The Wit and Wisdom of Steven Suskin
Filichia relives the 2001-2002 theater season with the help of Steven Suskin's latest Broadway Yearbook.
And I didn't care a whit, because I had with me Steven Suskin's new Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002: A Relevant and Irreverent Record (Oxford Press; 398pp.). This is Suskin's third book in the series, and while Funny Cide may or may not win the Triple Crown when he runs the Belmont on Saturday, I can certainly attest that Suskin has already won it with this terrific tome.
He takes only 14 words to mention September 11, the events of which were far more dramatic than anything that happened between 41st and 54th Streets. Suskin occasionally returns to the tragedy throughout the book, always dealing with it tastefully. He's also thorough enough to point out that, while business was hurt by the terrorist attacks, "Variety had an extended story about the grim prospects for the fall complete with gloomy prognostications from top theater executives in the issue that hit newsstands on September 10."
After his introduction, Suskin offers 40 chapters: One for each of 2001-2002's 36 Broadway atttractions; one on Mike Nichols's star-studded Seagull in Central Park; and one for each of the three Encores! oresentations. Each essay, arranged chronologically by opening, features a replication of the show's program cover and title page; its list of characters and the actors who played them; statistics on the opening, closing, and performance tally; profit/loss rundown; critical reaction; awards or nominations; and a pull-quote or two.
Do you know the term "pull-quote"? That's a line taken from a certain text, set in larger type and given prominence on the page to draw the reader's eye. For example, one pull-quote in Suskin's book in reference to Sweet Smell of Success is: "The first rule of Broadway musicalization of motion picture hits is if you can't enhance the experience of the original, don't do it." Suskin's editors must have agonized over which quotations to pull from each chapter, given that the author provided so many delicious ones.
While Suskin doesn't suffer fools gladly, he's fair in the way he assesses them. In regard to If You Ever Leave Me... I'm Going with You!, he says: "Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna came out to present their greatest hits, the problem being that they don't have any greatest hits." On the place where Urinetown started: "The American Theatre of Actors is a space so rustic that it made the Jane Street Theatre seem like the New Amsterdam." With a sharp eye for the business, Suskin notices that "The Graduate outgrossed half the musicals" on Broadway that season. We also learn that actors who perform at the Delacorte in Central Park for the New York Shakespeare Festival get $646 a week.
Suskin gives credit to those who don't routinely get it. ("Philip Rose had a knack for discovering and launching talent: Diana Sands, Godfrey Cambridge, Michele Lee, Al Pacino, Cleavon Little, Melba Moore, Sherman Hemsley, and Penelope Miller.") But he's not afraid to take some away from those who usually do get it. ("If the list of George Abbott's hits is impressive, none of Broadway's greatest all-time musicals are on it.")
He notes that, "With Hedda Gabler, Nicholas Martin finally made his Broadway directing debut -- at the age of 63. Aspiring artists, take note." This could be taken as a comfort or a warning. Suskin also points out things we all should have thought of, but may not have: "Mamma Mia took place in Greece. But why does it have an Italian title?" And he's shrewd enough to wonder if Fred Ebb would have done the Encores! adaptation of Chicago himself, rather than leaving it to David Thompson, if he'd known that it would transfer to Broadway, run for years, and yield an adapter "hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties."
Suskin has an eye for casting, too. "One wonders what Mandy Patinkin might have done as the Emcee in Harold Prince's Cabaret" and "Imagine Alan Alda in Sweet Charity or Promises, Promises or On the Twentieth Century" are just two of his smart observations. He's also a good enough detective to find that Barbara Cook's name appeared on a "preliminary casting list" for the original production of Follies.
Almost every chapter includes a good deal of historical background on someone connected with the show. His two-page synopsis of the life of Clare Booth Luce is so fascinating that I expect some talented writer-actress will be spurred to find out more, and will fashion a one-woman show that will make it into a future Broadway Yearbook.
Along the way, you feel you're in secure hands, partly because Suskin establishes his credentials. He mentions that he's still a member of Actor's Equity; that he "produced a show of James Lapine's" (in fact, it was no less than Falsettoland); that he was assistant general manager and stage manager for the 1973 Broadway revival of The Pajama Game; that he was company manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado about Nothing that ran in repertory; and that he once sold concessions at Butley.
So, while the delayed commuters that surrounded me yesterday were scowling at their watches, I had a smile on my face as I read Suskin's sharp note that Trigorin in The Seagull "is tortured by the knowledge that his epitaph will read, 'He was good, but not as good as Turgenev,'" followed by his note that "Turgenev was so good, in fact, that he ended the season with his own personal Tony nomination (for Fortune's Fool)." Regarding the bonhomie that the owners of the Polish Tea Room bestow on their customers in Neil Simon's 45 Seconds From Broadway, Suskin wittily remarks: "I've been in the Edison hundreds of times and I've never got more than a 'Hello, how are you' from the proprietor." (Me, too.) Of course, there were times when I scowled because I disagreed with some of Suskin's opinions. For example, he rates "Humming" from Carnival! as "extraneous and mediocre," but it's always been one of my favorite moments of the score. I guess you've got to expect that from any book you read.
After he finishes his seasonal report, Suskin gives his own personal Tonys -- not by category, but by naming the "people whose contributions made the season of theatergoing brighter." Urinetown and Elaine Stritch at Liberty are mentioned several times in this context, and Stritch's picture graces the cover of the book. After this comes a list of the real Tony winners and nominees, plus those whom Suskin feels were overlooked, followed by the winners of the other major awards. He spends six pages on statistical information on the holdovers, three on shows that didn't come in, and nine on some six dozen obituaries.
Best of all is a list of long-run leaders, but not quite in the way that you might expect: Suskin splits the entries into one list for musicals that ran 1,000 or more performances and another for plays that ran that long. (Interesting that the plays list hasn't changed one whit in the since Suskin started the series. Don't be surprised if it never does.) The author also details the highest ranking any show ever had if it ever made the top 10. How fascinating it is to see that Pins and Needles, once in first place, is now in 51st place. Dislodging the Broadway Yearbook series from first place in my theater library will be much harder to do.