: The Golden Age, The Art of the American Musical calls up pictures of Broadway's past through the words of the few people remaining who remember it from an insider's perspective and, unlike that film, the lion's share of which concentrated on Broadway performers of the past, here we are privy to the thoughts of the writers, directors, composers, lyricists, and choreographers who made Broadway's Golden Age and beyond. It is a welcome addition to the library of musical theatre history.

The Art of the American Musical: Conversations with the Creators
Jackson R. Bryer and Richard Allan Davison, Editors
Hardcover and Paperback. 344 pages. 14 b&w illus
Rutgers University Press
Publishing date: September 2005
ISBN: # 081353612X (Hardcover) #0813536138 (Paperback)

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