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Something's Afoot

Charles Wright reviews Writer's Block, a musical-theater-themed murder mystery by Bruce Kimmel. logo
A theatrical greenroom, with its claustrophobic gossip and the operatic emotions of thespians thrown together for the run of a play, is the ideal setting for a "who-done-it," so it's odd that so few mystery writers have taken advantage of the idea. In his murder mystery Writer's Block (Author House, 208 pp., $20), Bruce Kimmel not only utilizes the melodramatic potential of a greenroom, he takes advantage of the tumult that Larry Gelbart captured so memorably by wishing that if Hitler was still alive, he was out of town with a Broadway musical. "There is nothing more inherently dramatic than the tryout of a new musical," remarks one of Kimmel's characters, "especially one with a second act as bad as the one... in the show we were working on...and...with players as volatile as we were."

Kimmel -- an actor, singer, and author of three previous novels -- is best known as the Grammy-nominated producer of more than 125 recordings of theater music for labels such as Varèse Sarabande and Fynsworth Alley. Writer's Block is slender in size, a mere snack for readers accustomed to the fatted calves of storytellers like Elizabeth George and Caleb Carr, but it contains sufficient narrative complication to give established mystery writers of that ilk a run for their money. And Kimmel has filled the book's 200 pages with a bonanza of graphic and typographical novelties. He offers, for instance, a full page of ad copy for the Broadway-bound show that serves as backdrop to the novel's action. This includes a vintage performance schedule (no Sunday shows) and 1969 admission prices (a $12 top for evenings, Monday through Thursday; $15.00, Fridays and Saturdays; $7.90 for matinees). Bundled with Writer's Block is a compact disc, labeled Bus and Truck!: Demo Recording, that contains four songs but no performance credits. (The smart money says one of the voices on this ostensible "demo" is Kimmel himself -- or, rather, his recording-artist doppelgänger, Guy Haines.)

Bus and Truck! is the somewhat Sondheim-esque backstage show within Kimmel's backstage novel. It supposedly opened at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) on April 24, 1969 -- in the same season as Promises, Promises, 1776, Zorba, and Dear World. Sharp eyes perusing the clever graphics in Writer's Block will detect that, in Kimmel's hypothetical universe, the Alvin is located at 212 West 54th Street rather than its actual 52nd Street address. That's just as well since, in April 1969, Kimmel's fictional company would have had difficulty loading-in on 52nd Street, where Howard Sackler's hit drama The Great White Hope was solidly ensconced at the real-life Alvin.

Insofar as one can tell from Writer's Block and the accompanying CD, Bus and Truck! concerns vagabond performers -- none of them very successful -- in a touring production of a Jerry-Herman-ish show that's the musical within the musical. As the title Bus and Truck! suggests, the performers are part of a low-end tour playing brief stints in small and medium-sized cities after the first-class "national company" has already had a crack at the metropolises. The CD contains four items of top-drawer pastiche -- a couple of up-tempo numbers, including the fictional show's title chorus, and two lovely ballads. The novel is not as effective as the parodic CD, and Kimmel falls short of his aspiration to be the Vladimir Nabokov of the Great White Way. Yet, despite haphazard grammar and a gaping hole in its logic, Writer's Block is one of those rare murder mysteries that pays greater dividends upon a second reading.

Kimmel sends his imaginary musical play along the roller-coaster route traversed by legions of Broadway-bound productions during the last century: rehearsals in Manhattan and at a scenic studio in the Bronx; a no-frills run-through for members of the industry; then to New Haven for a week, Boston for three weeks, and back to New York for the moment of reckoning. The phenomenon is largely historical, since most of today's musicals are nurtured in nonprofit workshops, safe from the press and industry nay-sayers.

The diverting first half of Writer's Block is an omniscient account of backstage intrigues. This part of Kimmel's narrative follows the Bus and Truck! creative team and a handful of company members from the first read-through to their New York opening. The plot is fueled by conflicts relating to flaws in the libretto's second act and romantic competition for one of the women in the chorus. The serviceable story is subordinate throughout to Kimmel's arresting characterizations, which develop largely through zippy, disputatious dialogue. Readers who come to Writer's Block for its show biz associations will count this a virtue; those in the market for a bang-up mystery will prefer the more straightforward narratives of Englishman Simon Brett or Americans Jane Dentinger and Ellen Hart, three other writers fond of theatrical milieux.

Any reader familiar with the past five or six decades of New York theater will recognize in Kimmel's dramatis personae traits of historical figures. None, perhaps, are lifted directly from life, but the sources of authorial inspiration are apparent. The producer is a martinet with a string of long-running shows in his wake and a hint of sadism in every word he utters. The director-choreographer -- as famous for a marital break-up with his long-time dance partner as for his work in MGM musicals of the 1950s -- has a habit of romancing young women from the chorus of his current show. The curmudgeonly librettist is devoted to intellectual parlor games. The composer-lyricist is bisexual, antisocial, and vindictive, liked by no one but tolerated on account of his genius for verse and melody. The leading lady, who has inspired Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Irving Berlin, is an audience sweetheart now having trouble remembering dialogue and songs.

