Ben Brantley’s Broadway Musicals

February 12, 2013

How did this one slip by me last year? In October, the New York Times’ Ben Brantley released a beautiful-to-look-at and rewarding-to-read volume titled Broadway Musicals that deserves a spot on either your theater shelf or your coffee table.

Its 350+ big pages present the original New York Times reviews of 116 musicals (some with both the review of the original show and the review of subsequent revivals) illustrated with nearly 300 photos, drawings and program covers.

This is not, however, simply a browser designed to occupy your eye or your mind for a half hour or so while you sit in a waiting room or wait in a sitting room. There is a great deal to learn from careful consideration of Mr. Brantley’s twelve pages of original text consisting of a general introduction to the book and then one for each chapter.

In that brief span, totaling not much more than 10,000 words, Brantley gives a précis of the evolution of the Broadway musical that could serve as a textbook for anyone who wants to be able to put each of the shows whose reviews are printed here into their historical context.

He details the ebb and flow of the progress from 1914′s Watch Your Step with its Irving Berlin score, to either the lamentable Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark or the highly praised (especially by Mr. Brantley in the Times’ pages) The Book of Mormon.

Brantley provides pungent comments on the larger national culture of which these productions are a part. He avoids overstatement in his praise of the giants of the art form from Ziegfeld through Hammerstein to Sondheim while giving them their due and placing their accomplishments in perspective.

He’s not above an occasional glitch. He wrongly credits Guy Bolton with some role in the development of Show Boat, and overstates the credit P.G. Wodehouse should get. His only mention of Bob Fosse’s work as a director/choreographer comes in his discussion of the 1950s, which is quite unfathomable given that his credits in that capacity began only with Redhead in May of 1959 while his big successes were in the 60s and 70s.

However, Brantley certainly gets the broad sweep of history about as right as I’ve seen it done in such a brief space, and he even manages to include a discussion of the evolution of the “voice” of the Times reviews (and reviewers) that is interesting.

This isn’t Brantley’s first foray into putting the text of Times reviews between hardback covers. In 2001 St. Martin’s Press published his The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century.  For that volume he compiled 125 reviews of which 80 were plays. Of the remaining 45 only 5 were of musicals that didn’t make this latest collection. (The Little Millionaire, the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921, Animal Crackers, The 3 Penny Opera and Oh! Calcutta!)

Despite how fascinating Brantley’s dozen pages are, don’t ignore the text on the other 350. It is fascinating to read what Alexander Woollcott thought of Sally on its opening night in 1920, What J. Brooks Atkinson (he hadn’t dropped the “J.” from his byline then) thought of Fred and Adele Astaire in 1927′s Funny Face or what just plain Brooks Atkinson saw in Anything Goes in 1934 or in Porgy and Bess a year later.

We all well know what he thought of Pal Joey in 1940 when he penned probably the most famous single sentence from a New York Times review: “can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” Surprisingly, his equally quotable putdown of West Side Story which you will find in this volume hasn’t ended up in the books of essential quotations. (He said: “Although the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable.”)

The book includes Lewis Nichols’ opening night analysis of Oklahoma!, a slew of Atkinson reviews including Kiss Me, Kate, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Gypsy and The Sound of Music. Howard Taubman was the Times’ scribe when How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl and Fiddler on the Roof burst onto the Great White Way in the golden three years between October, 1961 and September, 1964.

Then it was Clive Barnes’ turn. He covered opening nights of Hair, Company, Follies, A Chorus Line, Chicago and Annie. Walter Kerr reviewed Cabaret and Evita, Frank Rich Dreamgirls, Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis. Brantley’s own reviews are here as well – Rent, The Lion King and The Producers among them.

While these and all the other reviews act as something of a time machine to take you back to those legendary opening nights, they also make fascinating reading for another aspect. It is frankly astonishing how often the judgments of these men (and, yes they were all men), written within hours of the final curtain of opening night, comports with the general assessment of history, an assessment rendered with the benefit of hindsight.

This may be because these men were so good at what they did. They may well have been right an inordinate percentage of the time and the evidence here confirms that they were superb writers. But their reviews are more than just “did I like it or not” articles. They are thoughtful analyses of the strengths and weaknesses these judges discerned in the production.

Those judgements often withstand the test of time to an amazing degree. Of course, this may also be an indication of the power their platform gave them to influence the final judgment of history. Read the reviews and you can be the judge.

Broadway Musicals
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0337-9
Published Oct 12, 2012
List price $50