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It Happened on Broadway

Dateline: 15th November, 1998

What on earth, you might ask, has a book about Broadway got to do with a Website on British Theatre? "Quite a lot, really," I would have to answer. A whole strand of popular theatre - the American musical, which has not only been extremely popular in the UK but has also had a major influence on theatre in this country - originated on Broadway, and many of those playwrights whose work is constantly produced in this country - Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, for instance - first made their name on the Great White Way.

But we'll come to that later.

It Happened on Broadway, subtitled An Oral History of the Great White Way, is a collection of interviews with 107 Broadway luminaries, including Carol Channing, Betty Buckley, Joel Grey, John Kander, Fred Ebbs, James Hammerstein (son of Oscar), Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard) and Kitty Carlisle Hart (widow of Moss). It tells the story of Broadway from the point of view of those who were deeply involved in its development as the centre of American theatre. It takes us behind the public faces and into the private thoughts and feelings of the stars, writers, composers, directors, producers, designers, press agents, playwrights, and even the restauranteurs (Vincent Sardi Jr. is there, too). It tells about the great successes (and some of the spectacular flops). It reveals much about the great writers - Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Moss Hart, Irving Berlin, Cy Coleman - and the performers - the portrait of Carol Channing in her own words is stunning. And we see the great directors and choreographers - my own favourite, Bob Fosse, is talked about at length - through the eyes of those who worked with them.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. It taught me an awful lot - and not just about Broadway, for that wouldn't be difficult: with typical Brit insularity, I've never really had that much of an interest in American theatre. No, what this book shows very clearly is the deep love of theatre, of live performance, which these Broadway luminaries share with the rest of us. In their words I could hear echoes of myself and all of my theatre friends. And that's one reason why it is very appropriate for me to review a book devoted to one part of American theatre on a site devoted to British theatre which has a readership from all over the world.

I'm not saying the book hasn't its faults. It has. Although each chapter deals with a different aspect of Broadway, I did sometimes feel as though I was jumping around from period to period, with the consequent feelings of discontinuity. A chapter would take us from, say, pre-War Broadway right up to someone like Bob Fosse. It would then end, and at the beginning of the next chapter we're back in the Thirties again. On one reading I lost all sense of continuity, of timeline. However I suspect that will rectify itself when I re-read the book (as I will, for it is the sort of book you do keep going back to). Still, it was a bit disconcerting.

I also can't help feeling that the sub-title is a wee bit misleading. The word history to me suggests facts, but what we have in the words of the contributors is a mixture of fact and opinion. These are intelligent, deeply committed, creative people, talking about something to which they have devoted their lives: inevitably their opinions, prejudices, personal beliefs, and likes and dislikes are going to inform everything they say.

However their obvious enthusiasm for their subject sweeps the reader along. You are so caught up in what they are saying that you accept everything as fact. In fact, at the back of your mind, you can't help but feel that if someone like, say, John Kander says something about Broadway, it must be true. After all, he has been jointly responsible for such international hits as Cabaret and Chicago.

It is only when we come to the last chapter - which deals with Broadway now - that we realise that these people are prey to the same misconceptions that age brings to us all: nothing is as it was and today's offerings are not a patch on yesterday's. The Golden Age is over, and now a lesser breed of men walk the earth. And not only are today's musicals not as good as those of the past, worse still, they are British!

Thus Clive Barnes, drama critic of the New York Post and US correspondent of The Stage:

The so-called British musicals are not musicals. They have music that people have heard before, though they may not realise it. They have a story taken from a pop movie or Madame Butterfly. They have chandeliers, helicopters landing. As I said, and I was the first person to write it, you come out humming the scenery.
With all due respect, Clive: bollocks! Shakespeare got his ideas from all sorts of sources. I can just imagine an Elizabethan Mr Barnes saying, "They have a story taken from Hollinshed..."

It's the constant cry of those whom time has passed by.

Howard Kissel (New York Daily News) writes:

To someone brought up on the brilliance of American musicals, the music of these shows is nothing. To someone whose idea of a great lyricist is Alan Jay Lerner or Lorenz Hart, the lyrics of thse shows are appalling. But to an audience that doesn't know anything beyond Bob Dylan, there's nothing wrong with the music or lyrics.
Patronising tosh! Compare this -
On my own,
Pretending he's beside me;
All alone,
I walk with him till morning.
Without him I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes and he has found me.
Make of our hands
One hand;
Make of our hearts
One heart;
Make of our vows,
One last vow.
Only death can part us now.
It's at least as good - and a damned sight better than this:
Doh a deer, a female deer
Ray a drop of golden sun
Me a name I call myself
Far a long, long way to run...

John Lahr, drama critic of the New Yorker, claims that the sung-through musical is weaker than the traditional:

Song is not sufficient to establish character; it cannot carry the burden of psychology and situation.
Tell that to Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner....

But what's this? It's Mr Kissel again:

Look at the reviews for Cats. Not one was enthusiastic. Has that had any effect? The bulk of the public, they see a set go up, go down, and they're very happy.
That's it! The damned public! They take no notice of the reviews! There are the poor reviewers, busting a gut to tell them what they should like, and they take no notice! Shocking!

But this is unfair. It seems as though we're blaming Mr and Mrs Frommer for the idiocies perpetrated by (some of) the interviewees. We're killing the messenger! But herein lies the weakness of such books: everything depends upon the words of the interviewees, and when what they say is patent rubbish, it tends to skew our opinion of the book. And that really is unfair, because it is interesting and enjoyable. However, the last chapter delivers a timely reminder that all of the speakers have a vested interest in a particular slant on the topic, and so we really must not take what they say as the definitive History of the Great White Way, but as their perception of that history.

It Happened on Broadway, by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, is published by Harcourt Brace and Company at $35. ISBN 0-15-100280-0.

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©Peter Lathan 2001