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Show & Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes
By Ken Bloom
Book Review by Stanford Friedman

Also see Stan's review of Gerald Nachman's Showstoppers!: The Surprising Backstage Stories of Broadway's Most Remarkable Songs

Ken Bloom is the king of theater minutia. His magnum opus, American Song: the complete musical theatre companion, covers some 4,863 shows and indexes 70,000 songs. Now, in his new work Show & Tell, he collects over 1,000 Broadway anecdotes, mostly from days long gone by, and spills them onto 300+ jam-packed pages. With tales that run the gamut from so funny to so-so to so what, this is a book meant to be taken in small doses. Bring it with you to the theater because many of the narratives make for informative light reading during intermission. Or keep it in the bathroom because there is also no shortage of drunks, compromised actresses, and f-bombs.

A book of anecdotes, and this one in particular, is a problematic literary form. Let us count the ways. First, veracity, or as Bloom says in his introduction, "I can definitively state that all these anecdotes are true, inadvertent lies, or apocryphal." Given that admission, dare we believe that, as Brando carried Kim Hunter to bed during a performance of Streetcar, the lights failed to dim and he asked her, "How far do we have to go for realism?" Or that seat cushions were "frequently replaced" during the Broadway run of Ragtime because "patrons were peeing in their seats?"

The second problem is one of tone. Even though these anecdotes involve many a great storyteller, the majority of the stories are told in a single voice, the author's. Unfortunately, as a writer, Bloom is an excellent cataloguer. Stylistically clunky and with a partiality for ye olde terms like smitten, rapscallion, and huzzah, too many of the entries land with a thud. Additionally, Bloom can come off as casually mean spirited when describing some of his subjects. A few examples:

          "Ginger Rodgers was one of the not-so-nice actors."
          "Thelma Parish weighed over 200 pounds, and getting her out of the elevator was a massive and hilarious effort."
          "John Granger was extremely handsome but very stupid."

The third problem is one of balance, in terms of both format and subject matter. As a whole, the anecdotes do strike a sort of sadistic balance in that there are just as many that are too short as there are that are too long. "While in Gypsy at Paper Mill Playhouse," we are informed, "Betty Buckley had an exorcism performed over her costumes." Huh? Conversely, I now know more than I'll ever need about Marissa Mell's performance in Mata Hari at the National Theater in Washington.

Bloom attempts to group the anecdotes into chapters that are ordered loosely around the timeline of a play. Tales about casting precede tales about rehearsals which precede tales about previews, and so on. The fact that there are 26 chapters in total, with 14 of them no more than five pages in length, should have been a clue to the editors to find a new schema. Turning to the index rather than the table of contents is undoubtedly the better way to proceed. There you can quickly find, for instance, where the eight mentions of Kiss Me, Kate can be found amid the 200 pages they are scattered across. The index also makes it clear that the actors who could be easily researched or contacted receive as much attention as the more historically important theater legends. David Merrick, Ethel Merman, and George S. Kaufman all have numerous mentions, but so do Anita Gillette and Penny Fuller.

Or, forego the index as well and just pick a page at random. There are several gems to stumble upon, including some hilarious line flubs, a feasible explanation of how Tennessee Williams came up with the phrase "no neck monsters," an interesting note concerning the musical underpinning of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," and an all too brief section centered on African-American theater in the first half of the 20th century.

Bloom shows us that anecdotes come in a variety of flavors and sizes. Some are jokes, some are gossip, some are history lessons in miniature. The good news is that you have probably never tasted most of what is offered here. The bad news is that, given the book's often apocryphal nature, you may find many of his tidbits hard to swallow.

Show & Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes
Ken Bloom
352 Pages
Oxford University Press
Official Publishing date: October 3, 2016
List Price: $19.95
ISBN: 978-0-19-022101-0

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