What's the Buzz?
Reviews of books about Busby Berkeley, Adah Isaacs Menken, and Wicked.
A veteran of World War I, Berkeley got his start as a choreographer conducting synchronized marching drills for over 1000 artillery men. That military ethos carried over into his Broadway and Hollywood careers and Berkeley developed a reputation as a whip-cracking task master in service of what Mickey Rooney dubbed his "alcoholic perfectionism." Berkeley was often cruel in pursuit of the perfect shot: composer André Previn recalls Berkeley dressing-down a chorister on the set of Million Dollar Mermaid by shouting, "Goddammit you silly bitch, can't you dance any faster?"
Infamous for his drinking habits, Berkeley was arrested numerous times for driving under the influence, the most serious of which resulted in him being charged with three counts of second degree murder after his roadster slammed into another car on a winding Los Angeles road. He was acquitted after three trials. And while he was married six times, he most significant woman in his life was his beloved and ever-present mother, the aptly-named Gertrude. Their co-dependence was such that, after her death at the age of 81, Berkeley attempted suicide.
Of course, for all of his personal failings, Berkeley dreamt and realized some of the most lasting images in musical cinema with films that included 42nd Street, The Gang's All Here, and Gold Diggers of1935 which features the breathtaking sight of 56 grand pianos being played in unison up and down a spiral staircase. Berkeley's ideas shaped our very notion of what a camera can do and what a musical can be.
The work shifts in tone as Berkeley mellows with old age. Billed as his triumphant return to Broadway, Berkeley was largely a figurehead director of successful 1971 Broadway revival ofNo, No, Nanette, and he spent his final working days in New York giving inscrutable television interviews and talking of show-doctoring Hair, a musical he saw as boring and lacking the requisite glitz and girls of a true Broadway hit. Spivak's Berkeley has many layers, but he leaves us with the image of a lovable old grandpa, proud of his life's work, but amnesiac when it comes to the accompanying tragedy.
Indeed, Menken is tricky as the focus of a biography because so much of the information about the 19th-century daredevil/actress/sex symbol is unreliable, founded in rumor and innuendo. Perhaps this was as Menken intended: more than anything her story, like so much of her progeny, is one of remarkable identity transformations amid a constant swirl of media chatter.
In five parts, the Fosters chronicle Menken's journey from her childhood as a poor "girl of color" in antebellum New Orleans to her international recognition as a stage icon, most famously for her performance as the Ukrainian freedom fighter Prince Mazeppa, a role in which she nightly rode a horse bareback (and nearly-nude) up a four-story artificial mountain, always to thunderous applause.
Along the way she married into a wealthy Jewish family in Cincinnati (the second of her five marriages), became an outspoken Zionist, was arrested as a Confederate spy, gained fabulous wealth performing for gold miners in the wild west, and charmed the pants (sometimes literally) off of audiences in 1860s London and Paris.
The cast of characters drummed up by the Fosters to tell her tale is a veritable who's who of the mid-nineteenth century: Walt Whitman, John Wilkes Booth, Alexandre Dumas (père et fils), and Napoleon III represent just a fraction of the people who crossed paths with America's premiere megastar.
Wolf offers skillful literary analysis of all of her subject musicals that is easily accessible to non-musical academics and casual theater fans alike. However, while she does provide plot summaries to help the reader understand, her musicology --a branch of academic writing that some have compared to dancing about architecture -- is a bit indecipherable without actually hearing the material about which she is writing. Thank God for Youtube.
Wolf is clearly a great lover of musical theater, but her adulation is not universal, especially when it comes to the portrayal of women on stage. Her chapter on the megamusicals of the 1980s is particularly scathing. She calls the representation of women in Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera "retrograde." In writing about Eponine's death, she dryly notes, "The women only get to be in scenes with Les Miz's big set when they die."
The only drawback of this otherwise very illuminating and well-written study is Wolf's insistence on framing the entire thing with the Broadway blockbuster Wicked. Indeed, the Stephen Schwartz musical is referenced throughout and Wolf devotes the last two chapters exclusively to its analysis, both literary and cultural. Elevating Wicked to the position of Broadway's feminist golden standard is a little like calling Sarah Palin the crowning achievement of feminism in politics: both are loud, female, and attract throngs of devotees (not to mention exorbitant fees for their respective performances), but they are poor standard-bearers for the broader successes of American feminism.