Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then and Now

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The glorious tradition of the Broadway musical from Irving Berlin to Jerome Kern and Rodgers and Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim...and then...CATS and LES MIS.

Mark Steyn's Broadway Babies Say Goodnight is a sharp-eyed view of the whole span of Broadway's musical history, seven decades of brilliant achievements, the best of which are among the finest works American artists have made. Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, Gypsy, and more.

In an energetic blend of musical history, analysis, and backstage chat, Mark Steyn shows the genius behind the "simple" musical, and asks hard questions about the British invasion of Broadway and the future of the form. In this delicious book, he gives us geniuses and monsters, hits and atomic bombs, and the wonderful stories that prove show business is a business that--as the song goes--there's no business like.

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Editorial Reviews

Robert Gottlieb
Until recently there has been only a small shelf of good books on the subject....Now we have a new eccentric, funny, shrewd and somewhat dismaying book....a dangerously flawed book, yet one that, for anyone intrested in the musical, is absorbing and amusing reading.
New York Times Book Review
Steven Drukman
Mark Steyn has written a somewhat scabrous book about Broadway musicals. Charting the twisted road of the genre's history, Steyn leaves no turn unstoned, touching on every unlikely permulation from Abba to Zorba....At last, a book of theater criticism with real teeth; it may rankle, but it never bores.
OUT Magazine
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Is Broadway musical theater in terminal decline, fed intravenously from London, in headlong retreat to operetta certainties, emotional platitudes and vapidly luxuriant tunes? Almost, but not quite, suggests Steyn in this delightful, irreverent romp through seven decades of American musical theater from Show Boat to Miss Saigon. Taking the pulse of the Great White Way as a theater critic, he finds that Broadway shows have become amorphous creatures, products of the shifting interests of agglomerations of co-producers, fund-raisers, theater owners and provincial tour bookers. His breezy yet substantial surveya spontaneous mix of vibrant history, juicy gossip, plot and song analysis and pungent criticismloses its fizz about halfway through, yet it is filled with gimlet insights into the craft and business of musicals and valuable close-ups of old-timers (Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein, novelist/lyricist P.G. Wodehouse, the Gershwins, Damn Yankees creator George Abbott, etc.) as well as more recent figures (such as producer David Merrick and choreographer/directors Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett). Separate in-depth chapters cover the massive creative contributions of Jews and gays to the Broadway musical; other chapters offer a scathing look at British musicals and skewer rock musicals from Hair to Rent. Along the way, Steyn memorably tweaks Andrew Lloyd Weber (a classic example of imperial overstretch), Stephen Sondheim and others. With encyclopedic knowledge and unabashed passion for the best of Broadway, Steyn explains how an art form has embedded itself into our cultural vocabulary. (May)
Library Journal
Steyn, theater critic for the Wall Street Journal, has written a loosely focused set of chapters on various aspects of the musical--music, lyrics, book, procedures--and on the influence Jews, gays, and the British have had on the form. The best musicals of which Gypsy, 1959, is his pick for all-time greatest are like three-piece suits, in which book, lyrics, and music blend as an ensemble. The "invasion" of the British shows of Andrew Lloyd-Webber Cats, etc., the "age of the technomusical spectacle," and the increasingly self-referential nature of many recent shows have led to the "death of theatrical culture and its metaphorical power." Although his thesis is too simplistic and his argument poorly constructed, Steyn's extensive knowledge of the musical's history and his provocative commentary will be enjoyed by many musical theater buffs. Recommended for public and graduate-level academic libraries with strong performing arts collections.--Robert W. Melton, Univ. of Kansas Libs., Lawrence Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Columnist and theatre critic combines musical history, analysis, and backstage chat to explore the seven decades of the Broadway musical tradition. He discusses the British invasion of Broadway, the future of the form, geniuses and monsters, hits and bombs, and stories about the business. He includes no illustrations. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Robert Gottlieb
Until recently there has been only a small shelf of good books on the subject....Now we have a new eccentric, funny, shrewd and somewhat dismaying book....a dangerously flawed book, yet one that, for anyone intrested in the musical, is absorbing and amusing reading.
The New York Times Book Review
Donald Lyons
...Steyn attempts an autopsy of the genre. Peppered with puns, wisecracks, anecdotes, and interviews, the book does not pretend to be a history; it's a series of freeze-frame slides taken from a spy satellite.
National Review
David M. Burns
Mark Steyn is passionate about the glorious tradition of the musical theater, and he shows us that something has gone seriously wrong...This book is full of puns and backstage anecdotes. Mr. Steyn knows the history of Broadway and West End musicals, and he makes us care that the current crop lacks conviction and craft. He excoriates meretricious gimmicks, and he makes us yearn for shows that are authentic and belivable because they are rooted in human experience.
The Wall Street Journal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780415922876
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 733,075
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Steyn is a columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph and Canada's National Post. He is theatre critic of The New Criterion, North American correspondent of The Spectator, and also contributes to The Wall Street Journal and The American Spectator. A Canadian citizen, he lives in New Hampshire and Québec.
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Table of Contents

