Broad­way: The Amer­i­can Musical

Michael Kan­tor; Lau­rence Maslon
  • Review
By – August 20, 2012

This is a book as large and brassy as the street and form of enter­tain­ment it cel­e­brates. A com­pan­ion to the six-part PBS doc­u­men­tary series on Broad­way musi­cals, it is the first com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of the musi­cal, from its roots at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry (before Broad­way” was sit­u­at­ed on Broad­way) through the lav­ish pro­duc­tions Broad­way audi­ences have come to know and appre­ci­ate. The text, divid­ed by decades, is illus­trat­ed with pho­tographs, sheet music cov­ers, posters, scenic ren­der­ings, pro­duc­tion stills, rehearsal shots and car­i­ca­tures — both black and white and col­or images. Sup­ple­ment­ing the nar­ra­tive are side­bars that high­light the stars, the shows, and the songs. Espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing are the essays, which include lots of anec­dotes and Broad­way lore, writ­ten by some of Broadway’s most cap­ti­vat­ing stars. But, you might ask, why is this book being reviewed in Jew­ish Book World? Exam­in­ing its index, one sees no entry under Jews” and only one entry under Jew­ish”, and that is for Jew­ish vari­ety shows that were inspired by Irish vari­ety shows; but truth be told, were it not for Jews, the Broad­way musi­cal would not be the Broad­way musi­cal as it exists today. Not to negate the con­tri­bu­tions of oth­er eth­nic groups, this review will note the Jew­ish con­tri­bu­tions to the Broad­way musi­cal that are described in the book, but with­out religious/​ethnic identification.

I think you will agree that Jew­ish par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Broad­way musi­cal is a nat­ur­al out­growth of our her­itage and tra­di­tions. We have a tra­di­tion of sto­ry-telling, of enter­tain­ing (think of the wed­ding bad­chan), and of musi­cal­i­ty (think of the chaz­zan). These ten­den­cies and tra­di­tions led to the devel­op­ment of Yid­dish the­atre in Poland and its emi­gra­tion to New York’s Sec­ond Avenue. Then think of immi­grant Jews, most­ly set­tling in New York at the turn of the cen­tu­ry when the his­to­ry of the Broad­way musi­cal begins.

Just as the immi­grants’ first mon­ey-rais­ing ven­tures involved ped­dling, so did musi­cal­ly tal­ent­ed young Jew­ish immi­grants ped­dle songs — first songs writ­ten by oth­ers and, lat­er, songs writ­ten by them­selves. That is how Izzy Baline, whose father was a can­tor, became a song ped­dler. First he sang songs in the streets for pen­nies, then in a cafe as a singing wait­er (writ­ing par­o­dies to oth­er people’s melodies), lat­er as a writer hired to write par­o­dies to some­one else’s music — until he began to write his own music and lyrics under the name of Irv­ing Berlin. There are a pletho­ra of sto­ries like Berlin’s, but you have to read this book to find them out. That com­bi­na­tion of musi­cal­i­ty, lit­er­ary tra­di­tion and busi­ness apti­tude result­ed in the out­size con­tri­bu­tion of Jews to the musi­cal the­atri­cal venue. At the same time that Baline/​Berlin was plug­ging songs, a the­atri­cal pro­duc­er, Flo­renz Ziegfeld, was stag­ing glam­orous girl-filled revues that need­ed music — in oth­er words, the first lav­ish musi­cals. Dif­fer­ent trends, dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic events trig­gered chang­ing styles and top­ics, and musi­cal the­atre adjust­ed to them. Fur­ther­more, in every decade there appeared some tal­ent­ed per­former, com­pos­er, lyri­cist, direc­tor or pro­duc­er who would bring the Broad­way musi­cal to a new lev­el and/​or in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion, among them the Jew­ish Leonard Bern­stein, Fan­nie Brice, Eddie Can­tor, Irv­ing Cae­sar, Bob Fos­se, George and Ira Gersh­win, Max Hart, Oscar Ham­mer­stein, Anna Held, Al Jol­son, George S. Kauf­man, Jerome Kern, Tony Kush­n­er, the Marx Broth­ers, Ethel Mer­man, Richard Rogers, Bil­lie Rose, Jer­ry Ross, Arthur Schwartz, Steven Sond­heim, Sophie Tuck­er, Harold Prince, the Schu­bert broth­ers, Kurt Weill, and that com­mu­ni­ca­tor of show biz, Wal­ter Winchell, among others. 

There can be no bet­ter guides than these two experts in the the­atre — Michael Kan­tor is a writer, direc­tor and pro­duc­er in the­atre and tele­vi­sion, while Lau­rence Maslon is an asso­ciate arts pro­fes­sor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts — to the phe­nom­e­na known as The Amer­i­can Musi­cal’ and Broad­way, New York City.

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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