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Master Classes

In The Art of the American Musical, the experts share some juicy war stories and have a lot to say about collaboration. logo
Yellowing away on my bookshelf is an early-1970s hardcover titled Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers on Theater, made up largely of material taken from the Dramatists Guild Quarterly. In it, among other things, Stephen Sondheim serves up a mini-course in lyric writing; Richard Rodgers reveals why he thinks "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" will outlive anything else in Promises, Promises; Jerry Herman cites "Some People" as an example of a perfect theater lyric; and Nancy Ford and the Reverend Al Carmines decry the economic impossibilities of Off-Broadway musicals. Scattershot and dated as the volume is, it's a revealing glimpse of New York theater in a dynamic, unstable era, and it has always set me to wondering: Why aren't there more of these? With so many creators willing to offer insights into their own work and that of their peers, why not sit more of them down, turn on a tape recorder, and let them talk?

That's more or less what Jackson R. Bryer and Richard A. Davison have done, and the result is The Art of the American Musical: Conversations With the Creators (Rutgers University Press, $23.95). English professors at the University of Maryland and University of Delaware, respectively, Bryer and Davison have spent many afternoons in recent years in the apartments and workspaces of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Jason Robert Brown, Kathleen Marshall, Susan Stroman, Sondheim, Tommy Tune, John Weidman, and George C. Wolfe, talking shop and frequently exhorting the interviewees to walk them (and us) through an entire project (such as Ragtime, Jelly's Last Jam or Parade).

Bryer and Davison are not the most scrupulous musical theater historians on the planet; among other errors, they think that Pal Joey was Rodgers and Hart's last musical, they get dates and spellings wrong, and they credit Tommy Tune with dancing in something called A Joyful News. (It's Noise, boys!) Still, their enthusiasm is palpable and their questions are smart. Seven other interviews complete the book. These were conducted as part of a 1992 Smithsonian Institute series (some have been updated) and are the work of other interviewers: Michael Feinstein interviewed Burton Lane, Washington journalist Bob Mondello queried Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Ken Bloom braved Arthur Laurents, and so on.

Given the breadth of talent surveyed, the book covers most of the major creators of American musical theater in the 20th century -- Kern, Hammerstein, Lerner, and Rodgers excepted. There are some surprising factoids. For example, Joel Grey was Ragtime's first Tateh in the early developmental stages of the musical, and Donna Murphy was Mother. There's also some good dish, as when the famously candid Laurents appraises every Rose from Ethel Merman to Bernadette Peters and every Herbie from Jack Klugman to John Dossett, and he calls Rodgers "a beast." Some tantalizing names emerge in regard to aborted or reworked projects: It turns out that Mike Nichols and Elaine May wrote an early draft of Bye Bye Birdie. (Wouldn't we love a glimpse of that?) Mostly, though, the interviewers are interested in process: how power dynamics shape collaborations, how preview and workshop audiences influence artistic decisions, how visions are compromised. (Jason Robert Brown is especially verbal on this last point, regretting the way that Parade was watered down in an attempt to please Lincoln Center's tradition-soaked subscription base.)

Some of this material is familiar. John Kander and the late Fred Ebb cover a lot of the same ground that they did in the book Colored Lights, and Betty Comden and the late Adolph Green trot out some of the same old stories, forever finishing each other's sentences. Also, since several of the interviews are more than a decade old, some more recent titles go missing; there is nothing on Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier or Charles Strouse's You Never Know, and Ahrens and Flaherty don't even mention My Favorite Year.

Flops tend to get short shrift here, though some creators want to talk about them at length -- and this can be fascinating. Laurents dives headlong into what went wrong with Nick and Nora, while Susan Stroman defends her work (and that of her colleagues) on Thou Shalt Not. She and the other director-choreographers interviewed, Marshall and Tune, offer markedly different perspectives from the rest of the group on how shows are staged; the contrast between their emphasis on movement and stage pictures vis à vis other directors' focus on psychology, theme, or star performances is striking.

Sondheim is always good for a few choice quotes. He holds forth on tonally matching the libretto to the score (he doesn't feel that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum really lines up that way), the long and ultimately unsatisfying gestation of Bounce, and how hard it has become for new writers to develop their craft. ("The trouble is they're not getting enough chance to be heard, so they're not learning.") That theme is echoed by many of the current practitioners. Several note that, in the old days, a young writer who had a flop would get a second chance, but now that's increasingly unlikely.

For the most part, this is an intelligent, articulate bunch. They know their stuff and know how to verbalize it. Sometimes their dispassionate analysis of a given property makes building a musical sound as structured and orderly as a science project, other times as chaotic and random as the first day of school. They present their personalities carefully, but some revealing statements emerge. Brown admits that, as a kid, he would do anything to draw attention to himself -- a facet that still shows up in much of his writing. Harnick displays an amazing lack of self-confidence ("I never found myself terribly articulate…not much self-esteem, not much security"), to the point where you want to slap him back to reality and remind him how good he is. Burton Lane rues the lack of hits in his early scores and casually takes credit for discovering Judy Garland, a claim that would surely give Roger Edens pause. Comden and Green talk about how isolating and depressing the actual writing of a show can be. (He: "It's still a messy process because you're so filled with self-hatred." She: "The room is filled with self-hatred, and that's hard to sweep away.") Call it schadenfreude, but there's something almost elating about these confessions. If artists like these can experience self-doubt after lifetimes of achievement, isn't there hope for the rest of us?

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