Open a New Window... And Then Try Closing It
Ethan Mordden's new book on the Broadway musicals of the 1960s displays the author's knowledge and humor -- and his penchant for ruffling feathers.
Finally, over the weekend, I had enough uninterrupted time to spend on Ethan Mordden's new book Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s. Because I consider Mordden's Make Believe (about '20s musicals), Beautiful Mornin' ('40s musicals), and Coming Up Roses ('50s musicals) among the best books I've ever read, I was really looking forward to this one. After all, both Mordden and I were theatrically there for the entire decade of the '60s, which can't be said of any of the others, so this one had to be his masterpiece.
Alas, I was a little disappointed. I'd be reading about Carnival, then all of a sudden I'd get to a sentence suddenly citing How to Succeed... and I'd realize that the section on Carnival was already over. More than once, I found myself quoting that Peggy Lee song (originally written for a musical called International Wrestling Match): "Is that all there is?" But, as many an author has reminded me, maybe St. Martin's Press told Mordden he couldn't go above 265 pages. It isn't as if there are that many people in the world who are going to buy a book about the musicals of the '60s.
More's the pity, for I was only a little disappointed. Mordden is still at the top of his game when it comes to observing the whys and wherefores of the American musical theater. His overview is superb. "This is the decade of Gypsy's children," he notes, observing that while musicals were still often funny in this decade, they took on a dark underbelly. Case in point: Neil Simon "wrote crazy" for Little Me near the beginning of the decade but crafted a much more pungent book for Promises, Promises only six years later. "It all changed that fast," Mordden writes -- and he's right.
But what I love most about Mordden is his ability to infuse his books with what few other musical theater histories have: Humor. To wit, "Foxy tried out in Dawson City, Yukon Territory. True, the show partly takes place there. But imagine the difficulties if musicals had to try out where they were set. Greenwillow. Camelot. Brigadoon." He refers to the notorious, now-razed 54th Street Theatre as "that funeral home." I also laughed at: "When the 'Last Weeks' notice went up in [My] Fair Lady ads, it inspired a sub-population of lazies and schmudls who had not yet seen the show of the century and now besieged the box office." Hilarious though this next line is, one wonders if this could really be true of Carmen Mathews: "Even in high school, her shows were fiascos; at her third-grade Easter pageant, some parents demanded their money back, though admission had been free." There's even something funny about his observation regarding original cast albums: "Competition among labels to seize the next potential gold mine led them to release almost anything. This led those who follow the musical to listen to almost anything."
Yes... and, having done just that, I don't necessarily disagree with him that "Coney Island, U.S.A." from I Had a Ball is "the worst opening number of the decade" -- or that "I'll Never Lay Down Anymore" from Illya, Darling is "the worst song of the decade." But I must take issue with Mordden's statement that How Now, Dow Jones features "a score so bad, I don't know a worse one." Yeah? Worse than Christine, 13 Daughters, Let It Ride, Sophie, Here's Love, Her First Roman, Maggie Flynn, or Jimmy? How Now has plenty of good tunes -- and even more good lyrics, courtesy of the one and only Carolyn Leigh. (Speaking of her: Mordden says that Cy Coleman and Leigh "broke up after Little Me because Leigh was a lunatic." The story he then tells about the lyricist is damned good supporting evidence and just might be true; Leigh once told it to me.)
Anyone who knows his previous work is aware that Mordden makes statements that are sure to ruffle a few feathers. In discussing Wildcat, he puts the blame on the movies' Mame ("It was nobody's fault but Ball's.") He skewers critics as "People who think their job description includes deciding what gets to run" and further comments that "Philadelphia critics were terrible and Philadelphia audiences knew it." But his most controversial remark about critics would have to be that Walter Kerr was "absurdly overrated." Still, all of this is ameliorated by the obscure facts that Mordden relates. Did you know that the creators of The Gay Life considered having Barbara Cook play all the female roles in the show? Or that David Merrick had optioned a musical about Israel called Blue Star to star Anne Bancroft, with a book co-written by Joshua Logan ("a homogay who tried to strangle his hungers in the netting of the closet," quips Mordden), music by Burton Lane, and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg... but he dumped the project when Milk and Honey opened first and covered that terrain? Finally, where else can you learn that Natalie Wood owned the original cast album of Bravo, Giovanni?
I also found myself nodding my head at things that I should have realized decades ago: "She Loves Me would have run longer if it had more openly proclaimed its source" as The Shop around the Corner instead of Parfumerie by Miklos Lazslo. (Yes, that had to be off-putting to American audiences.) "Wilkommen" offered "the first of the great Kander and Ebb vamps that characterize a song even more than the melody does." (How true!) Dorothy Fields was "the only lyricist in musical theater history who sounded more youthful as time went on" (proving her thesis that "It's not where you start, it's where you finish.") And Mordden tells us why Snoopy's lyric "I think they're swell" in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is the show's one false note.
Mordden does not suffer Broadway's fools gladly. "Contact is not a musical," he declares. "Anyone who thinks otherwise is an illiterate idiot." About Bajour: "How are we supposed to root for these disgusting thieves?" But then comes the statement that made me gasp in disbelief. Granted, I too have always had issues with Zorba. I've perpetually questioned why a show that was supposed to be life-affirming should begin with the line, "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die." That lyric introduces a great song, but not the right one for the I-am-free character we're about to meet. While Mordden doesn't specifically address that point, he too believes that there are problems with the life-affirming aspects of the show. But should he say that "Zorba is one of the ugliest, most life-denying pieces of evil shit ever perpetrated as a Broadway musical?" Honest to God, that's exactly what he wrote! And honest to God, there I was at Eighth Street, reading the book while waiting for the "R" train, when who should come along but supercritic John Simon and his lovely wife, Pat Hoag-Simon. "What are you reading?" she asked pleasantly. I told her, then turned to John -- and then to page 211 -- and said, "John, listen, would even you say something like this about Zorba?" When I showed him the sentence, he said: "My God, I'm shocked." John Simon!!!
Of course, Mordden makes some mistakes. There's one odd error of omission when he details Richard Rodgers' career as a lyricist after Hammerstein's death and neglects to mention the two songs written especially for the film version of The Sound of Music. But there are genuine errors, too. "I Don't Care Much" was not cut from Cabaret in Boston, as he alleges, but before the show reached Beantown. The cut song from 110 in the Shade wasn't "Sweetwater" but "Sweet River." Drat! The Cat! did not try out in Boston (oh, does this native Bostonian wish that it had!) but in Philadelphia. John Adams does not interrupt "Molasses to Rum" in 1776; Josiah Bartlett does. Golden Boy was produced in 1964, not 1969.
Mordden makes another mistake so trivial that I'm almost embarrassed to bring it up. He mentions that, while Funny Girl was running on Broadway, Streisand recorded a title song -- an entirely different one than the ballad used in the 1968 movie. He says that it was released as a single and never anywhere else, not even in that big, pink, boxed set of a few years ago. Actually, the recording did appear on an album called The Headliners '65, with which the Columbia Record Club rewarded its good customers. (It's the only reason I still have the album.)
But, as a song in another 1960s musical went, "Nobody's perfect, nobody's perfect; I am human, so are you." Ethan Mordden is often superhuman, as Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s shows. Best of all, the book got me to playing those albums from the '60s that I haven't listened to in way too long. Thanks for that, too, Mr. M!