Overture: The Fix 3
Act One 11
i The Op'nin' 13
ii The Show 22
iii The Music 29
iv The Lyrics 45
v The Book 62
vi The Jews 74
vii The Cues 88
viii The Take-home Tune 104
ix The Property 117
x The Genius 128
Intermission: The Real World 149
Act Two 161
i The Brits 163
ii The Line 178
iii The Fags 196
iv The Rock 213
v The Jokes 228
vi The Star 241
vii The Flops 254
viii The Depilators 262
ix The Maximalist 273
x The Future 287
Exit Music: The Survivor 307
Acknowledgements 319
Bibliography 324
Index 326
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First Chapter

Chapter One

The Op'nin'

`To me, there's nothing like the overture ending and the curtain going up,' says Arthur Laurents, librettist of Gypsy and West Side Story. `I think that's the most exciting moment in the theatre. And I wish we still had curtains.'

    Here's the opening of The Pajama Game (1954):

    `This is a very serious drama. It's kind of a problem play. It's about Capital and Labour. I wouldn't bother to make such a point of all this except later on if you happen to see a lot of naked women being chased through the woods, I don't want you to get the wrong impression. This play is full of symbolism.'

    Wham! And cue title song.

    In a few lines, George Abbott has distilled the show's spirit: this is a musical comedy about a strike at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. If you don't care for it, fine, leave now; but at least, 40 minutes into Act One, you can't complain you've been misled. What's wrong with most musicals can usually be traced to something in the first ten minutes. This can also be true of plays: with a comedy, the most important decision you make is when and what your first laugh is. But with a musical there are other considerations: in the first ten minutes, you have to communicate the tone of the piece, its atmosphere, its concerns, the musical style, and the staging vocabulary — are we in for dream ballets or buck'n'wings or naturalistic movement?

    Every truly great show has a great op'nin':

    Kiss Me, Kate (1948) has `Another Op'nin', Another Show' — and immediately we're backstage.

    Porgy and Bess (1935) has that languorous lullaby `Summertime' — not much to do with storyline or dramatis personae, but immediately it transports us to Catfish Row in Charleston. By the time the chorus joins in the harmony, the song has infused the community with a spiritual dimension and become its anthem. Because this is a `folk opera', Catfish Row is in its way a character in the drama, perhaps the most important character, and the authors use this song as the community's leitmotif.

    Guys and Dolls (1950) has the trio of horse-gamblers arguing about the best bet of the day: `I got the horse right here!' — or, to give the song its proper title, `Fugue For Tinhorns'. Here's a truly inspired piece of musicalization: three guys with a different opinion on the same subject, noisily insistent that each one knows which horse to bet; and what better way to express this in song than in a sort of Broadway fugue? It underlines Damon Runyon's heightened, stylized vernacular with a musical formality -- entirely appropriate because, despite the breezy brashness, despite the Broadway low life, the world we're about to enter has as elaborate a protocol as any European court.

    My Fair Lady (1956) has a longish (for a musical) dialogue scene, to let you know this show is about words and language, and then goes into `Why Can't The English Learn To Speak?' — and there's the theme of the drama in a nutshell.

    West Side Story (1957), conversely, begins with no words but a musical `Prologue' to accompany the Sharks and Jets dancing — or miming, or moving — their increasing hostility. At the end of this sequence, the Shark leader cuts the ear of a Jet, and a police whistle is heard. This sets the scene for the drama which follows, as well as the music: the composer establishes all the pitches and polarities which bind the West Side numbers together right from the very first chord, a major-minor triad. Obviously, you're not sitting eighth row centre figuring all that out, but by the end of the Prologue you know at least that what follows will be spiky, finger-snappy, urban — and tragic. Just as importantly, you also know that this story will be told as much through movement as anything else; the West Side opening indicates the score's symphonic and choreographic ambitions.

