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It Happened on Broadway: An Oral
History of the Great White Way
compiled by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer
Reading It Happened on Broadway
is like eating cotton candy in the heat of the summer - delicious, sinful, full of hot
air, and totally irresistible. A guilty pleasure.
In their casual oral history of the Great White Way, the Frommers dont bother with a foreword, they barely introduce their characters, they have little in the way of formal structure. They just flip on the tape recorder and let you listen.
But, oh, what voices ... Who can resist? If youve ever seen a Broadway show, ever hummed Rodgers and Hammerstein, ever laughed at Lahr or Mostel, ever applauded Merman or Channing or Streisand, ever wept at Shakespeare or ONeill or Miller, ever snapped your fingers with Robbins or Fosse or deMille, ever ... in short, if you know what "Broadway" means, you are going to love this book.
I open it at random: Heres Al Hirschfeld explaining why "Nina" appears in all his drawings. Flip a few pages: Here are the producers of Guys and Dolls trying to figure out whether they can use "Fugue for Tinhorns" because the song is about horse racing and their show is about crap shooting.
Some of the stories are familiar, at least to a theater junkie like me. Walter Winchells right-hand woman wires her boss about an out-of-town preview of Oklahoma!: "No legs. No sex. No chance." Anita Loos sees Carol Channing and says "Theres my Lorelei." The opening night audience at Death of a Salesman is so stunned it forgets to applaud.
Some are unfamiliar. Tony Walton provides Zero Mostels explanation of why he worked with Jerome Robbins on Fiddler on the Roof even though he had starved for years after Robbins coughed up his name during the McCarthy era. Says Mostel: "We of the left do not blacklist." And when Robbins appears at the first rehearsal, Mostel greets him with "Hiya, loose lips."
Some are hilarious: According to producer Martin Richards, the first reviews of Chicago complain that the show "has no heart." And Bob Fosse calls in the whole cast and says, "Any heart that is left in the show, were taking out."
Some are heartbreaking: David Merrick has to interrupt a thunderous curtain call at the opening night of 42nd Street to tell the audience that Gower Champion died earlier the same day.
But all are inspiring, filled with the manic, pulse-pounding enthusiasm of highly gifted people who have arrived at the acme of their profession after years, if not decades, of hard work. Actors and writers, singers and composers, dancers and choreographers, agents and producers, set designers, hairdressers, costume designers - theyve made it on BROADWAY and their love for it is contagious.
There are, of course, strange omissions. Wheres the Actors Studio crowd? Why quote Al Hirschfeld - not once but several times - without reproducing any of his drawings? (A copyright problem, I suspect, but could they find nothing better than those dispiriting Sardis caricatures?) And why is a book that purports to be about Broadway nearly entirely about musical comedy?
Still, you gotta love a book that gives you Kitty Carlisle Hart, Clive Barnes, Robert Whitehead, Betty Buckley, John Kander, Richard Kiley, George C. Wolfe, and Elaine Stritch in the same chapter discussing the future of the Broadway theater.
They seem to think it will survive. And on the basis of this book, so do I.
- Kendal Dodge Butler