What Would Barbra Do?: How Musicals Changed My Life

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Emma Brockes didn't always love musicals. In fact, she hated them. One of her earliest (and most painful) memories is of her mother singing "The Hills Are Alive" while young Emma crossed the street to go to her babysitting gig. According to her mother, the music would keep muggers at bay. According to Emma, it warded off friends, a social life, and any chance of being normal. As she grew older, however, these same songs continued to resonate in her head, first like a broken ...

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Emma Brockes didn't always love musicals. In fact, she hated them. One of her earliest (and most painful) memories is of her mother singing "The Hills Are Alive" while young Emma crossed the street to go to her babysitting gig. According to her mother, the music would keep muggers at bay. According to Emma, it warded off friends, a social life, and any chance of being normal. As she grew older, however, these same songs continued to resonate in her head, first like a broken record and then as a fond reminder of her mother's love.

Some people would slice off their arm with a plastic knife before they'd sit through Fiddler on the Roof or The Sound of Music. But musicals are everywhere, and it's about time someone asked why. From An American in Paris to Oklahoma!, Brockes explores the history, art, and politics of musicals, and how they have become an indelible part of our popular culture. Smartly written and incredibly witty, this is a book for people who understand that there are few situations in which the question "What would Barbra do?" doesn't have relevance, in a world much better lived to a soundtrack of show tunes. At the heart of What Would Barbra Do? is a touching story about a daughter, a mother, and how musicals kept them together. Part memoir, part musical history tour, it will keep you laughing and singing all at once.

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Editorial Reviews

Dave Itzkoff
If this book cannot persuade you to recognize all that is good about musicals, you are either a hopeless curmudgeon or a Tony Awards voter…Brockes delivers a spirited, articulate and utterly devourable defense of this underappreciated, if enduring, art form…Whether she's casually demolishing the earnestness of "Rent"…discussing the major flops of Rodgers and Hammerstein or arguing that the Eminem film "8 Mile" follows the guidelines of the traditional movie musical, she displays a seemingly boundless appreciation for pop history, and her writing is almost always personable without being self-absorbed, clever without being arch.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Londoner Brockes, a 29-year-old playwright who writes for the Guardian, expounds on her love of musicals. When she was younger, she pretended to like the music her friends listened to, but she had inherited a fascination for musicals, both stage and film, from her mother. Off to college in 1994, she and her friend Adi became a "movement of two," listening to such recordings as Hits from the Blitz: The Best of Vera Lynn, periodically holding "Yentl and Lentil" evenings and creating play lists in which "any musical made post-1971 was automatically thrown out as unworthy." Analyzing her Golden Age favorites, she writes with wit and verve about everything from musical-haters, the flops of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the "secret language" of Mary Poppins to Esther Williams ("a sort of Bette Davis of the high diving board") and Funny Face("a man woos a woman by undermining her theories of French existentialism with the rival philosophy 'think pink' "). A chapter on the five musicals "that stand the best chance of converting a hostile male audience to the charms of the genre" is delightful. Her passion is so contagious that this entertaining musical memoir, rambling and clever, might also be capable of creating converts. (May 1)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A memoir about musicals that doesn't come up roses. Recalling a spat with a friend over the musical Cats, Brockes admits, "I don't know quite what point I'm trying to make here." Agreed. The disagreement, however vital to the arguers, comes to only a vague, general point and verges on banality. A lack of focus dogs the rest of the book, a fuzzy commentary about musicals inspired by a mother who sped the author on her way by singing songs from The Sound of Music. Brockes works on an extremely shaky foundation. She places the golden age of musicals as occurring between 1950 and 1965, despite a critical consensus that places the heyday as taking place during the '40s and '50s. She zigzags, often unclearly, from stage to film musicals without considering the vastly different ways they work and affect audiences. Problems with fact and rhetoric further undermine her discussion. She cites "Everything's Coming Up Roses!" as the "happy ending" number in Gypsy, when the number actually climaxes in the first act and the musical reaches an unhappy ending in the second act with "Rose's Turn." She argues that in Carousel, Billy Bigelow returns to earth only to slap his daughter's face, ignoring the penultimate scene in which Billy imparts faith to his daughter and expresses love to his wife. Her commentary on Show Boat overlooks the 1936 James Whale version, which many critics cite as one of the greatest of film musicals. She deems Flower Drum Song a flop, though on stage it was a critical and commercial success. She reports that Jane Darwell won an Oscar for Gone with the Wind when the actress actually won for The Grapes of Wrath. And she bills Alice Faye as the star of King Kong, though it wasactually Fay Wray. Curtain down.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061254611
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/1/2007
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 4.87 (w) x 7.12 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Emma Brockes is an award-winning writer at the UK Guardian. She studied English at Oxford University, where she edited Cherwell, the student newspaper, and won the Philip Geddes Prize for journalism. In 2001 she was named Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards. In 2002 she was voted Feature Writer of the Year, one of the youngest-ever recipients of the award. What Would Barbra Do? is her first book. She lives in London.

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First Chapter

What Would Barbra Do?
How Musicals Changed My Life

Chapter One

Magic Moments

Two summers ago I flew from London to L.A. to interview a man called Lemmy. Lemmy, if you are as unfamiliar with him as I was, is the lead singer of Motorhead, a heavy metal band that sold a lot of records in the 1970s, mainly to boys in black T-shirts with the arms cut out of them and girls with Manson Family hairdos. I say heavy metal; for all I know it is thrash metal that Motorhead does, or death metal; in any case it is the sort of metal that sounds like two trains crashing and is guaranteed, as Lemmy puts it, to "make your lawn die" if it moves in next door to you.

