Big Songs – the Power Behind the Old Broadway Musicals

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 03.11.2016
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Ten years in the making, 53 personal interviews and a lifetime of theater criticism combine to make Gerald Nachman’s new book, Showstoppers! (Chicago Review Press), a Broadway-lore hit. Fans of musicals will find a wealth of astonishing stories here that they thought they already knew by heart. Indeed, Nachman’s subtitle is fully justified:  The surprising backstage stories of Broadway’s most remarkable songs. 

He outdoes the Broadway coffee-table books and endless memoirs of actors and directors by bringing his unique critical angle into play: how the songwriters and singers made the big shows work. Their hope was to send the audience home humming at least one memorable tune.

And as his research demonstrates, the best songs have lived on, decades after they stopped their shows. One can assume that without the musical – America’s unique art form -- most of the big songs would never have been composed. Younger generations today have trouble matching up standards with their source musical, such as “People” (Funny Girl, 1964), “I Got Rhythm” (Girl Crazy, 1930), “Mountain Greenery” (Garrick Gaieties, 1925), ”You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Carousel, 1945), “Memory” (Cats, 1982).

The world would be poorer, for example, without the Rodgers and Hart “Thou Swell”, from the 1927 The Connecticut Yankee. This updated, up-tempo version performed by Count Basie and Joe Williams demonstrates the long lifespan of a true showstopper:

Nachman says he has seen hundreds of musicals throughout his 50 years as critic, 14 years at the San Francisco Chronicle and seven years at the New York Daily News. He identifies more than 70 songs as the best ever and explains their origins, their structure, their lyrics and their mysterious power to achieve a meeting of the minds among audience members. “I’ve zeroed in on the performers who created these milestone moments,” he writes in his preface.  A good musical is all about “the thrill of seeing a great number performed in front of you, live, by an irresistible entertainer …” The elation is shared with everyone in the house, he says.

And yet Nachman never loses his critical faculties. This is a “precarious time for musicals,” he writes, as new shows, desperate for attention, “are shooting off in all sorts of new, radical bizarre, often troubling, directions… Puppets have invaded the form. Are tap-dancing robots waiting in the wings?” He finds the show “Wicked” wanting, because of all its “hokey special effects”. And on a broader level, he asserts, “like many musicals today, the show’s guiding principle behind each song seems to be, if it’s shouted loudly enough, it must be a sensational show-stopper”.

He is equally prickly about some of the classics, including “The Producers”, which he saw in New York. The audience, he recalled, “giggled and howled at set-up lines, (and was) in stitches over easy jokes, at every pop-eyed grimace…. This happens when allegedly seasoned playgoers lose their collective marbles over a show they’ve been programmed to love.” There was so much racket, he says, you often “couldn’t hear the jokes for the hysteria.”

Nachman’s secret weapon behind this book is good reporting, a legacy of his long experience in newspapers. He includes half a dozen fascinating Q and A interviews at the end of key chapters as well as snippets of backstage jealousies, triumphs and conflicts that were hidden from view. The sprawling material is organized for easy reading, in a dip-in, dip-out kind of format. Chapters are organized show by show chronologically from “Garrick Gaieties” to “Jersey Boys”, an 80-year span. The “Backstage Dish” addenda at the end of several chapters capture the little-known tensions and revealing details that go hand-in-hand with the complexities of a Broadway show.

He drew on his interviews and his own wide reading of theater history to shine a spotlight on the egos and power-plays I never suspected were operating behind the glitz. But then I am not a true musical fanatic – or wasn’t until I read this book. Nachman’s analysis finally explained to me that a musical is more than “forced sunniness”, as a critic described one performance. I once walked out of “Showboat” after the first act, nauseous from that effect and failing to see the many levels of talent at work. I must give it another chance some day.

Sadly, Nachman notes, during his research he saw many of the greats pass on, including Marvin Hamlisch, Celeste Holm, Jerry Orbach, Edie Adams and Adolph Green. But his catches, most of them in their 80s and 90s, spoke to him in restaurants, coffee shops and offices and by phone. They include Dick Van Dyke, Harold Prince, Marge Champion, Andrea McArdle, Patricia Morrison (the original Kate in Kiss Me Kate, 1948), Joel Grey, Tommy Tune and Patti LuPone. “All of them spoke candidly and eagerly,” he says.

Ms. McArdle is featured in the most impressive chapter, a 12-page appreciation of “Annie”, the show she rescued after it “fell flat” with a different opening actress.  McArdle’s “vivid, earnest and appealing” portrayal of Annie … breathed life into the peppy musical”, Nachman says. The two ballads, “Maybe” and “Tomorrow” provided a “one-two show-stopping punch”. What McArdle brought to the role was a “rare cuddly tomboy quality blending two seemingly opposite traits, plus her mature voice, a belt without a bray, with a vulnerable edge”. 

For any readers ready to dip in, the Backstage Dish sections will not disappoint. Some zingers:

-- Jerome Robbins “could be an equal opportunity creep, getting into black moods as opening night (of “Fiddler on the Roof”) approached; everyone walking on eggshells around him during rehearsals.”

-- Bob Fosse needed heart bypass surgery at the start of “Chicago” rehearsals, returning a “changed man – depressed, depleted, and abusive, drained of the humor, confidence and ebullience he was known for.”

-- The “Chorus Line” dancers signed away any right to the show for a dollar, an “our way or the highway” moment.

-- It took Mel Brooks a month to come up with “Springtime for Hitler”, which he composed, as he did all his songs, ‘by humming tunes into a tape recorder…. Arranger Glen Kelly turned Brooks’ primitive tunes into playable songs”.

--“Funny Girl” was rife with creative battles, dissension, firings, and ”bad blood all over the stage.”

--Richard Rodgers worried that his score for “South Pacific” would have to include guitars and ukuleles, “both of which he hated”. But James Michener set him straight. The only instrument he had heard in the islands was “an empty gasoline barrel they pounded like a drum”.

-- It’s astonishing that the show’s score (“The Boys from Syracuse”) among the greatest, was written “while (Lorenz) Hart was on drunken binges half the time”.

With all Nachman’s barbs about the bombs, this is, above all, a celebratory book on the art of the musical, a uniquely American creation, a confluence of drama, music, dance, storytelling and staging. His focus on the best 80 years of the genre reminds us of the plethora of refined creative work that has lasted so well and become an important part of the national culture.


Another version of this review appeared on American Spectator.

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