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The photos and captions in The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical have piqued Filichia's interest. logo
As we all learned from Anyone Can Whistle, you can't judge a book by its cover. But can you judge a book by the pictures and captions inside it? I wondered this as I opened up my copy of The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical by Mark N. Grant (Northeastern University Press; $40; 352 pp.), for I just happened to open to the pages that feature 21 photographs. Would the pictures and captions make me eager to begin reading the book?

The second picture on the first page, of a distinguished-looking man, struck my fancy: "The comedian-singer-hoofer Harry Fox, whose accidental invention, the fox-trot, helped spawn the modern show tune and Broadway's golden age." Really! I did not know that. I always assumed that the fox-trot was so named because actual foxes, be they little or big, actually trotted, and the steps in the dance somewhat resembled them. (By the way, what's the best-ever fox-trot from a Broadway musical? Grand Hotel's "Who Couldn't Dance with You?" Yes, that is correct.)

Turn the page. "ASCAP's lineup in 1920 included the leading musical comedy creators at the cusp of Broadway's second age. Lyricist Gene Buck, composer Victor Herbert, composer John Philip Sousa, librettist/lyricist Harry B. Smith, composers Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George W. Meyer, Irving Bibo, and lyricist/librettist Otto Harbach." If Grant believes there's been a Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, you know he's going to assume that these people were responsible for its rise. Now, who can tell me who Gene Buck was? No one? He contributed scenes, lyrics, and melodies to The Ziegfeld Follies from 1913 to 1924. We still remember Herbert, even though his works don't get staged too often; his last Broadway revival was Sweethearts (1947), though a few of his songs were heard in Tintypes (1980) and one was used in Thoroughly Modern Millie, presumably because its creators didn't know what else to do in that spot. Sousa is remembered but not particularly for his work on Broadway. Smith has been totally lost from anyone's memory.

Kern and Berlin were genuine giants, but who are those two guys next to them? I had to check. Meyer wrote the music for a 1924 flop called Dixie to Broadway, and he also composed such songs as "My Mother's Rosary" and "Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley." Bibo never made Broadway at all but did co-write the pop tunes "My Cutie's Due at Two to Two" and "Huggable Kissable You." As for Harbach, he was a genuine giant, with hits as disparate as The Desert Song and No, No, Nanette. Still, many of Grant's "leading musical comedy creators" haven't passed the test of time. So while the title that Grant chose for his book indicates that he's going to praise the past and damn the present, I hope he keeps everything in perspective.

Three pictures have captions with a common theme. First: "Ned Wayburn at his dance studio routining two Broadway hoofers in precision formation. Wayburn used mathematics to achieve geometrical patterns on-stage; Busby Berkeley imitated him." Second: "Paul Robeson played Joe in the 1928 London production and the 1932 Broadway revival of Show Boat and was forever identified with 'Ol' Man River,' although Jules Bledsoe created the role in 1927." Third: "Richard Rodgers going over the score of Victory at Sea (1952) with the arranger-orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. Though Rodgers furnished Bennett with less than 30 minutes of tunes for the 11 hours of music, Rodgers, not Bennett, was credited as composer." Good! All these suggest that the book will be worth reading because Grant is going to give credit where credit is due. And he's apparently not afraid to tell it like it is, based on this caption: "The director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, sadistic genius." I'm not saying Robbins wasn't, but this frank description does suggest Grant has penned a no-holds-barred book -- a type usually worth reading.

Looks like Grant is going to make a number of points about amplification. First: "Ethel Merman as Reno Sweeney belts to the rafters during an actual performance of Cole Porter's Anything Goes at the Alvin Theatre, 1934, when microphones were not yet used in the theater." Indeed, the Merm doesn't look as if she's beginning to break a sweat and seems confident that she's reaching the back row of the second balcony. Second: "The men's chorus during an actual performance of Paint Your Wagon (1951). Note the absence of foot mikes and the trombone slide projecting from the orchestra pit. Today's pits are either lower or covered, necessitating amplification of the orchestra through loudspeakers all over the theater." My first-ever first-row orchestra seat was for The Unsinkable Molly's Brown's national tour at the Shubert in Boston; I do remember sitting on the same level as the musicians and how that added a level of excitement to the show. Third: "In the basement underneath the Imperial Theatre stage, all the performers' wireless transmitters are plugged into a rack of audio receivers next to another console." The picture shows two imposing yet dull-looking machines with wires, plugs and speakers everywhere. This is the last picture in the section and it's a sobering one, considering that we're talking about a live art form.

"Rouben Mamoulian directs Jan Clayton and John Raitt in Carousel, 1945. Rodgers and Hammerstein felt Mamoulian took too much credit in the press for the show's success." I never saw Mamoulian's stage work, but any guy who directed Carousel, Oklahoma!, Porgy and Bess, Sadie Thompson, Lost in the Stars, and St. Louis Woman sounds pretty impressive to me. Mamoulian also directed Turgenev's A Month in the Country and got a ten-week run out of it. Add to that his fabulous early movies Applause, Love Me Tonight, and Becky Sharp, and I'd say that he must have brought a lot to the Carousel table. Guess I'll have to read this book to see with whom Grant sides.

"Agnes de Mille, her assistant Dania Krupska, and Richard Rodgers at a rehearsal for Allegro (1947), the first musical with a combined director-choreographer -- de Mille." Hmm, I semi-forgot that de Mille was the first; and isn't it something that she did this in a field amazingly dominated by men? Any book that can refresh my memory is one I should embrace.

"Harold Lang as the title character in Robert Alton's dream ballet at the end of the first act of Pal Joey (1952 revival). 'Joey Looks into the Future,' arguably the first character-driven dream ballet, was the brainchild of the original 1940 production's set designer, Jo Mielziner." That's always nice to know -- that someone who's not on the writing of a show came up with an important idea. As Sylvia Herscher, a wonderful champion of Broadway, once said to me, "What I like best about musicals is that everybody helps." That's what I'll take away from this caption, rather than rebutting Grant in saying that a case can be made that "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," from On Your Toes was a character-driven ballet four years before this one.

"This photograph of Beggar's Holiday (1946) shows a simple painted backdrop still typical of Broadway musical scenic design in the 1940's and early 1950's." I'm impressed. After all, Grant could have picked any one of literally thousands of photos to illustrate his point about painted backdrops, but choosing one of the 1940s' most fascinating curiosities -- Beggar's Holiday, a musical version of The Beggar's Opera by Duke Ellington and John Latouche -- shows that he wants to give us something different and special.

"Lehman Engel, singer John Reardon, composer Jule Styne, producer David Merrick, and RCA Victor's George Marek in preparation for recording the original cast album of Do Re Mi (1960). Engel founded the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. Most observers believe its alumni have fallen short of creating a second golden age on Broadway." Now, that's a bum rap. We may or may not be having "a second golden age on Broadway," but if we aren't, producers, corporations, unions, and a continually dumbed-down America have failed writers -- not the other way around. There's an excellent possibility that, without the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, we wouldn't have such musicals as Avenue Q, Beauty and the Beast, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Forbidden Broadway, Little Shop of Horrors, Nine, Once on This Island, Ragtime, Raisin, Titanic, Violet, Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown -- and, of course, not only A Chorus Line but also a damn good musical about the man who wrote the lyrics for it. For one thing, workshop exposure helped these shows get on; for another, the workshop has always taught important lessons about the craft of songwriting and has demanded high standards from its writers. Had there been no BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, these shows wouldn't have been nearly as good.

All right. There's never been a book -- not even The Season -- in which I agreed with every word, but Grant has sparked my interest. Excuse me while I start reading The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical.


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

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