I was not an obvious choice for the job.

We had agreed to meet at the Rainbow Bar and Grill on Sunset Boulevard, where Marilyn Monroe met Joe DiMaggio and which the night before the interview I visualized as a cocktail lounge, with dim lighting and velvet booths and a wraithlike serving staff who communicated telepathically to avoid disturbing the talent. I wondered what they would make of Lemmy. I had read that he collected Nazi memorabilia and his latest album, Inferno, was basically a list of all the people who he thought might want to kill you, among them the devil and unspecified men on horseback. "No mercy / We bring the sword."

On a piece of letter-size paper I wrote: "Where is metal music going? How does the new metal compare to the old metal? Is metal misunderstood as an art form?"

The next morning I stood in the pearly L.A. light outside a locked, distressed-looking bar, which I guessed had changed hands since the 1950s. There were nobooths and the poster on the wall advertised a band called Sick Sex, featuring a half-naked woman with the word "Slayer" written across her torso. "They're shut?" said Lemmy. "Oh, fuck." And taking two chairs down from a table on the terrace, he gave the photographer a hundred-dollar-bill and sent him to buy Jack Daniels and ice and whatever I was drinking—"Coke"—


"Er, vodka and Coke"

—from an off-license around the corner.

I liked Lemmy. He had lived in L.A. for fourteen years, but still sounded like a comedian on the northern pub circuit. He never had a hangover because he was never entirely sober. "People don't know how to be outrageous anymore," he growled, pointing to a corner of the terrace where, in days gone by, he recalled couples having sex in full view of the bar. Lemmy looked wistful, then cross. "If you tried that now the feminist people would go fucking nuts."

At some point in the interview I let my eyes wander to the outside wall of the bar, where a heavy metal hall of fame had been hung. Lemmy followed my gaze. He asked how many figures on it I could name. Alice Cooper. Steve Tyler. Ozzy Osbourne. I was doing pretty well. "Who's that?" said Lemmy, pointing to a man with a spray of 1980s hair.

"Don Johnson?"

"For fuck's sake. David Lee Roth."

He looked at me suspiciously. "What kind of music do you listen to?"

There was a pause. It seemed to go on for some time.

What kind of music do you listen to?

Over the previous fifteen years, there had only been one brief period when I could have answered this question with anything approaching the truth. That was in early 1996 when I was at university and something called lounge music came briefly back into fashion. It was driven by a kitsch cover band called Mike Flowers Pops and the album Music to Watch Girls By, a bunch of easy-listening tunes used mainly in jeans ads and promoted as chill-out music for people who would otherwise be listening to skinny white men singing plaintively about their girlfriends. They took up "lounge" as you might take up something called "crap"—to show how their patronage could make even the most unpromising material cool.

Lounge music was not very interesting. It was half pastiche, half dim marketing exercise. It threw together mad compilations on the basis that all music made pre–1965 was pretty much the same. But it was the closest the top 40 had come to my record collection in a long time and I could've pulled off fake interest in it without too much effort, just as in 1985 I had been a fake A-Ha fan, in 1986 a fake Michael Jackson fan, in 1987 a fake Jesus and Mary Chain fan, in 1988 a fake INXS fan and even at one stage, in the early 1990s, a fake heavy metal fan, buttressing queries about my music taste with the mighty, conversation-stopping word "Sepultura." According to Kerrang! magazine, Sepultura was "Brazil's biggest metal band," an impressive fact to wheel out under music taste interrogation, except when you confused "Sepultura" with "Scarabeya." Scarabeya was not Brazil's biggest metal band, it was my friend Sophie's brother Richard's metal band, which played in school halls around the Aylesbury and Stoke Mandeville area.


"Scarabeya. The metal band. You know. From Brazil. That sort of thing."

I pirated every top-40 album that the village library stocked and played them in my sleep. I listened to Radio 1 before school in the morning and taped endless compilations off the chart show on Sunday nights. Some of the music I genuinely liked (not the Jesus and Mary Chain, obviously) and there was an extended period of Stock Aitken and Waterman worship that I thankfully grew out of, otherwise this book would be about Big Fun. And yet, as I labored over my stereo in flagrant breach of British copyright law—this is what passed for rebellion in the 1980s' Home Counties—it was just no good. Nothing took and the voices in my head kept whispering: "Easy listening is good, easy listening is goooood." Cursing, I dragged myself back to Bing Crosby's 1932 version of "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime" and the soundtrack to The Band Wagon.

What Would Barbra Do?
How Musicals Changed My Life
. Copyright © by Emma Brockes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    Emma Brockes was raised in England by a mom who would break into show tunes at the drop of a hat. Growing up in the age of DVDs, Emma and her girlfriends were free to to watch their favorite musicals ad infinitum , and boy, did they ever (imagine seeing Mary Poppins 150 times). Now she describes the influence that the shows and songs have had on certain aspects of her life. Wry and witty, Brockes deconstructs the genre, analyzing plots, messages, the good (five of Rodgers and Hammerstein's), the bad (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), and the worst of all time (Xanadu). The book is sprinkled heavily with comic incidents and observations, a tongue-in-cheek yet authoritative survey of the history of musicals in all their spectacular, impossible glory. And yes, they have influenced the development of the American "character", in both senses of the word.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2013


    Quick read and light hearted

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