    Gypsy (1959) begins with Uncle Jocko's Kiddie Show in Seattle: the stage is filled with grotesque moppets in tacky, home-made costumes. Suddenly, from the back of the auditorium, a rasping voice shouts, `Sing out, Louise!' and barging her way down the aisle comes the ultimate stage mother, Mama Rose. This is an inspired opening: effectively, the principal character hijacks her own show and disrupts the opening number. If you object that it doesn seem very musical, relax: the score's already home and dry. Most Broadway overtures are arbitrary medleys of choruses of the big songs cobbled together by the orchestrators. Jule Styne overtures aren't: he supervised them himself and he attached great importance to them. For Gypsy, when it came to the blaring strip-joint bump'n'grind E-flat shrieks, he instructed the second trumpet to blow the roof off. The audience applauded wildly. By the end of the overture, they were already on the show's side.

    Sweeney Todd (1979) establishes itself on the very first word of the very first line:

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd ...

    Attend. A less scrupulous dramatist would have written `This is ...' or `Here comes ...' The prosody fits, they get you into the meat of the number. But, by choosing this word, the author is already conjuring time and place — nineteenth-century London. This is a fine example of musical theatre's best qualities: compression, economy, making the most of every aspect of the production so that even this one tiny insignificant word is working in the service of the play. For what it's worth, it's a modal tune. So what? Only one theatregoer in 100,000 sits up and goes, `Ah-ha! A modal tune!' But modal tunes are common in old English ballads, and chances are most of the other 99,999 recognize that what they're hearing sounds as if it's a dark legend, risen up out of a grimy, smoke-shrouded past. Within a few bars, Sweeney Todd is on its way. It's as different as you could imagine from The Pajama Game, but it operates to the same principles. It's a way of answering the most important question on any musical: `What is this show about?'

    It isn't just the audience who wants to know. Jerome Robbins, co-director of Pajama Game and superstager of West Side, always bugs his authors with this question because it's even more critical for them. A good musical is such a freak coalescence of different elements — book, lyrics, music, orchestrations, choreography, design — that, if the creative team doesn't have an agreed answer to that question, chances are they're unlikely to be able to persuade an audience. The best answer Robbins ever received to his nagging poser comes in the opening number of Fiddler on the Roof (1964).

    What is this show about?


    Fiddler is based on a handful of Sholom Aleichem stories about a dairyman in a Ukrainian shtetl, stories which appeared separately between 1895 and 1914. Aleichem's Tevye is not concerned with tradition. When he hears that his daughter has pledged herself to the penniless tailor's son, he's not bothered about the tradition of arranged marriages being broken, only that he's been left out of it. As a theme, tradition is the invention of the stage version, cooked up by librettist Joseph Stein, musicalized by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and magnificently staged by Robbins to bind the short stories together into a coherent whole. It doesn't have a clever lyric; it goes:


It's set up explicitly in Tevye's opening speech, which is less a song cue than a formal announcement:

We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a word — tradition!

And at the end of the number, in case you've still missed the point, Tevye puts a tag on it:

Without our traditions, our life would be as shaky as ...

(The original violin theme is recapitulated.)

... as a fiddler on the roof!

This is what's at stake in the drama. Don't say you weren't warned.

* * *

Even if a musical gets its first ten minutes right, things can still go wrong. But, if it gets the opening wrong, it's highly unlikely to recover. The audience's expectations have been sent in the wrong direction and, as they begin to realize that those expectations won't be fulfilled, they'll be left feeling pretty short-changed.

    Two examples from similar shows: Crazy for You (1991) is the `new' Gershwin musical; High Society (1987) was a `new' Cole Porter musical. In both cases the adaptors had been given free range to roam through their respective composers' catalogues and choose what songs they needed. Crazy for You opens backstage at the Zangler Theatre, New York, where Bobby, desperate to break into showbusiness, performs an impromptu audition for the great impresario Bella Zangler. This is not a `book number' — that's to say, the music is not an expression of character or plot point arising from the dialogue, the defining convention of musical theatre. Instead, more prosaically, it's a real number, a `prop number': Bobby is backstage and doing the song for Zangler. So it's sparely orchestrated -- little more than a rehearsal piano and some support; it's one chorus; and its tap-break ends with Bobby stamping on Zangler's foot. This is grim reality: Bobby is expelled from the theatre. Outside, he makes a decision, and sings `I Can't Be Bothered Now' — the second song, but the real opening number: the first `book number' in the show. There is an automobile onstage (it's the 1930s) and, as Bobby opens the door, one showgirl, pretty in pink, steps out, then another, and another, and more and more, far more than could fit in any motor car; finally, Bobby raises the hood of the vehicle and the last chorine emerges. The audience leans back, reassured and content: Susan Stroman's fizzy, inventive choreography has told them that what's about to follow is romantic fantasy. More to the point, it's true to the character of the song, and the choice of song is true to Bobby's character and the engine of the drama:

My bonds and shares
May fall downstairs
Who cares? Who cares?
I'm dancing and
I Can't Be Bothered Now ...

