Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then and Now, by Mark Steyn

Oh, lean from the window, if the train slows down,
As though you touched hands with some ancient clown,
–A little while gaze absently below,
And hum Deep River with them while they go.
–Hart Crane, “The River”

This book is based on Steyn’s work as Musical Theatre Correspondent for the London Independent, so it’s a Canadian’s look at Broadway from London. (Britishisms are on display throughout–the intermission is an “interim,” etc.)

Broadway Babies is not really a systematic work, though divided into chapters on various aspects of the form: The Op’nin’, The Show, The Music, The Lyrics, etc. It’s not an encyclopedia; think rather of a standing date for lunch with a Broadway fan who can tell you what the great shows really were all about and why today’s shows can’t measure up–Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, and Miss Saigon, no thanks! Much of the first half of the book is devoted to the nitty-gritty of putting a show together–what works on stage, how a song lyric succeeds or fails. Steyn shows some familiarity with Puccini and Verdi, but invokes them only sparingly, to show that opera composers were always focused on what worked.

As the book proceeds, Steyn more and more indulges his Chestertonian weakness for the bon mot. You like this sort of thing or you don’t. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a “profit without honour.” After someone tells Steyn that Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune also had its difficulties on opening–“Well, as they say on Broadway, don’t faune us, we’ll faune you.”

Published in 2000 with a 1997 copyright, the book suffers a bit from age and could use an updating. Though Steyn takes the long view and compares all current offerings unfavorably to Show Boat, any Rodgers & Hammersteyn, and his choice for best musical of all, Gypsy, he is writing very much in the present of the 1990s. The “jukebox” musical (Mamma Mia etc.) was just looming into view with Buddy [Holly]. Steyn fires much of his scorn on the “through-composed” musicals of Lloyd Webber and the Les Miz crowd, which suffer for lack of any tunes to stand up to the Great American Songbook.

Since this is getting posted on Super Bowl Sunday, we’ll wrap up with Steyn’s recollection of seeing Carol Channing closing Hello, Dolly! at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway in 1996, the same day as SuperBowl XXX:

The Super Bowl is mass culture, one of that select group of annual rituals that binds the nation together; the theatre, on the other hand, is elite, sophisticated, exclusive. No matter that the Super Bowl is a promoters’ gimmick cooked up in the late sixties; that whatever “sport” might once have been involved is now entirely subservient to the needs of television; that the teams are steely business franchises for whom the home-town label is good only until another municipality pitches them a more favorable tax deal; that the players earn so many gazillion dollars a year they’ll never have to encounter anyone as lowly as you ever again; that the only seats worth having are reserved for a corporate nomenklatura and that Joe Schmoe with his Bud and his pizza slumped in front of the TV has as much chance of getting to the moon as to the Super Bowl. No matter, too, that theatre sends its shows out to nowheresville towns that will never see an NFL team, much less the Super Bowl; that its leading players play eight games a week not for millions but for a few thousand, and spend their lives in hotels and dressing-rooms a football star wouldn’t hang his spare jockstrap in. No matter, none of it: the Super Bowl is mass culture; theatre is elite, exclusive.

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