Show Tunes: The Songs, Shows and Careers of Broadway’s Major Composers Fourth Edition

I may be excused for presuming that, if you have a theater shelf, it already sports a copy of Steven Suskin’s book. Equal parts reliable reference book and entertainingly written opinionated history, your shelf may have the first edition from 1985 when it instantly became indispensable as the book to check for quick information on any one of 30 of Broadway’s best composers.

Or perhaps you discovered it upon the publication of the second edition in 1991 when Mr. Suskin added information on imports – mostly from London in the Broadway version of the British invasion that had swamped the popular music field thirty years earlier. 

Broadway had a domestic resurgence of sorts which provided the impetus for the third edition in 1999 when Suskin dropped the foreigners and added six domestic composers to release the volume which has been a well-thumbed staple of my own theater shelf.

But now there is a fourth edition and it is time for all of us to retire whichever earlier volume has been at arms reach and replace it with this six hundred page marvel. Four more composers have been added and the format improved. As Suskin says in his introductory “How To Use This Book” essay: “Each chapter begins with extended commentary on the subject’s career. The second part of each chapter concentrates on the productions as before, with data and song information.”

That’s an awfully dry way to introduce these treasures. You might want to skip over this “How To” and get to the meat because it is so very tasty and you’ll figure out quick enough how the format works. From first entry (Jerome Kern) to the last (Jeanine Tesori) – or, if you prefer, from An English Daisy [January 18, 1904] to Shrek The Musical [December 14, 2008] – the format is clear. Kern’s 31 pages are divided into a seven page essay detailing the essence of Kern’s career roughly show by show followed by 24 pages of data: an entry for every show he composed with the titles of every published or recorded song from that show.

While one doesn’t often sit and read lists of shows with sub-lists of songs, the tabular material is valuable for a quick check of facts. There are other places (many found quickly online with a Google search) to find these quick facts, of course. But the fact that they are all right here at your finger tips in an authoritative compilation you can cite with confidence is valuable. What’s more, the book has tables in the back that make it easy to use. There’s a chronological list of productions, a collaborator reference listing and indexes of song titles, people and shows so you can find what you are looking for quickly.

All of that is fine, but it is the essay for each composer that makes the book habit forming. I, for one, wouldn’t think of attending a production of, say, a Gershwin musical without first reading (or re-reading) his five pages on George. I’m to see the new production of Porgy and Bess on Broadway (re-titled for now The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) next month, so I pulled out Suskin and discovered, among other things, that when George Gershwin died in 1937 the value to his estate of the future residuals  from Porgy and Bess was appraised at $250. Tidbits like this keep me from letting the volume gather too much dust.

Suskin does seem to pay a good deal of attention to the peculiarities of the financial side of the business of show business. It is in this volume that I learned that the debacle of the economic collapse of 1929 and the resulting depression hit Arthur Hammerstein so hard he had to liquidate his holdings which resulted in the auction of the rights to operettas including Naughty Marietta, Wildflower and Rose-Marie which were purchased by the Shubert’s for all of $684!

While Suskin can be unstinting in his praise where he believes it is deserved (who would argue with his view that Richard Rodgers “was arguably Broadway’s greatest – and inarguably Broadway’s most successful – composer”?) he pulls few punches in his assessment of the less than top-drawer efforts of those who have demonstrated the capacity to do better. He concludes his essay on John Kander with “Kander has written a substantial amount of fine theatre music over the years; sometimes superb, most usually interesting, and always professional” but that doesn’t keep him from saying that The Rink was a “dreary and depressing piece with little more than one interesting song (“Colored Lights”) to recommend it” or that for Zorba while Kander broke through with strong writing in spots – “No Boom Boom,” “Life Is,” “Why Can’t I Speak?” – but "everything was so utterly depressing.”

The bulk of the book may well be devoted to the 40 major composers he’s chosen to discuss and document, Suskin adds a section on “Notable Scores by Other Composers” arranged chronologically between 1919′s Irene by Harry Tierney (“one of many Tin Pan Alley Composers who made occasional Broadway visits”) and 2008′s In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda which Suskin describes as a “somewhat ragtag piece – kind of an uptown Street Scene without the murder.” In between, he tells us that the songs from Leroy Anderson’s 1958  Goldilocks ”might not be great but they sure are a lot of fun” – he’s right about that – and that 1997′s The Lion King was “a rather spectacular spectacle” of which “the score was the weakest link” – right again!

Of Frank Wildhorn, in his entry on 1997′s Jekyll & Hyde he writes that with this show, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War ”Wildhorn had three shows running (briefly) simultaneously, which he trumpeted loudly in the press. When the final accounting was done, though, the three combined represented a loss in the neighborhood of 15 million dollars, which Wildhorn did not trumpet loudly in the press.” Suskin’s book was published before the subsequent financial failure of Wonderland and Bonnie & Clyde in a single season.

Show Tunes: The Songs, Shows and Careers of Broadway’s Major Composers 
Revised and Expanded Fourth Edition by Steven Suskin
Oxford University Press
Hard Back 624 Pages
List Price $60
ISBN-10: 0195314077 

January 31, 2012