This lyric captures the philosophy of Ira Gershwin's entire oeuvre — which is important: the show is a celebration of Gershwin. But it's also an exact expression of Bobby's feelings and the reason why he heads to Dead Rock, Arkansas. So the number does everything it should: it defines the principal's motivation; it kick-starts the plot; and it communicates the spirit of the score and the staging. Audiences don't reason it out like that; we just eat it up. But that's why.

    High Society, a West End adaptation of Philip Barry's Philadelphia Story (1939), was an almost identical project. Where Crazy for You was derived from the Gershwins' Girl Crazy (1930) but drew on other songs as needed, High Society started with Cole Porter's score for the 1956 film and augmented it as necessary. The plot concerns the arrival of a journalist and photographer from Spy magazine to cover a society wedding, and the complications that ensue. Librettist/director Richard Eyre decided that, although the rest of the show takes place in Philadelphia, he would open with a prologue set in the Spy editorial offices, back in New York, as the reporters are given their assignment. Sounds fair enough. So Eyre trawled the Porter catalogue for a song that was apropos and came across `How Do You Spell Ambassador?', originally written for a chorus of stupid, lazy reporters:

`How do you spell "Moscow", men?'
`Too tough, by far ...'
`How do you spell "administration", then?'
`Just put FDR.'

You can see Eyre's reasoning: he opens the show with a scene set in a newspaper office; here is a song set in a newspaper office. But what's the song about? It's about how thick and careless hacks are. This isn't the theme of High Society, so, on those grounds alone, it would be irrelevant. But, actually, it's worse than irrelevant: the journalist and photographer (Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm in the 1956 film) are the most sympathetic characters in the piece — the one a noble but frustrated would-be novelist, the other a wisecracking but vulnerable lady snapper; they're our point of view on the caperings of society folk. By giving them this song as the first expression of their character Eyre is destabilizing the axis of the drama. So this song is actively misleading about all that follows. And, apart from anything else, whatever the superficial aptness of its lyric content, it's musically undistinguished. As a result, audiences at the Victoria Palace sat restless and confused through the first half of Act One.

    Eyre is no fool. He's the director of the Royal National Theatre, and few men have as sharp an understanding of non-musical drama. But, in this instance, he'd approached the show with a plodding literalism. He didn't understand that, in a musical, the first number has to be more than just the number which comes first.

    Some weeks after the first night Eyre realized what was happening and decided to change the song. He reverted to the opening number as used in the film, `High Society Calypso'. But this was never anything more than just a bit of fluff for Louis Armstrong and his band, though they did it with great charm. Eyre didn't have Satch, nor could he use the lyric:

Just dig that scenery floatin' by
We're now approachin' Newport, Rhode I.

The movie was set in Newport, Rhode Island; Eyre's version restored the original setting, Philadelphia. So that couplet had to go. Then:

I wanna play for my former pal
He runs the local jazz festival.

In the movie, he did run the Newport festival; but not in Eyre's version. So goodbye, verse two. Unable to fit Porter's lyric, Eyre was obliged to call in Richard Stilgoe to rewrite the song. So he winds up with a Cole Porter show which doesn't open with a Cole Porter song. This was less disruptively misleading than `How Do You Spell Ambassador?', but still unsatisfying.

    What should he have done? Well, the show limped along for threequarters of an hour or so until the two hacks, surveying the wedding presents, sing `Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?': at last, a song—that lands. Why not open with this? In the offices of Spy magazine, the reporters are contemplating their next assignment, which both of them despise. `Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?' would have been not merely a correct expression of their own sentiments, but it's what the show's about, too: `the privileged classes enjoying their privileges' and the journalists' reaction to it. You could have coasted on the goodwill it engenders for a good 30 minutes. Eyre, unlike the creators of Crazy for You, misunderstood the form. So Crazy for You plays on, while High Society is a forgotten flop. Those first ten minutes did for it.

* * *

Conventional Broadway wisdom says you should always write the first song last, because by then you know what the show's about — and, besides, the original curtain-raiser always gets junked and replaced. Annie's did, so did Guys and Dolls'. Almost alone among Broadway authors, Kander and Ebb make a point of doing the first song first. `The reasons you give for writing it last,' says Fred Ebb, `are exactly the reasons why we do it first — to define the show before you begin writing it. It's like a court of law: first you get up and say I'm going to prove to you this man is guilty, and then you proceed to do so. But you state your case up front.'