The initial half of the novel culminates in a death which, if accidental (as it appears to be), represents the world at its most chaotic and unreasonable. The book's second half commences with an abrupt change in point of view, from third to first-person, and the action leaps forward from 1969 to 2005. The new narrative voice is that of a novelist and lifelong theater buff who's reached an impasse in writing a fictional story, a murder mystery, inspired by an actual event: the apparently accidental death of someone involved in the Broadway-bound production of Bus and Truck!. This new voice laments culture's decline over the last 36 years: "I...don't understand the world in which I live. I don't understand the people who run the government, I don't understand the government period, I hate the media and the way they do things, I hate gas prices, I hate freeways and traffic and taxes and the movies they make and theme-park musicals and bad novels and bad television and disloyal, spoiled people."

For all of his disgust with the present, Kimmel's novelist isn't sanguine about the past. "[I]t would be great to get lost back in 1969, in New York, on Broadway," he thinks, while conceding that those days weren't "so great either" -- "[t]oo many hippies and drugs and love power and stupid clothes for my taste. But 1969 was nirvana compared to now. There was a fierce energy back then. People appreciated creativity and nurtured it, and everywhere you looked there were new and exciting things happening -- in theater, in music, in books, in movies."

Bruce Kimmel
Having established the grumpy voice of his blocked novelist, Kimmel shifts back and forth, chapter-by-chapter, between his new narrative about writing a murder mystery and the murder mystery already in progress. Then, while juggling these, he tosses up another narrative ball -- but, since he's writing a novel of suspense, it wouldn't be sporting to reveal much about that here. The most it's fair to say is that Kimmel's third narrative skein involves an eyewitness who causes both writer and reader to reassess everything that has gone before.

Kimmel is a dab hand at mischievous surprises geared to theater aficionados and industry insiders. For instance, a parlor game called "What If?" figures from time to time in the action. In this game, the players fabricate parody lyrics for a song from one musical -- let's say Guys & Dolls -- to suggest what another Broadway musical -- perhaps The King and I -- would be like if the song's composer and lyricist had written that show. Here's Kimmel's answer (or that of a character in Writer's Block) to this particular hypothetical: "When the King's a guy / And Miss Anna's his 'I' / You can bet there'll be fireworks in Siam … ."

A substantial part of the fun of Writer's Block is Kimmel's expert evocation of a bygone era in New York theater. He knows the signature locations for show folk and companies on tour -- Downey's, Lindy's, Sardi's, the Taft Hotel and the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, the Ritz and the Shubert in Boston -- and, whether from experience or research, he conjures them for the reader. In addition, he gives credible life to the likely dynamics of an out-of-town tryout -- the unrelenting deadlines, the assaults on the egos of the creative team, the lack of privacy, the short tempers, and the tyranny of the industry grapevine and the trade press.

But, playful as Writer's Block may be, Kimmel is working in a genre -- the murder mystery -- that is seriously and supremely moral. Mystery writers confront the world's catastrophes with the assumption that sufficient intelligence, application, and insight can discern a rationale for all occurrences. In this genre, the news about human nature may not be good, but all of life's Sturm und Drang -- domestic violence, neighborly disputes and early death, for instance -- is explainable through investigation, reflection, and the occasional stroke of lucky revelation. Kimmel is as serious as the next mystery writer, yet what's distinctive about him is his unrelenting focus on theater. Writer's Block is, ultimately, a who-done-it about what happened to the American musical.

Steeped as he is in theater history, Kimmel hasn't been haphazard in choosing 1969 as the chronological locus of Writer's Block. He captures, as counterpoint to his story, what was seething under the surface of American musical theater in that particular year. Near the start of the book, three characters -- the director-choreographer, the librettist, and the composer -- amble by the Shubert Theatre on their way to Sardi's. The tenderfoot composer makes his older companions pause to eavesdrop on the overture of Promises, Promises. "Listen to that," he says; it's "the new sound of Broadway."

Promises, Promises was the single Broadway outing by the 1960s pop music duo Burt Bacharach and Hal David. As the omniscient narrator of Kimmel's novel-within-a-novel says, that show's orchestrations were "heavy on...rhythm[,] electric and exciting." All the musicians were amplified, lending the score a studio sound; and the mixing board that Bacharach set up at the back of the Shubert was "a first for Broadway." "Isn't that incredible?" exclaims the young composer. "It gives me a headache," replies the much older librettist. "Why does Broadway need a new sound anyway?" "Because," says the composer, "it's happening, it's now."

In many ways, 1968 and '69 were the end of a golden age for the musical theater. To some along the Rialto, the pop-inflected Promises, Promises, arriving on the heels of Hair (the so-called "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical"), seemed evidence that barbarians from the world of rock 'n' roll were storming their gates. With rock by then the dominant mode of popular music, show tunes -- except a couple from Promises, Promises and Hair -- had ceased to be grist for the Top 40; and theater personalities were appealing more and more to specialized audiences, less and less to the public at large. The cost of producing musicals had begun to soar, making it difficult to recoup investments let alone show a profit. The Chinese boxes of Kimmel's narrative pose a significant, persisting question about American cultural history: How did Broadway lose its status as the principal thoroughfare for mainstream culture? What marginalized musical theater?

Kimmel the yarn-spinner has no difficulty producing a culprit for Writer's Block, but Kimmel the theatrical commentator doesn't have an answer for what went awry in Broadway's relationship with the American populace. That's because, as the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste. Mainstream culture went in one direction while Broadway -- despite anomalies such as Rent and The Who's Tommy -- carried on as before, neither assimilating to the world around it nor showing much desire to do so.

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