Broadway Baby

Algonquin Books  2012

 
The heroine of this novel by award-winning poet Alan Shapiro is Miriam, a Jewish girl with stardust in her eyes and a passion for Broadway musicals of the 1940’s. She especially reveres the character of Miss Julie from Jerome Kern’s musical Showboat and keeps a poster from the show over her bed, a diary in which she details every show she and her boyfriend, Curly, see, as well as every menu from every restaurant they frequent. After he is drafted, she enjoys describing herself as “a fiancée pining for her gorgeous soldier boy” in her diary. In actuality, she is relieved that he is away. For it is the idea of them as a couple she enjoys infinitely more than she enjoys actually making love with him. And we begin to notice that she seems to see everything in the third person, as if she and those around her were  characters in a play she is viewing.                   
                                                                                                
When she gives birth to a girl she names her Julie.  But she doesn’t bond with her the way she did with the character’s namesake from Showboat.  And when she has two more children, both sons, Ethan and Sam, and they all sit together in her rocking chair one evening, she sings “Lullaby of Broadway” to them while thinking, “Someone should take a picture of this, what a picture we’d make…”
Gradually we begin to realize that Miriam is disconnected from herself and others and this has tragic consequences for her and her family.  Situations which seem unimportant occurrences to her, when ignored, become monumental drawbacks.  Ethan’s bed-wetting, because it is neglected, lasts so long that he can’t attend camp or a sleepover, even as a teenager, for fear of embarrassment.  Julie’s lack of interest in communicating with her mother is never dealt with, as Miriam’s narcissism makes her retaliate by not interesting herself in her daughter.  And Sam’s annoyance at having to spend long hours “babysitting” his grandmother, which  is convenient for Miriam, has repercussions as well. 
The posters from South Pacific and Showboat remain on the wall while her children grow up.  Their presence fuels Miriam’s desire to promote Ethan’s singing talent so he can become the star in the family.  Yet, no matter what successes each child has, they are never satisfying enough for Miriam.
A strange kind of justice is served Miriam.  As things spiral downward, the story evokes chills and even horror—a far cry from the optimistic mood at the beginning of this compelling novel.


Discussion Questions

provided by Algonquin Books

1. In the Broadway show that Miriam sees, Showboat, the character Miss Julie is a kind of outcast after she is exposed as being born of mixed blood, an anathema in the period in which the musical play was set, right after the Civil War. Why do you think the ten-year-old Miriam identifies so closely with the character of Miss Julie in particular, and to the lure of the stage in general? What is it about her family life and her parents’ divorce that predisposes her to love the theater, to dream about a life on stage? 

2. By means of musicals and Miriam’s lifelong love of them, what does this novel say or imply about the role not just of entertainment but of art in general, high art as well as popular art, in how we live our lives? 

3. How does Miriam’s relationship with her mother, Tula, influence the kind of mother she herself becomes?

4. Despite her dreams of stardom, Miriam is in many ways a conventional middle-class Jewish housewife. How do those conventional values shape her relationship to her children, to her daughter Julie’s involvement with African Americans, to Sam’s eccentricities and his later passion for poetry, and to her friendship with Stuart Foster? 

5. While Miriam is anything but a religious Jew, how does her Jewishness inform her understanding of the world? Why do you think she is made so uncomfortable by the presence in her neighborhood of Holocaust survivor Sigrid Rosenberg? 

6. Why is intimacy, physical as well as emotional, so difficult for Miriam? What in her makeup or in her cultural and historical background hinders her from connecting with her children and her husband? Does she ever realize what it is about herself that estranges her from others? 

7. In their last conversation, Stuart Foster tells Miriam that she’s been living in a dream world. In what ways is this statement true? In what ways do Miriam’s dreams, hopes, and expectations cut her off from those she loves? 

8. Faced with a distressingly dysfunctional home life, Sam retreats into a world of his own creation, using biting humor rather than overt rage as a coping mechanism. Discuss the very narrow lines that separate comedy from tragedy and humor from anger. Given his upbringing, do you envision a happy adult life for Sam? Why or why not?

9. Miriam loses her daughter Julie to the culture wars of the 1960s and her son Ethan to cancer. She cares for her mother, Tula, when she falls ill; she cares for Curly during his long physical and mental decline. In what ways do these catastrophic losses change her? In what way do they humanize her? 

10. At the end of the novel, there is a moment of redemption for Miriam, a moment of seeming uncharacteristic humanity and love. The moment involves the character Catherine Olsen — what is it about this woman that draws Miriam to her? How does Catherine help Miriam overcome her inhibitions, her squeamishness about the human body? 

11. Do you feel that Miriam was a “good” person? Which of her traits and characteristics do you relate to, and which do you find most unattractive? 

12. The lack of emotional interaction between members of Miriam’s family is a constant theme in the novel and leads to frequent conflict, yet in the telling, the story is full of humor. Do you find this kind of “black comedy” an effective way to convey the reality of human emotions, or do you think the story would have been more effective if played “straight”?

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