    So Kander and Ebb always do the opening number first — and that may be why, alone among the major Broadway writers of the past 30 years, they've never had a major disastrous humiliating floperoo. Come smash hit or modest success, their shows open with numbers that set the tone, the atmosphere, the time and place brilliantly. Chicago (1975) had `All That Jazz', but even The Rink (1984) had `Coloured Lights', as Angel, Ugly-duckling flower-child, prepares to return home after seven years and recalls long-ago nights at the roller rink:

Noisy boys long and lean
Giggles of girls in the mezzanine ...

A peach of an image, wistful and nostalgic, but a delusion. When she gets back, there are no coloured lights, no giggles or girls, only a derelict, rotting ruin.

    `With Cabaret, we were trying to find the piece, to write our way into it,' John Kander remembers. `The first thing we wrote was "Willkommen" and the very first thing that ever happened was that little vamp.' Kander is routinely hailed as the champ of the vamps, those little musical figures that, when they work, really kick-start a song — the `dum-dum-da-de-dum' at the front of `New York, New York' is his surefire killer. `When you find something you like, it tells you about the direction you want to go in.'

    The Cabaret opener has embedded itself in our cultural vocabulary. For the film Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks wrote Madeline Kahn, who was playing a Teuton saloon chantoosie in the Destry/Dietrich manner, a dressing-room scene where she greeted every knock on the door with the trilingual spoken instruction, `Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome': he knew we'd get the joke. At first glance, it seems for Cabaret the most obvious and old-fashioned opening you could come up with: `Welcome to the show.' But Joel Grey is seducing us, slyly beckoning us into the club as a retreat from the troubles of the world — whereas what happens in the cabaret is, in fact, a comment and a mirror on what's going on in the wider world. It's a frequent complaint that the `concept' musical undervalues the score, but Kander and Ebb at least have managed to give the production concept a musical character too, just as their predecessors did for character and location. In Cabaret, the cabaret is the main character, and it's set up perfectly. In Chicago, Bob Fosse staged a 1920s murder trial as a vaudeville, so Kander and Ebb's opener is an invitation to hit the town and enjoy `All That Jazz' — in both senses: the music and the vaudeville, but also all the flim-flam and huckstering and razzle-dazzle of the legal process. In Chicago, the `jazz' is the character.

    We have Rodgers and Hammerstein to thank for making these principles stick, in one blockbuster hit after another. If R&H seem conventional today, it's because they invented the conventions — especially the most important one: let the story dictate the tone. To those who scoff at the R&H format, there's a simple retort: what format? These boys start their first show — Oklahoma! (1943) — with a woman alone on-stage churning butter. In the distance, we hear a solo voice:

Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'
Oh, what a beautiful day ...

It seems as simple as a folk-song, but no anonymous, demotic farm-hand's singalong would have Curly sing `mor-nin" on D natural and then, in the equivalent spot two lines on, `fee-lin" on D sharp. You need a professional composer for that: they signal Curly's intensity of feeling about the land he belongs to. This is more than mere pastiche can ever achieve: Rodgers and Hammerstein have taken a folk form and imbued it with deep, rare passion.

    But for their next trick, Carousel (1945), there's no butter churner, no solo from the wings. Instead, they dump the overture and lay out all the exposition and the principal characters in a pantomime. A pantomime in waltz time, too. More than that, a pantomime in waltz time that manages to be utterly naturalistic. And then, and then ... we're into dialogue and underscoring, effortlessly, unobtrusively matched — and matched to the mill machinery, too — and then the two girls' colloquial rhythmic chatter flowers into song — `You're A Queer One, Julie Jordan' and `When I Marry Mister Snow' — and then Billy Bigelow, the carnival barker, appears and he and Julie speculate on what might happen `If I Loved You'. This is an entire courtship in song: by the end of it, we know that Billy and Julie love each other, will always love each other, and that this love will bring great pain to them.

    Mozart may have better music, Shakespeare better words, but only in the American musical play do we see the constituent elements fusing to create a unified, indissoluble identity. There are no rules: you can start with dialogue or song or dance or all three, but it must be the appropriate conveyance for the themes of the play. We've known all this since the opening night which opened it all up: 27 December 1927. Accustomed only to racy musical comedy or florid operetta, the first-night audience at the Ziegfeld gave an audible gasp as the curtain rose on the most startling of any Broadway chorus to date — sweating black stevedores loading cotton and singing:

Niggers all work on the Mississippi
Niggers all work while the white folks play ...

From that first shocking word, confronting midtown Manhattan with aspects of their society they preferred not to think about, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II presented their audience with something new: drama in music, with neither element constrained by the other. It is the ultimate opening number, because it is the opening number for all that follows.

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