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A Gift That Will Keep On Giving

Filichia's thrilled by the new coffee-table book Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. logo
Try to remember that soon, in December, you'll need to buy a friend a present. And if you want to have that friend throw his or her arms around you with unmitigated glee, screaming "Thank you! Thank you! You shouldn't have!" -- well, have I got a gift for you, wait till you meet it. It's Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik's Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time and it can be described as a coffee table book -- if you have a large coffee table. Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers have brought out a book that is 13¼ inches high, 10¾ inches wide, and 1¼ inches thick. Rather have that thickness figure in pages? Sure: 336, sporting 850 photos and plenty of text. I mean, in what other book can you find a bio of Nancy Dussault (just one of 201 bios peppered throughout the volume) with not one, not two, but three pictures of her doing her infamous "Where Is the Tribe for Me?" song in Bajour?

Did your eyebrows just move up towards your hairline? Are you gasping, "Did Bloom and Vlastnik actually choose Bajour as one of the 101 Greatest Shows of All Time?" No, of course not. But remember the main title of the book, not the subtitle: Broadway Musicals. For every entry, there are sidebars to tell about the people who worked on the chosen 101. For example, the first entry in the alphabetical listing -- Annie -- has a sidebar on its star, Dorothy Loudon, with pictures of her in Ballroom and Jerry's Girls. It nestles next to a sidebar on Annie choreographer Peter Gennaro that includes a photo of him dancing "Mu-Cha-Cha" with Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing.

So, with which of the 101 Greatest Shows is Dussault associated? Some might guess The Sound of Music, for she spent some time as Maria in the Broadway production. While that R&H title indeed did make the cut, it's not the Dussault tie-in. Is it Into the Woods, in which Dussault did a stretch? No, that show isn't included among the greatest. The answer is Do Re Mi, the 1960 Styne-Comden-Green money-loser. Now, did your eyebrows just move up past your hairline? I understand, I understand. Not all of us would have chosen Do Re Mi, despite its hit song ("Make Someone Happy") and its fondly remembered performances by Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker. But did you really expect that every one of Bloom and Vlastnik's 101 favorite musicals would be on your own personal list? The collaborators took three shows from the 20th century's first decade (starting with Babes in Toyland in 1903), two from the 1910s, 13 from the 1920s, 11 from the 1930s, 14 from the 1940s, 19 from both the 1950s and the 1960s, nine from the 1970s, seven from the 1980s, two from the 1990s, and just one from the new millennium -- no, not The Producers or Hairspray, but The Full Monty.

Jean Darling, John Raitt, and Jan Clayton
in Carousel (1945)
Aida fans might already have noticed and groused over my report that Annie is the first alphabetical entry in the book. Other shows that ran more than 1,000 performances but didn't make the "greatest" list include (in descending order of the number of performances) Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Miss Saigon, Rent, 42nd Street, Grease, The Lion King, Smokey Joe's Café, Pippin, The Magic Show, Dancin', The Wiz, Crazy for You, Ain't Misbehavin', The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Jekyll & Hyde, Me and My Girl, Hellzapoppin', Mamma Mia!, Sugar Babies, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, Pins and Needles, Fosse, They're Playing Our Song, Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope, Shenandoah, Contact, Beatlemania, and Big River.

For some of those shows, you may be in agreement; for others, you may be in a fury. Especially when you see that Fanny, Destry Rides Again, and I Can Get It for You Wholesale made the list. All, incidentally, are Harold Rome titles. I'm not even sure that Florence Rome, the composer-lyricist's long-time spouse, would have included all three. (I checked to see if Rome's La Grosse Valise was included, but that's where Bloom and Vlastnik drew the line.) But again, who would expect to be in full agreement with anyone else's choices? What is extraordinarily wonderful is the way that Bloom and Vlastnik have tackled the text. Many books on musical theater spend much too much time telling us the plot, the cast, the song titles, and the show's personnel. (All of that information is included here but in a sleek column at the right-hand side of each entry.)

Bloom and Vlastnik have written fetching essays that deal with the shows but only as a jumping-off point. For example, they cleverly use Kiss Me, Kate as a platform to discuss comebacks. After all, Cole Porter had been thought washed-up when he started work on the show, but it turned out to be his biggest hit. Bloom and Vlastnik then mention Oscar Hammerstein II and his four "I've done it before and I can do it again" flops prior to his triumphs with Oklahoma! and Carmen Jones; Jerry Herman's La Cage aux Folles success after three straight failures; and Sondheim's seeming to be down-and-out after Anyone Can Whistle and Do I Hear a Waltz?, only to later show that he was just getting started. There are also some nifty nuggets about each show, listed under "Backstage." (For example, "Billy Rose invested $10,000 in Guys and Dolls, but when he found out that Abe Burrows was going to replace Jo Swerling's libretto, he demanded his money back.") Almost every show has a pull-quote promimently featured in red ("While you're waiting for this f***king elevator, I can write the song I know you want," said Bob Merrill to Gower Champion and Michael Stewart, who pressed him for a hit tune when they were working on Carnival).

Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza
in South Pacific (1949)
Now for the pictures, most of which I've never seen. God bless the collaborators for spending eye-blinding hours searching through shots at PhotoFest, the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, and the Goodspeed Opera House Library -- and for coming up with alternate shots from the ones we all know. Wait till you see the expression of disgust on Streisand's face when she looks in the mirror during "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" and the ain't-I-hot-stuff look that Wynn Murray gives in "Sing for Your Supper." I don't know about you, but I've never before seen a picture of Dolores Gray with her notorious mother, but here they are together. And how delightfully nerdy Jerry Orbach looks in Promises, Promises, in which he indeed played a nerd. That photo shares the page with an image of Orbach manipulating Gwen Verdon on his lap in "We Both Reached for the Gun" in Chicago -- and with the foreword that Orbach penned for the tome. (Okay, I'll come clean: I was an unpaid consultant on this book and saw many of the pages as they came out in uncorrected proofs, meaning that they were in black-and-white. Some of the 850 photos aren't in color but the vast majority are, and aren't they handsome? What's more, there's none of the abnormal pink tone that you often see in aged photos, for the authors took the pains to color-correct anything that had faded.)

And so it goes. There are Walton, Morrison, and Price in Merrily We Roll Along, and a Candide shot of Barbara Cook embracing Robert Rounseville -- who's "wearing the heaviest makeup this side of Grizabella," the authors opine in just one of their insouciant captions. Neither of those flops made the Golden 101, but there are pages devoted to "Great Scores from So-So Shows" (where Merrily and Candide nestle); "Revues" (such as Ain't Misbehavin'); "Star Turns" (what a look Elaine Stritch gives Noël Coward on the H.M.S. Coronia, as if to say, "Okay, genius; what do we do now?"); and even "T&A," which offers something for everyone: Julie Newmar in L'il Abner for some readers, and for others, Josh Logan's All-American football players in the locker room.

And here is the best part: The book has a list price of only $34.95! Listen, even if the Canadian price ($52) were in effect here, it'd be a steal. I won't embarrass other recently published coffee table books that ask much more and offer much less. The only worry any of us will have is that, come December, every one of our friends is going to give us Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. No, there's a bigger worry: That everyone will buy it for us but then won't be able to part with it. If you want the book autographed for you or for someone else, go to the Drama Book Shop at 250 West 40th Street on Monday, November 15 from 6 to 8pm. Both Bloom and Vlastnik will be there -- and if they look a little tired, a scan through the book will show you why.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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