Monday, 06 December 2004
Broadway: the heart that always palpitates
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER - Recently PBS ran a sprawling six-part miniseries called Broadway: the American Musical. Chronicling the evolution of the Broadway musical and its social and cultural impact on American life, the miniseries highlights the artists both on and off the stage responsible for enlivening theatre and cultivating a uniquely American art form.
Accompanying the documentary are DVDs of the series, as well as a CD set, a sort of soundtrack of the best of Broadway over the last hundred years. And bringing the whole study together is a voluminous book companion to the series, Broadway: the American Musical. Published by Bulfinch Press, known for their lavish coffee table books, this is more than something that'll adorn your living room table. The large and heavy book is at once a conversation piece that'll doubtless awe anyone who views the many stills from Broadway's past and present, while it serves as a definitive précis of the history of the American musical, and Broadway. This book, thanks to the laborious work of its authors, Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon, provides an amazing mix of photographs, which will fascinate anyone who views the book. There are richly written essays about the people, the shows, and the music that have pulsated through in and around Eighth to Sixth Avenue, and West 41st to West 53rd Streets in Manhattan.
Throughout the last century, Broadway has reflected the United States. The authors ably put forward the thesis that Broadway has been a colourful portrait of the country. From its earliest days it has reflected the political and social mores of the time, whether it was overwhelming patriotism, scepticism, excessive commercial consumption, or globalisation.
The book opens with a sketch of a young Jewish immigrant hitting the shores at the turn of the century. Young Israel Baline's life epitomised the American dream, and as he cultivated himself into the American melting pot of Manhattan, amidst the cacophony of languages, he became Irving Berlin thus one of the American popular songbook's most prolific and recognised writers. Broadway for many coming to America's shores from Europe at the turn of the 20th century was coming to the 'crossroads of the world.'
As a history, the book is adept in its providing informative and fascinating sketches of the people who have been pivotal to Broadway's history. The master showman, Florenz Ziegfeld, known for "glorifying the American girl," is given requisite coverage, as are the stars of Broadway's infancy: Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, and Eddie Cantor. An interesting profile is that of Bert Williams, one of the first African Americans who was a popular Ziegfeld star in those famous Follies productions. At one point, Williams was as famous as Fredrick Douglass. Another interesting facet of this book is the authors do not only write about the works and personalities of the Broadway century, but also include many first hand accounts that provide colour to the sketch. Among the voices captured is an essay by Williams himself, "The Comic Side of Trouble." As well, there are engrossing essays such as one by Stephen Sondheim on Jerome Kern, Eddie Cantor on Al Jolson, Cameron Mackintosh on producing, Mel Brooks on the genre of musical comedy, and Michael Bennett on A Chorus Line. There's a sycophantic and nearly vainglorious excerpt on the pull of Broadway by famed gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, who ends his summation of Broadway's bag of contradictions by saying it is that heart that always palpitates. Some 76 years later, it is still a prescient abstract of the pitfalls and pratfalls, glamour and glory of Broadway's babies and dreams.
The book's narrative takes us all the way to last year's noteworthy hit, Wicked. Though it didn't win the Tony for best musical, its inclusion suggests the reality of Broadway today. Musicals are an expensive proposition, needing millions in investments. Gone are the days of showmen like George Abbott or the "abominable showman" himself David Merrick, who'd mount some big ambitious show from scratch and see it through to a long storied run.
Merrick, warrants a mention, if only that his antics are straight out of Max Bialystock in The Producers. (Maybe he was its inspiration.) Ever the showman, Merrick, trying to save his show Subways Are for Sleeping, treated seven ordinary people to the show, and wrote up glorious reviews for them to endorse. Not so ordinary were these men however, as they bore names exact to seven of the top theatre critics in town. The ad was done up, and one paper actually ran it. It was a great rouse, and perhaps saved the show from closing much sooner. Merrick, a master at manipulating the press, was at his finest the night that his latest blockbuster 42nd Street opened in 1980. Its director, the legendary Gower Champion had been suffering from a secret illness throughout the show's rehearsals. He died the day the show was set to open, and with his family's permission, Merrick asked that they withhold disclosing news of his death. The show opens and it's a glorious performance. After the eleventh curtain call, Merrick walks on stage to the rapture of the cast and audience. He waves them off saying, "This is tragic." The audience laughs. "You don't understand. Gower Champion died this morning," Merrick intones, as a shocked audience and cast gasp. The curtain is brought down, and the next day, papers across the world report Champion's death, as announced on stage at the opening night performance of 42nd Street at the Winter Garden theatre. The show goes on to run for nine record-breaking years.
The interesting thing about the scope of history as had these past 100 years is the parade of stars and performers who've waded through. From Fred and Adele Astaire to Bea Lillie, through to Ray Bolger and Phil Silvers, to Zero Mostel and Ethel Merman, and today's crop of legends and fledglings, Bernadette Peters, Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, Broadway has been bruised and battered throughout, but it's managed to keep on going along. From the hokey Pajama Game to the groundbreaking Cabaret and Company, with the psychedelic Hair along the way, to the British imports of Cameron Mackintosh, Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, to Rent, Broadway's kept re-inventing itself, without losing that show biz quality that makes Broadway that beacon of hope and dreams, as well that boulevard of heartbreak and reality.
Broadway: The American Musical (ISBN: 0821229052) by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon is published by Bulfinch, and is $87.00 CDN ($60.00 USD).
Broadway: The American Musical, by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon. (Bulfinch, 2004)Click to buy this book from Amazon.ca: Broadway: The American Musical
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