Lullaby to Old Broadway

For New Music Connoisseur

by Barry Drogin

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Mark N. GRANT: The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical. Northeastern University Press ISBN 1-55553-623-9.

Within new music, genre boundaries blur: works that are "not opera," "not musical theater," and "not cabaret" are, of course, all three, and more. If New Music Connoisseur is not a proper publication to review the cross-genre analysis of 20th century music theatre, Mark N. Grant's The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, then what publication is?

Before going any further, I have to praise the expert combination of style and substance that are this book's chief pleasure. Grant's arguments, overflowing with ideas, are presented with such flair that, even if you disagree, you're willing to respect his right to his opinions. It is a savory text, not a quick read, stimulating and best consumed slowly.

To fully appreciate the text, a thorough knowledge of the "golden age" (Grant suggests no less than four alternative terms) of Broadway musical theater is assumed. In a few key places, the ability to read music is required, as well. But the text appears to be aimed not at professionals but at aficionados and lovers of the genre. In this regard, it sometimes panders, for the central conceit of the book is not only that such a golden age existed, which no one could seriously doubt, but that everything before and after, even the work of other countries and time periods, is inferior by comparison. This is cultural imperialism at its most arrogant.

The other flaw in Grant's central argument is to equate the rise with the fall, to assume that the anti-musicals of the post-golden age era are merely misguided throwbacks to what was rightfully (and righteously) discarded. Every new generation reacts against the previous generation and tries to emulate the generation before, but every new generation also misinterprets what it emulates as well they are simply not the same. I have a healthy respect for all three eras, for the pleasures they brought to the audiences of their times, for the evolution of the culture. When Grant dismisses or trivializes recent work, he denies the qualities, although different, that this new work possesses. This makes me doubt his well-researched presentation of the pre-golden era work, which I am less familiar with.

More than once Grant uses the word "rarely" without citation; I think he should be honest and write "this author is not aware of" instead, which I suspect is the case. When creators of musical theater work in other genres, he sometimes condemns them, sometimes praises them (oddly, he thinks Fosse's film work is better than his stage work), but he never really investigates the process of cross-fertilization between genres, except when he thinks it is corrupting; for example, when direction and set design became "cinematic." I'm not recommending that a 300-page book be turned into a 700-page book, but there are several genres that Grant gives short shrift to. For example, and most significantly, he mentions in passing movie musicals, but never really studies how they interacted with stage musicals, admittedly a daunting task. These omissions are odd, considering the care he gives to the interaction between other genres and the Broadway musical.

So this is a book devoted specifically, as its title and cover art claims, to what the golden age of Broadway musicals arose from, and why we consider it to be long over. It's an interesting vantage point, approached from several angles, all reasonable. And most times, when the facts get in the way of his thesis, he equivocates with aplomb.

His dish, although delectable, at times goes too far - Sigmund Romberg, Leonard Bernstein, and Andrew Lloyd Webber are each condemned as plagiarists (Lord Webber, alive and British, has a court system at his disposal that will not take such an accusation lightly). He praises Stephen Sondheim for "A Little Night Music" (for the trio, "Now/Soon/Later," I suppose), but ignores William Finn's ensemble writing. Ashman and Menken are not even mentioned, and many other fine post-golden era artisans are dismissed. He understands that Gilbert and Sullivan both worked with others to lesser effect, but insists on citing Prince's work with Webber, not with Sondheim, as definitive, which is just mean. The formulas of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are never discussed.

But the book contains some musical thought experiments which are precious and ingenious. Grant has his idols, most extensively orchestrator/arranger Robert Russell Bennett. Agnes de Mille, Kurt Weill, and quite a few others get the hero treatment as well. I like Grant better when he is telling us what he likes, as when he writes that "Julian Edwards, an unjustly forgotten, very melodious composer, played Frederick Loewe to De Koven's Richard Rodgers."

If you don't understand that sentence, then this book is definitely not for you. But if you do understand it, then you appreciate how delightful Grant's writing can be. And you can see why my major frustration with The Rise and Fall is that it is a book. An illustrated lecture series, a multi-part television documentary, a hyperlinked website or, best of all, a DVD - the permissions would be a nightmare (even fair use requires permission), but to gain access to Grant's sources would be a godsend. At its next gala, NMC should auction off a visit with Mr. Grant to the NYPL Performing Arts Research Division archives. Sigh!

(Disclaimer: Grant writes for NMC, but I do not know him personally.)

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007